Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: Knuckler (2012)

By Tim Wakefield with Tony Massarotti

By coincidence, there seems to be a trend developing in autobiographies reviewed on this blog.

This is the second straight such book mentioned here that was written in the third person. Marty Schottenheimer's story was reviewed a couple of weeks ago. An interesting coincidence, at the least.

The person profiled here is Tim Wakefield, and his story is appropriately called "Knuckler." Not only was the baseball pitcher known for throwing the knuckleball, but his career took all sorts of unpredictable twists. That, of course, makes it just like his favorite pitch.

The writing approach jumps out in this particular story of the veteran who made it through 19 seasons in the majors. Longtime Boston sportswriter Tony Massarotti, who has done some fine work in books and newspapers, is clearly in charge of the story. He writes it as if it were a biography rather than an autobiography. While Wakefield is quoted a few times and obviously was the major source for material, the book often feels like it has a little distance from the subject.

For example, there aren't many stories here about Wakefield's personal life. There are a couple of references to his work in the community, which is legendary - he's won awards for his efforts - but that's about it. The book contains few stories about Wakefield's teammates. His family is almost ignored as well. This contrasts to how the Schottenheimer book was written, which featured plenty of input from the entire family. That makes for a rather dry package at times.

It is worth noting that Massarotti obviously likes Wakefield and thinks his contribution has been a little overlooked by everyone, especially management, at times over the years. But the book doesn't lapse into cheerleading, which was a major fault of the Schottenheimer book.

Wakefield does have a good story to tell, no matter how it's told. He grew up in Florida and was a good enough prospect to be drafted by the Pirates - as a position player. But he found out very quickly that he wouldn't be able to hit in the pros, and turned to pitching as a last resort. That led to his use of the knuckleball, which was taught by Wakefield's father as something of a plaything.

Amazingly, Wakefield's career caught fire in a memorable run through the 1992 playoffs as the Pirates came within a whisker of the World Series. The pitcher lost his form for a while after that and was released by the Pirates in 1995 - only to be picked up by the Boston Red Sox. He stayed there through 2011.

Wakefield had a variety of highs and lows in Boston. The obvious low came in 2003 when he gave up a walk-off homer to Aaron Boone of the Yankees in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series. By the way, Wakefield had pitched brilliantly earlier in that series, so he received nothing but support from the rabid Boston fan base. It all made the biggest up even better when the Red Sox won the World Series a year later, a postseason that included the greatest comeback in baseball postseason history - against the Yankees, no less.

There's some good insight here on the life of a knuckleballer, a species that always has a couple of practitioners in pro baseball at a given moment. R.A. Dickey is the current example. Once Wakefield let the ball go, he never knew where it would go and where it would land. You have to be a calm person in order to accept that lack of control.

This paperback edition of "Knuckler" came out in 2012, but there's no sign of an update of the hardcover edition from 2011. So it misses Wakefield's last season, which included his 200th career major-league victory. Too bad. What we do have in this book is reasonably satisfying, although it probably won't be of a great deal of interest to those who aren't card-carrying members of Red Sox Nation.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

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