Tim Wakefield – Invisible Glue

Tim Wakefield announced his retirement on Friday, February 17th, 2012.  This is an important date for me because for many years now, Tim Wakefield has been my favorite baseball player.  It goes beyond the fact that I think the knuckleball is cool.  It even goes beyond the fact that there is now one less player in the Majors who is older than I am.  I’m always fascinated by people who are consummate team players and are willing and able to assume different roles on the team as needed, who bounce back from adversity, who are versatile and who grind.  Every team needs a Tim Wakefield.

Some retrospective – Wakefield came up through the Pirates system and was 8-1 with a 2.15 in 1992.  A mid-season callup from the minors, he was critical in helping the Pirates win the NL East Division that year.  The Pirates have not had a winning season since (though the departure of a guy named Barry Bonds had a lot to do with that.)  He even won two games in that year’s National League Championship Series – the one that was ended with Sid Bream just barely beating Barry Bonds’ throw to the plate in Game 7.  Wakefield had started in the Pirates’ system as a first baseman and couldn’t cut it, but the coaches caught him throwing a knuckleball that he could more or less consistently get near the plate, and he converted to pitcher.

The next year, Wakefield was expected to be a critical part of the Pirates’ rotation.  Instead, he went 6-11 with a 5.61 ERA in 1993, was sent to the minors, and ultimately released in 1994.  Wakefield was out of work for less than a week before being picked up by the Red Sox and assigned to their minor league system.  While with the Red Sox, the team brought in career knuckleballing brothers Phil and Joe Niekro as personal tutors.  In 1995, Wakefield was brought up to the majors early in the season and lead the staff with a 16-8 record and a 2.95 ERA.  That year, the Sox won the A.L. East.  Wakefield had a critical stretch on a West Coast swing where he started on two days’ rest due to injuries in the rotation and won both games, going 7 innings in each start.

Wakefield never saw the minors again.  Wakefield continued the next 15 years with the Red Sox and frankly, most of his years were average, and he even had a few clunkers.  He had more seasons with an ERA of over 5 than under 4.  But he still managed to win 200 games and came within 6 of winning the most games as a Red Sox (which could have been achieved last year but the Red Sox bullpen was every bit as bad as the rest of the team in the second half of the season, and they blew several of Wakefield’s leads after he left the game).  His only All-Star appearance was in 2009, in which he had a great first half but finished at 11-5 with a 4.58 ERA, spending considerable time on the disabled list.

So why is Tim Wakefield my favorite player?  First off, he was the consummate team player.  The kind of team player that every team, every startup needs.  In addition to throwing on 2 days’ rest in 1995, he also had 15 saves along with 17 starts in 1999, when Jimy (man of 1,000 lineups) Williams was managing.  While I thought it was kinda cool to follow 8 innings of Pedro Martinez with a knuckleballer, knuckleballers are bad closers because of their tendency to walk batters and the handicap they have with base stealers.  Still, Wakefield never complained.  More evidence?  In the 2004 ALCS, Wakefield was the scheduled Game 4 starter.  In Game 3, the Yankees destroyed the Sox, running through pitcher after pitcher until Wakefield volunteered to pitch in order to save the bullpen, giving up his start.  He pitched 3.1 innings, giving up 5 runs and saved the bullpen.  Down 3-0, of course, the Red Sox came back to win the series 4 games to 3.  Overlooked in that series is that Wakefield came on in relief again in Game 5, this time pitching 3 scoreless innings (the 12th – 14th innings) and was the winning pitcher after David Ortiz hit the walk-off single (scoring Johnny Damon) that sent the series back to New York, trailing 3-2.   It’s not hyperbole to state that both appearances were two of the most important long relief appearances in baseball history.

The foregoing tidbits illustrate Wakefield’s versatility.  Wakefield couldn’t help a team as a first baseman so he moved to pitcher.  He started 627 games and relieved in 164.  He started, he closed.  He pitched in long relief.  He pitched on super-short rest.  Many pitchers grumble when their roles are poorly-defined.  Catchers struggled simply to catch the balls he threw.  Wakefield took the ball and tried to do what his team asked of him.  Incredibly, he had 5 seasons in which his fielding percentage was 1.000.  5 seasons where he, statistically speaking, fielded his position without an error.

Finally, Wakefield was the consummate grinder.  His career stats are unspectacular – 200 wins over 19 seasons. A career 4.41 ERA.  6.0 strikeouts per 9 innings.  He gave up the home run to Aaron (f*&^ing) Boone in the 12th in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (you know? the game where Grady Little forgot he had pitchers other than Pedro Martinez?). He came back to be an important part of the staff on the 2004 and 2007 World Series Teams.  He took the ball every 5 days (and often on less – he started 4 games in his career on 1 day of rest), and he ate innings, which is a very valuable part of the modern game.  In addition, as the majority of Wakefield’s career was spent in the Steroid Era, a 4.41 ERA (especially in the American League) isn’t all that bad, and he continued to up innings.  There were days he dominated and days he got hit hard.  But every game, every season, Wakefield was a grinder.  Just like the hitters facing him, he ground out at-bats.  He ground out innings and games.  He ground out 200 wins.  Baseball is one of those sports where grinders are extremely valuable.

In the venture community, we focus quite a bit on so-called rock stars.  We look at the leaders and give them their due (and sometimes disproportionate) accolades.  For every successful team, in sports or business, there are people who grind out little victories.  They step out of their comfort zones in order to help the team and do things that maybe they aren’t comfortable or experienced in doing.   Look at any truly great leader of substance, and they are grinders.  Why? Because you don’t need talent or skill to grind.  You need mental toughness, determination, patience, and a will to succeed.  You can’t control your talent, but you have sole and absolute control over how much you grind.  It’s fun to do the high-profile things and make the star plays.  But, to paraphrase Tim McCarver, rather than doing the spectacular things routinely, you often add more value by doing the routine things spectacularly.

People like Tim Wakefield are the invisible glue that holds a team together.  You need engineers that can and will go on sales calls.  You need salespeople that can take their own proposals down to the FedEx office.  You need managers that handle crisis with a poker face.  You need executives that will stuff tags into name badges before an event.  You need admin people that will learn WordPress, and accounting people that will learn how to read a cap table.   You need people that view setbacks as an opportunity to succeed elsewhere.  You need people who view mediocrity as a personal affront and take on a challenge like Nolan Ryan.

I am fortunate that I have versatile, grinding team players in my business valuation team, and our practice’s success reflects those qualities.  When I hire, those are the qualities I look for (Wakey – call me if you want to interview).  My team puts in as many hours as necessary, they don’t accept “good enough”, they roll up their sleeves to do the dirty jobs when asked, and they embrace the challenge of learning new things when you have to deliver a real world product.  As you build your team and as you think about mentors, role models, advisors and supporters, don’t fall into the trap of leaning just on stars.  Fill your team with plenty of versatile, team-playing grinders.  Fill your team with people whose job description says, “whatever the team needs to win”.  Make sure your staff has at least one Tim Wakefield.

Goodbye Wakey and Good Luck!





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