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Mudville: July 14, 2024 1:46 pm PDT

Remembering Wake

In the summer of 1992, I was 14 going on 15 and a soon-to-be sophomore at Eau Gallie High School in Melbourne, Florida. I was somewhat new to Florida public schools, somewhat new to rap music, and somewhat new to girls. But baseball, baseball was my life.

I played baseball. I collected baseball cards. I played baseball video games. I had baseball posters. I read baseball books. I dreamed of pitching at Shea Stadium. I was a total baseball nerd.

That July, something exciting happened in Melbourne. One of our own was called up to the Major Leagues. On Friday, July 31st, 1992, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Tim Wakefield made his major league debut; a fantastic debut in which Wakefield and the Pirates defeated the St Louis Cardinals 3-2. Wakefield pitched nine innings that night, throwing 146 pitches, allowing only five hits, and striking out 10.

Throughout the summer, Wakefield was the Pirates’ secret weapon. Meanwhile, in his hometown, his starts made headlines. Sports bars were packed with people who couldn’t name another Pirates player – but rooted for Tim Wakefield. He was a big deal.

He was such a big deal his rookie cards were nearly impossible to find. None of the big five sports card companies of the day (Topps, Donruss, Fleer, Upper Deck, and Score) issued cards of Tim Wakefield prior to his Major League debut. There were no major brand 1992 Tim Wakefield cards. The card most available to collectors was a 1991 Line Drive AA Minor League card of Wakefield on the Carolina Mudcats. Every local sports card store had several on display and additional packs waiting to be opened.

I had never seen a minor league card so in demand.

By late summer 1992, Donruss issued a subset called “The Rookies”, featuring 132 players making their debuts that season. Tim Wakefield was in this set. The Rookies packs were also as good as gold in Melbourne card shops. Finding a Wakefield baseball card in 1992 was like finding a Willy Wonka golden ticket. Collectors didn’t win a tour of the chocolate factory, but they did get a card of a local hero.

As the baseball season progressed, so did Melbourne’s Wakefield-mania. The Pirates won the National League East and faced the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs. Wakefield was the star of the National League Championship Series, winning two of the three games the Pirates won. Unfortunately, the Braves won four games and the series. As they were during the season, the sports bars in Melbourne were packed during the playoffs and all televisions tuned to watch Wakefield’s success.

Following the season, there was still a buzz at Wakefield’s alma mater, Eau Gallie High School. Newspaper clippings of his games remained posted in the school office. He became and remained the most popular former Commodore ever.

Sometime in fall of 1992, I am not sure the date, the students at Eau Gallie High were told we had a choice – either attend a pep rally for the football team in the school gym or go home early. Learning was done for the day. Given the chance, I went home. One of my good friends stayed for the pep rally. The next day he told me what I missed. Major League Baseball phenomenon and hometown hero Tim Wakefield was a special guest at the rally. I – a huge baseball fan and collector of as many Tim Wakefield cards as I could find – missed out on seeing the first major leaguer from my high school in person. Thirty years later, I am still kicking myself and my friend still reminds me of my mistake.

In 1995, Tim Wakefield was released by the Pirates after struggling in 1993 and 1994. He signed with the Red Sox and played for them until 2011. He became a Red Sox staple, holding team records in starts, innings pitched, and finishing third in wins for the team behind two legends, Roger Clemens and Cy Young. After being a local legend in Melbourne and a brief star in Pittsburgh, Tim Wakefield became a fixture in Boston.

In 2017, Tim Wakefield received one vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Although he pitched 19 seasons, he tallied only 200 wins to go with 180 losses and an ERA of 4.41 He gave up a lot of hits and a lot of home runs. When his knuckleball was on, he was amazing. When it wasn’t, well, he wasn’t very good. Likewise, when the Red Sox were good, he would win. When they struggled, so too did his stats. Mastering the knuckleball might provide career longevity, but superstar success is rarely part of the deal.

Despite his average career numbers, when anyone would ask me who my favorite player was, Tim Wakefield was always my answer. He was successful, he was a good dude, and he went to my high school.

Since 1992, two other players made the majors from Eau Gallie High School. The second was Jeff Tam, best known as a nondescript middle reliever for the A’s in the early 2000s. The third was Prince Fielder, prolific slugger for the Brewers, Tigers, and Rangers. Although Prince’s amateur time as a Commodore was legendary, he only played his senior year at Eau Gallie, transferring from Florida Air Academy after his junior year.

Although most of his professional and personal accolades occurred in his adopted city of Boston, to me, Tim Wakefield wasn’t known for being a member of the Red Sox. I didn’t know him for his amazing charity work. To me, Tim Wakefield is, was, and will always be known as the first person from my high school to make the bigs. Baseball in Melbourne, FL in 1992 meant something more to us because of Tim Wakefield. That year, baseball meant something more to me.

I think I still have at least five of each of the Wakefield rookie cards. I also have a handful of cards throughout his career. These cards aren’t worth much to the common collector today, but they will remain in my small box of keepers. His biography, which I recently purchased, is in my to-be-read pile. I also own a Wakefield jersey from his only all-star appearance in 2009.

Hard to believe I have been a big Tim Wakefield fan for over 30 years. Hard to believe over 30 years has gone by since that fun summer in 1992 when Melbourne, Florida was awash in Wakefield Mania. Tim Wakefield was my favorite player. He will be missed.

Michael Lortz is a writer from Tampa, Florida. He is the author of the acclaimed novel Curveball at the Crossroads. His work has been featured on Fangraphs, Hardball Times, and numerous Rays websites. He likes long walks on the beach, Belgian tripels, and the color blue.

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