Friday, April 10, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: Tim Wakefield

Thanks to this site for the photo.

Tim Wakefield is scheduled to make his season debut for the Red Sox tonight, so who better than Wakefield to lead off our series of Q&As that were conducted during the writing of Fighting Words?

But it’s more than just good timing that makes Wakefield a perfect choice to start us off. The interview we did—in January 2005, the afternoon of the annual BBWAA dinner in Boston—was one of the most interesting of the entire project. Wakefield was expansive, talkative and revealing throughout a 30-minute interview that went as smoothly as our first encounter months earlier went awkwardly awful.

I’d post that first interview we did in May 2004, except I don’t want to subject you to something that had me ready to curl into the fetal position and head back to college to study accounting. I was interested in doing a harmless magazine feature on Wakefield, but he eyed me with suspicion as I introduced myself and responded to almost all of my questions with abrupt one- or two-word answers. Thank goodness for Doug Mirabelli and Alan Embree, who filled in a lot of space on that feature.

Subsequent meetings with Wakefield that season went a little better, and he uttered one of my all-time favorite quotes after Game Seven of the ALCS, when I reminded him of his quote after the Sox fell behind three games to none (“We’ve been in this situation before—not in a championship series, but in a division series, and we’ve come out smelling like roses”) and asked him what a history-making comeback smelled like.

“Eleventeen thousand roses,” he said with a laugh as he held hands with his wife Stacy.

Still, I didn’t expect our interview in January to go as well as it did. Upon further reflection, I figured Wakefield was so wary at first because he’s a guy who learned quite fast and quite often how fragile a career can be for a ballplayer, particularly for someone whose livelihood relies entirely on a pitch as unpredictable as the knuckleball. Wakefield was drafted as a first baseman out of Florida Tech in 1988, but converted to a knuckleballer after hitting .189 and .235 in his first two professional seasons.

He went from Double-A to big league stardom in the blink of an eye in 1992, but then went 6-11 in 1993, spent all of 1994 in the minor leagues and was released by the Pirates in spring training 1995. He was signed by Dan Duquette, and a confidence-boosting tutorial with the knuckleballing Niekros helped turn Wakefield back into the best pitcher in the game for several months that season. The next nine seasons were a series of ups and downs for Wakefield, who bounced between the rotation and the bullpen and between periods of dominance and periods of abject hittability.

So he had plenty of reason to be perpetually serious and stoic, particularly around those whom he didn’t recognize or know all that well—which is why I found this interview to be so interesting and rewarding. I hope you agree…and I hope you come back later today for another Wakefield-themed post.

How aware of the media were you when you arrived in 1995?

I had no idea what it was like. I just learned by experience, by being around.

Given that there are so many media covering the team, is this a tough place for somebody to be reserved and to keep to himself?

No, I think it’s easy to be reserved here in Boston. I may be saying that out of the experience of the last couple of years. Being here so long, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the guys by first names and they respect my privacy and I respect their jobs. But I think the biggest thing is to be honest with people. And I’ve tried to do that my whole career. I think it’s the best philosophy to take, not only in our sport but also in life.

Has the design of the locker room changed at all while you’ve been here?

Yeah, it has, a lot. Technically speaking, probably not. But they’ve done a good job as far as using the space that we’ve had there—moving things around. I think some additions—a food room, I remember we used to have the food catered in and it sat on top of our travel trunks inside the clubhouse. That’s where we ate, just grabbed a plate of food and went to your locker and sat down and tried to eat your food. Now, you can go and have a little bit of privacy and we have a food room. The new additions that they’re making now, I can’t wait to see.

Where were you located originally in the locker room?

You know the pole that the TVs are on? On that pole directly across from Curtis [Leskanic’s] locker? There used to be a locker that sat there by itself. They actually bring one in in September when rosters expanded, put a temporary one there. But that’s where my locker used to be.

Was it hard to avoid attention sitting there?

I think the biggest thing that was hard about that locker spot was when guys would do their postgame interviews, they would happen right there in front of that pole. So I was getting media guys and camera guys trampling over me, trying to get a shot. But you learn to live with it.

What’s the player’s perspective as he observes reporters in the locker room?

