Pirates coach Huyke earns save
He spotted Wakefield's knuckler in the nick of time
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Eighty-five miles away, the man who saved Tim Wakefield's career arrives at Pirate City every morning at 5 and works out, then puts on the uniform he has been wearing for the past 42 years.
He doesn't manage anymore -- after 31 years, they scaled him back to coaching -- but at 72, Woody Huyke still throws batting practice and hits fungoes, just as he has done for generations of green Pittsburgh Pirates hopefuls whose first experience as pros meant passing through his clubhouse doors.
Huyke was managing when Bobby Bonilla was converted from catcher to third baseman, when Chico Lind was moved from short to second, when Orlando Merced went from short to third. There were many others, not as well-known, who also changed positions. It's a staple of minor league life, especially at the rookie level, where Huyke has operated for so long.
But only once, Huyke said, does he know of a player who was about to be released who changed positions and became a big league star.
That would be Tim Wakefield, who had a serendipitous game of catch that changed his life. "Well," Huyke said, "the truth is this. We were playing a morning game, and Timmy was supposed to play first base. He was drafted as a first baseman, but he played third before we moved him to first. He had power and a good arm, but he couldn't run a lick, which is why we put him at first base.
"To this day, I don't know who was warming up with him, but I was talking to someone in the dugout when Tim said, 'Watch this.' He threw a knuckleball. I said, 'Not bad, throw it again.' He threw about three more, and I turned around and walked away."
Wakefield, who pitched here Thursday, remembers with whom he was tossing the ball around. "It was a guy by the name of John Martin," he said.
Woody Huyke's last name is Dutch, but he is from Puerto Rico, his great-grandfather having come to the island from Holland. The Pirates wanted to sign him when he was 17, but his father wouldn't let him, not then and not for the next four years.
"He wanted me to finish school," Huyke said.
And did he? Huyke laughed. "All I loved was baseball."
The Giants signed him at age 22, very late for a prospect, especially one from Latin America. He was one of six players plucked out of a tryout camp in 1959. "There were 104 guys just like me, unsigned," he said.
The Giants put the six on a bus from Tampa to Artesia, N.M., where the organization had a Class D farm team. "It took us three days, on an old Greyhound," Huyke said. "It was brutal. We worked out there, but couldn't play, then they sent us to Hastings, Neb., which was a 36-hour bus ride."
One of the six was cut in Hastings at the start of the season. Four others were cut at the end. "I survived," Huyke said.
Originally, Huyke was a third baseman. "I was brutal," he said, "but I could hit."
They made him a catcher. He broke a toe. He broke a finger. He hurt his arm. By 1963, he had given up his dream of making it to the big leagues. "For the next five years, I was just hanging on. My head kept me in the game. I knew the game."
This is what he knew about the knuckleball: "If I could catch it," he said, "then I knew it wasn't a very good one. It should be as hard for a catcher to catch as a hitter to hit."
His playing career ended in 1969. Twenty years later, as a rookie league manager in Bradenton, he was in a meeting in which the Pirates were deciding whether to release a second-year infielder named Tim Wakefield. "His name was always up for release," Huyke said. "He had power, but he couldn't hit.
"I remember Elmer Gray was the scouting director, the guy who signed him, and when they talked about releasing him, they said, 'Why don't we give him until June, send him over to extended spring, and see if he gets better.'
"I told Chuck LaMar, who was the farm director, 'Before you release him, put him on the mound because he has a very good knuckleball.'"
LaMar later recalled, "He was within 48 hours of being released, and Woody Huyke said, 'Have you ever seen his knuckleball?' And everybody -- there must be 30 people in the room -- is going, 'Just move him along.'"
Wakefield was given a reprieve. He did OK in extended spring, was sent to Augusta in the Sally League, then Welland in the short-season New York-Penn League. He didn't hit. He was batting .206, with one home run in 36 games, when Welland manager U.L. Washington, now a hitting coach for the Gulf Coast Red Sox, passed down the word to Wakefield: He was about to become a pitcher.
"At first, he said no," Huyke said. "But then he was told, either you pitch or you're released."
That fall in instructional league, Huyke recalls, Wakefield went a month without giving up a run. "I remember one game where he struck out 15 guys," he said.
Within three years, Wakefield was in the big leagues, a rookie sensation who nearly pitched the Pirates to the National League pennant.
A year later, he couldn't get anybody out. "I was in big league camp," Huyke said, "and when I saw him coming, I turned around and walked the other way. I didn't want to see him. I felt so bad for him." That was 1993. A year later, Wakefield was back in the minors, and on March 20, 1995, he was released by the Pirates. Six days later, Dan Duquette signed him to a minor league contract with the Red Sox. Huyke gets the first save, Duquette the second. And 15 years later, Wakefield is still pitching, just 18 wins from setting the record for victories by a Sox pitcher.
"He's the one," Huyke said, "who did everything."
Wakefield said it's probably been a couple of years since he talked to the old coach. "He's a good man," Wakefield said.
"A long time," Huyke said genially, "but once out of my sight, it's up to him to do whatever he wants. He has to live his life, and I have to live my own.
"But I'm happy for him."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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