Seeing Tim Wakefield reach another milestone this week brought a smile to Ken Campbell’s face.
Campbell, the former East Tennessee State baseball coach, recalls the days when he thought Wakefield would be hitting home runs in the major leagues, not trying to prevent them.
“I thought he had a shot as a position player,” said Campbell, who was Wakefield’s coach at Eau Gallie High School in Melbourne, Fla., from 1983-84. “He played first base for me and batted third.”
Wakefield also pitched a little bit for Campbell’s team, but with a 72-mph fastball, he was hardly a prospect on the mound.
That makes it even more impressive that Wakefield recently notched his 2,000th strikeout as a member of the Boston Red Sox.
“I would have never dreamed that he’d be pitching in the major leagues and still doing it,” said Campbell, now the coach at Walters State Community College.
Campbell remembers stopping in Augusta, Ga., on his way from Florida to Johnson City to watch Wakefield play in a minor-league game years ago.
“He said, ‘Coach, they’re getting ready to release me because I’m hitting .125,’ ” Campbell said. “I was encouraging him to hang in there and everything.”
Fate intervened just a few days later when Wakefield was in the outfield during pregame warmups. The team’s pitching coach spotted him throwing a knuckleball, more or less just messing around.
“He asked him if he could throw it for a strike,” Campbell said.
The rest, as they say, is history, although the road has been anything but smooth.
Wakefield eventually took the majors by storm as a rookie with the Pittsburgh Pirates, using the baffling pitch to go 8-1 after being called up midway through the 1992 season. He won both of his postseason starts — two complete games against Tom Glavine and the Braves in the National League Championship Series. In fact, there were some who wanted Wakefield to come back after winning Game 6 to start Game 7.
“I was talking to the shortstop Jay Bell’s daddy because Wakefield got us seats right there,” Campbell said. “He said they were hoping they would bring Tim back the way he was pitching.”
Wakefield didn’t pitch in Game 7, and the Braves wound up winning 3-2 on Francisco Cabrera’s famous hit that scored David Justice and Sid Bream.
As quickly as Wakefield ascended to stardom, the fleeting knuckleball began to let him down. The strikes stopped coming the following season and the Pirates released him 20 starts into his sophomore year.
The Red Sox scooped him up and he’s been pitching for them for 17 years. In fact, Wakefield, who turns 45 on Aug. 2, is the oldest player to ever play for the Red Sox.
“He went through a lot of ups and downs, but he’s made a good career out of it,” Campbell said. “Even with Boston, he was having a bad time and they moved him down to the minor leagues for a while. I went over to Greensboro and met him and played golf with him. He was trying to just get back up to the majors. He told me, ‘They don’t know it, but my arm is killing me. I don’t want to tell anybody.’
“He went out and pitched that night and did pretty good and they brought him back to the major leagues. That was a long time ago.”
When Wakefield graduated from high school, he went to Brevard Community College in his hometown of Melbourne, but Campbell says things didn’t work out too well there.
“During the fall, he came back and sat with me in the dugout at the high school field and he said, ‘Coach, I’m gonna quit. All they have me doing is chasing foul balls,’ ” Campbell said. “I kept telling him to hang in there.”
With a little help from Campbell, Wakefield transferred to Florida Tech, where he hit a school-record 40 home runs in two years and was drafted in the eighth round by the Pirates in 1988.
“When he signed, his mom and dad invited me over the their house for a signing party,” Campbell said.
Campbell coached at ETSU from 1990-99. Since he took over at Walters State, his teams have dominated the state’s junior college baseball scene.
The Senators won the Junior College World Series in 2006 and qualified for nationals three other times. Campbell’s teams have won the Tennessee Junior College championship nine times in his 12 years at the school. He is in the Tennessee Community College Hall of Fame.
“Every time we tee it up, we have a chance to win here,” he said. “At ETSU, I didn’t have that feeling.”