[Pauses] It’s difficult at times, especially during times that are supposed to be meant for downtime. Maybe you’re trying to get up for the game, mentally, and you’ve got so many people walking in and out of the clubhouse. But for the most part, I’ve learned that you try to share space with not only your teammates but the guys like yourselves that are there to do a job too. Sometimes, it can get hectic. It’s a battle for space, but that’s part of dealing with people on an everyday basis.

In terms of media attention, did you feel like you went from zero to 60 mph during your first season here in 1994 [in which Wakefield, who was signed early in the season following his release by the Pirates, went 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA in his first 17 starts]?

It was more like zero to 100—quickly. I won my first three games, I won three in a week, My first start was against Anaheim, then they took me out early and I started two days later against Oakland and then I took my regular start back at home and won three in a row. I was kind of thrust into the limelight, so to speak.

I still even today get the questions of ‘how did you get started throwing that pitch?’ And I’ve answered that question probably a thousand times. But it’s just part of our job, you know?

Was the attention ever overwhelming during that first year?

Not really. I was just glad to be in the big leagues again after making a splash in ’92 with the Pirates and then struggling for the next two years and then getting released. I can remember getting released and driving home thinking I was done, I wasn’t going to play anymore, then I got a second opportunity and a chance to work with both Joe and Phil Niekro and kind of got my confidence back to where it needed to be. And I’ve been here ever since.

What’s the worst period of player-media relations that you can recall?

I can’t recall of it ever getting bad. I can recall just certain players and certain members of the media—maybe a relationship got bad and it might have just been the opinion of the writer that may have said something wrong. Sometimes it’s hard to stay away from the negative. We deal with it everyday. A majority of the guys are very objective as far as their writing skills. And sometimes it can get a little bit personal. But other than that, I can’t recall any other relationship really getting too bad.

A lot of writers have said things were especially tense in 2001 and Dante Bichette said the season was a very difficult one.

You’ve got to understand, too, that we’re under a lot of pressure every day to perform, especially in a market like Boston. So you add a little of that fuel to that fire sometimes and things may get out of hand once in a while. I think Dante was right: Dealing with the frustrations of the season, the way the season was going, the tragic thing that happened on Sept. 11, the change of managers. Our travel home from Florida [following the terrorist attacks], that was kind of ridiculous—we bussed and trained and flew, then bussed. It was a 36-hour trip for us to get back to Boston. The emotions run high sometimes, you get frustrated with the way things are going. It’s tough to stay on an even keel at times.

Did you ever sense there was a negative atmosphere in Boston because it had been so long since the team had won?

Like I said before, the majority of the writers are very objective when they write. But there is some negativity, a little bit, and I think a lot of that stems just from the broadness of media coverage. I think maybe 10, 15 years ago, there was only a handful of writers and it was only a couple of major publications that were out there. Talk radio wasn’t really very big. I can remember talking with a friend of mine who played football and the only thing that the football players had was Sports Illustrated. ESPN wasn’t really around. They had Sports Illustrated and I can’t remember the other sports magazine, it might have been The Sporting News. That was basically it, and your local beat writers.

Now, times have changed, to the point where there is so much information that’s out there via the Internet, via different kinds of newspaper print media, electronic media, talk shows, radio. I think it’s gotten to the point where the competition between you guys has really [pauses]…as a writer, I would think, you have to search for a different angle to try to get your story read or get people to buy the paper that you write for. I think that’s where the negative—not the negative image, but I think a lot of the lack of objectiveness has come in. But you have to understand that. I’ve understood that ever since more and more writers are coming in and there’s more and more people to talk to. It’s hard for me to know people by name. Just so many of them.

Are you wary whenever you’re approached by a writer you’ve never talked to before?

Yeah, because like I said before, there’s some writers that are trying to dig. They’re not very objective, they’re trying to do a story that really isn’t there. And if I don’t know the person, it takes a little bit for me to warm up to you, because I’m not going to volunteer a whole lot of personal information to somebody that I don’t really know. That goes in my general life skills, I would say. I’ll answer all kinds of questions about the game and about stuff like that, but some questions are hard to answer when I don’t know somebody, because I don’t know where they’re going with the questions.

