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Hingham High senior recalls the day Tim Wakefield taught him a new pitch

Tim Wakefield's death on Oct. 1 was felt all across the Major League Baseball landscape. It obviously had a profound effect on Red Sox Nation, which had watched Wakefield pitch 17 seasons for the Sox (1995-2011) and then smoothly transition into a broadcast role at NESN, all while earning accolades for his tireless charitable work.

The franchise icon's passing at age 57, due to brain cancer, also resonated in a particular way with Hingham High senior Teddy Swanson.

"I'd say it was definitely a more significant event (for me) than if it had been (some other celebrity), considering I had had a personal interaction with him," Swanson said. "Definitely more sad than normal."

Swanson was barely school-age when Wakefield, who lived in Hingham, wrapped up his 19-year career in 2011 by winning seven games for the Sox at the age of 44. But Swanson saw him on Sox pre- and post-game shows and saw him up close and personal only recently.

Patriot Ledger All Scholastic athletes are honored at a banquet held at Indian Pond Country Club in Kingston featuring guest speaker Tim Wakefield,Tuesday, July 26, 2016.
Gary Higgins/The Patriot Ledger.
Patriot Ledger All Scholastic athletes are honored at a banquet held at Indian Pond Country Club in Kingston featuring guest speaker Tim Wakefield,Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Gary Higgins/The Patriot Ledger.

It was a brief meeting at South Shore Baseball Club in Hingham, but one that is still paying dividends for Swanson, a 5-9 right-handed pitcher.

"One time last winter he just showed up to one our captains practices on a Sunday night," Swanson said. "He was over in the corner with all the pitchers. I'm a pitcher myself, so I went over there and he was giving tips out to everyone, pretty much. He specifically helped me change my changeup grip, and it turned out to be really successful for me.

More: Ledger All-Scholastics hear from Sox great Tim Wakefield

"None of us even expected him to be there. He just showed up out of nowhere. Everyone thought he was just watching, but as soon as I went over there he was very helpful. Basically he just gave me an entire new grip. I was gripping the ball a certain way; he told me to switch it and release it different during my throwing motion, and that really did the trick."

Wakefield was hands-on, Swanson remembered.

"There was a mound and he was right behind it, watching everyone pitch," Swanson said. "So when it was my turn, he gave me the tip and I threw it a bunch of times. It worked out. I would say it was probably my best pitch last year."

Hingham coach Frank Niles, the president and owner of South Shore Baseball Club, said Wakefield swung by a few times over the winter, mostly to check up on a young pitcher (not a Hingham High student) who was working out at the facility.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield throws in the second inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Monday, Aug. 20, 2007, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) ORG XMIT: FLMC103
Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield throws in the second inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Monday, Aug. 20, 2007, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) ORG XMIT: FLMC103

"He was great," Niles said. "He was very helpful. The kids liked him and even though he was a knuckleball guy, he's very bright and very knowledgeable (about other pitches). He was kind and patient with the kids. It was a great experience. I told him, 'Yeah, you're welcome back any time.' He did enjoy himself and he mixed with the kids rather easily."

Niles describes himself as a lifelong Red Sox fan who clings to the belief that "Boston is a much better city when the Red Sox are in contention." Niles had had previous brief encounters with Wakefield -- quick introductions at various charity golf tournaments, for example -- but he came away impressed with his first extended look at the Sox star away from the glare of the spotlight.

"He showed the real kind of guy he is, in my mind," Niles said. "He treated all the kids who were throwing bullpens like they were important. He could obviously tell the ones who were going to be varsity pitchers and he was good with them, but the other kids who weren't quite at that level he was really good and patient and involved (with them, too). My impression of him was great."

Niles said he and Wakefield even discussed Wakefield's signature pitch.

"He and I chatted about knuckleballs, even though we were at different levels," said Niles, who was an occasional knuckleballer during his playing days. "I liked listening to how he did it, and he wasn't disinterested in how I did it. That was interesting. He threw it a little differently (than I did). He pushed off with his fingers when he released it. But it's basically the same for any knuckleballer; you don't want it rolling over. You gotta keep it from rotating a lot."

Wakefield was 200-180 during his career with a 4.41 ERA. He retired as the Red Sox's career leader in innings pitched (3,006), won two World Series in Boston (2004, 2007), was an American League All-Star in 2009 and was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame in 2016. He also struck out 2,156 batters, mostly with that tantalizing knuckler -- an everyman pitch that deepened his connection to the fan base.

"For me, he was special because he was a knuckleballer and he wasn't just out there throwing 95 or 96," Niles said. "He was a regular guy. There are sideline knuckleball heroes all over the place -- they can throw a lively knuckleball here and there and nobody likes to play catch with them. But to be a knuckleball pitcher in a game is a whole other commitment level.

"Even Tim was not encouraging (the pitchers at the club) to throw the knuckleball. You throw a knuckleball because you have to. Nobody has dreams of throwing knuckleballs at Yankee Stadium. If you have dreams about pitching (at that level), you're throwing 95 miles an hour, I'm sure."

Niles called Wakefield's death a "shock," adding, "Once we heard that he was sick (that was bad enough), and then it was only a couple of days later (that he was gone). I couldn't believe the news that he had passed away. It was hard to take for most people that I know."

Swanson was stunned as well, but at least he has a story to tell about Wakefield. And, yes, he's told it to more than a few people.

"When I played for my summer baseball team, everyone, especially the coach, was surprised to hear that -- that I got some help from Tim Wakefield," Swanson said proudly.

This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Sox legend Tim Wakefield's death hit home for Hingham senior pitcher