Brooks Robinson and Tim Wakefield: Two Very Different Ballplayers Who Knew What Mattered Most

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jason Gay headlined “Brooks Robinson and Tim Wakefield: Two Very Different Ballplayers Who Knew What Mattered Most”:

Their careers separated by a baseball generation, they never faced each other on the diamond. But Brooks Robinson and Tim Wakefield, two beloved Major Leaguers lost in the past week, shared a common thread: They left a better game behind.

Baltimore, a playoff city once again, remains in mourning for its Brooks. They held a memorial for him Monday at Camden Yards, a stadium built long after Robinson’s Orioles playing days were complete. Cal Ripken spoke. Eddie Murray spoke. Brooks’s successor, Doug DeCinces. Jim Kaat. Boog Powell.

“The kindest, nicest man I ever knew,” said Boog.

That’s a striking feature of the Robinson tributes: universally, they mention the man before the athlete. Robinson, who died Sept. 26 at the age of 86, was an outrageous talent, an 18-time All-Star who redefined the third base position as the “Human Vacuum Cleaner.” He won a Major League MVP and a World Series MVP, defined the low-key work ethic of the “Oriole Way,” and was a first ballot inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

If you ever dove across the dirt, nabbed a ball you shouldn’t have, and threw a runner out by a half step—even if you did it in a backyard Wiffle ball game—you owe Brooks Robinson a royalty.

But that’s not what they have been talking about in Charm City. Everyone seems to have a story about Brooks Robinson the human—his humility, his sense of humor, his unselfishness. The reason parents named children after Brooks wasn’t because Robinson won 16 Gold Gloves. It’s because parents wanted their kids to embody the values of Brooks, the person.

“The way he handled himself, and treated others,” said Cal Ripken.

Twenty-three seasons, with the same ball club. An ideal marriage of franchise to player, and player to region. Born in Little Rock, Ark., Brooks became Baltimore. His example will linger over this Orioles postseason, his No. 5 now draped over the warehouse behind right field.

Wakefield’s death on Oct. 1, from brain cancer at age 57, is a comparative stunner. It doesn’t feel so long ago that the knuckleballer was out on the hill at Fenway, winding up slowly, trying to baffle the opposition and keep Boston in a game. Fifty-seven is far too young. Red Sox Nation is in shock.

Wakefield doesn’t possess Robinson’s Hall of Fame résumé. Despite his success, which included a pair of World Series rings, he spent much of his career repeatedly feeling he had to prove himself. What helped here was his cool equilibrium—an odd characteristic for a man who mastered baseball’s most volatile pitch.

The Florida native understood the fickle magic of his gift. Some days, a knuckleball flutters and darts, keeping a lineup on its heels all day. Other times, it flattens and stills, becoming a borderline meatball. It’s hard to know what you’re going to get. It’s a pitch that tests the patience of the batter and the thrower, to say nothing of the catcher, and the anxious audience.

If you’ve ever tinkered with a knuckler, digging your nails into the seams, marveling if you can get it to briefly stop rotating, baseball’s version of a card trick—you owe Tim Wakefield and his knuckle brethren (Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Hoyt Wilhelm) a slow-motion royalty.

The knuckleball saved Wakefield’s career—drafted as a first baseman, the Pittsburgh Pirates kept him around because he could toss the demon pitch. With the Red Sox, he brought it to a brighter stage, suffering the agony of a walk-off loss to Aaron Boone and the Yankees in 2003, then soaring back next season in that improbable, curse-breaking World Series run.

A knuckleballer often serves as insurance, there to help a club win games, but also to absorb innings for fellow pitchers. He wins, he loses—the point is he pitches, all the time. In his Pirates debut, Wakefield threw 146 pitches. One of his greatest Red Sox contributions was the “mop-up” relief innings he pitched in a Game 3 blowout loss to the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, a start-surrendering appearance that allowed Boston to recalibrate its rotation for that historic comeback from 0-3 down.

A video clip circulated this week of a Wakefield interview after the Red Sox won another Series in 2007. He’s interrupted by fellow pitcher Mike Timlin, who says Boston won it for Wakefield, after Wakefield unselfishly removed himself from the roster because of a nagging injury.

“It’s the hardest thing to do, to take yourself out of the game for someone else,” Timlin says. “But he did it.”

Brooks Robinson made a similar move—retiring from the Orioles in 1977 when a competitive team needed roster flexibility, as the Washington Post maestro Thomas Boswell recalled the other day.

These are minor acts in long, celebrated careers, ones that fade in memory against the shiny stats and trophies. Brooks Robinson and Tim Wakefield made very different contributions on the diamond, but they agreed on what really mattered. The team was always bigger than the individual. The athlete isn’t as important as the person underneath. Baseball is better because they knew.

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