Do you think a lack of space in the locker room can create some tensions between the media and the players?

I think some tension comes from that. Some of the tension may come from some of the negative that’s written about the team or about a certain player, because we’re a family in there. And when something bad is written about one of my teammates, regardless of whether it’s warranted or not, I take offense to it a little bit. And sometimes it’s hard to control that.

Did you ever worry you’d be painted as a goat, for lack of a better term, after you gave up the home run to Aaron Boone last year?

A little bit. But, you know, one thing that I’ve learned over my career is, one, to be honest. Two is to stand up and take responsibility for your actions. And I think sometimes that can be a good thing. And it can be a bad thing sometimes. I see too many players—I don’t want to say make excuses, but you know what I mean? [They] talk around it. I don’t know where I learned to do that, but I was always taught, if something good happens, to give credit to your teammates. Something bad happens, stand up and be accountable for your actions.

Do you think being the longest-tenured member of the Sox helped?

I think from a fan’s perspective, yeah, I think so.

How about from the media’s perspective?

I did get some tough questions that night, even from our local media. But I think, for the most part, the fact that I stood there and answered questions—I think [it] helped. I think a lot of the guys know what my character was about and they understand that I was giving 110 percent out there.

I wasn’t worried about being portrayed as a bad guy from the media, from that standpoint I was more worried about the fans’ reactions to me.

You got a stirring standing ovation at the BBWAA dinner a few months later. Did you know then that the fans weren’t going to punish you for the home run, or did you realize it before that?

Before that. Like a week afterwards, I think. I stuck around for a little while, my wife and I were trying to get things packed up and go home to Florida. I was out to dinner or the grocery store or something and people would pat me on the back [and] say ‘Don’t worry about it.’ So I knew before that.

Are you surprised to hear so many stars have had rough relationships with the press?

Am I surprised? No, because like I said before, for the core of guys that are in our clubhouse everyday, the core of our team, all it takes is one guy—I’m talking from a teammates’ perspective—[to] ruin the chemistry of a team. And I think for you guys, it might be one guy that’s not very objective, that’s very negative in his writing that may ruin it for the rest of you.

Did you have some empathy for how Nomar Garciaparra in terms of how uncomfortable he was with the press?

I felt particularly bad for Nomar because he was thrust into the limelight so quickly. It’s that superstar status—sometimes you just want some quiet downtime in your locker. That’s like our office, you know? And sometimes it can get too crowded in there and sometimes you have to answer the same question over and over again and it gets frustrating after a while. And I think that’s why he tried to establish a routine, to where he would talk to you guys at one time [so] he wouldn’t have to answer the same questions from the previous days.

How do you think current ownership has helped to change the relationship between the team and the press?

I think since the new regime has taken over, we’ve tried—and it’s an effort not only from the organization’s standpoint but also from the player’s standpoint—we’ve gotten together and tried to create a more friendly atmosphere to work in for both of us. Because we both understand that everyone has a job to do that’s in there. And I think if we open u the communication—were you around when Tony [Massarotti] came in and we talked [during] the first team meeting [in 2002]? I thought whoever thought of that idea was pretty good, for us as players and for him representing the rest of you guys, to be able to start a communication thing there, to understand what we as players were looking for and also what the media’s looking for at the same time.

I think it’s just a relationship that’s built on time. I’ve known Tony for a long time and Sean McAdam. I’ve been here for enough time to build those types of relationships with those guys, to talk off the record about life. They obviously look at me as, OK, baseball’s my job, but I’m also a person and you guys are writers, but you’re also people too. So why can’t we set aside our jobs and talk as men or talk as friends or whatever about life, about our kids, other sports, or whatever?

Have you seen more guys have those type of relationships with writers over the last few years?

It’s tough to say for guys that haven’t been here as long as I have. I don’t know if they’ve really established relationships with anybody.

Did you hear a lot about “The Curse?”

That’s been said for a long time—ever since I’ve been here. You take it with a grain of salt: ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.’ I never really gave it much thought. I just think it was a nice cliché to be able to write about for such a long period of time.

Do you think things will change now that the Sox have won it all?

[Laughs] I think it’ll be a little bit easier for everybody involved.

Email Jerry at

No comments:

Post a Comment