He was supposed to eat some innings this year, was Steven Wright. Eat some innings and maybe work his way into higher leverage situations as the season progressed and most importantly shore up this, the most current iteration of the Red Sox bullpen. You know, the one that I think we can all generally agree is going to need a little luck to hang together this year. The one that lost Joe Kelly and (probably) Craig Kimbrel to free agency. The one that, heading into 2019, had over 100 innings (many of them rather important) to replace on account of those two departures?
But heading into camp, all he had to do was grip that knuckler and let it fly. As long as his knee held up, he told Masslive, his arm wouldn’t be an issue. It was that knee, that blasted knee. Not that he regrets undergoing knee surgery in 2017, mind. Or, ostensibly, the arthroscopy that followed it in November of 2018. As long as he could stay healthy, it looked like Steven Wright could eat some innings. I mean, it’s not like anyone was going to try to turn him into a pinch runner or anything. Not after what happened last time.
What he wasn’t supposed to do was get suspended for 80 games for violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program by testing positive for growth hormone releasing peptide [GHRP] 2, a compound whose most prominent on-label use is apparently in Japan as a diagnostic tool for the detection of growth hormone deficiency. Suspended. 80 games. Can’t eat innings when you’re suspended for 80 games. You can eat pizza, but not innings. Ice Cream? Sure. Not innings, though. Candy? Knock yourself out. But you gotta be able to step on the field in order to eat innings. Eating innings is a strictly on-field activity, as activities go, and for Steven Wright, on-field activities, the ones that count, are out of the question for, oh, about 80 games, I’d say.
To his credit, Wright denies knowingly violating the policy. He said he didn’t know how it got into his system. He said that he didn’t know where it came from. These comments might spark some side-eye, given that off-label uses for GHRP-2 advertised around the ol’ interwebs are for “enhancing performance both in the bedroom and in the weight room,” “reversing the effects of aging,” and “better recovery from injuries.” But it’s also perfectly plausible that Steven Wright, professional athlete, was simply unable to audit each and every ingredient in each and every salve, cream, and bromo applied to his body by what one must assume is a cadre of professional trainers and physical therapists, many, or all, of whom may have had only the noblest of intentions. This is, after all, a guy recovering from a major surgery that has to date had a major impact on his career. On the other hand, this is, after all, a guy recovering from a major surgery that has to date had a major impact on his career. Whatever the case, however the offending foreign molecules found their way into Wright’s system in time to muck up his drug test last offseason, I’ll leave it to others to judge. If you’ve tasted the honey of an all-star season in the major leagues, as Wright had, in 2016, who can say what you might do to get back there?
But boy, does this one rankle. Steven Wright was going to be a part of the bullpen in 2019, and, potentially, an important one. This isn’t 2018, with Kimbrel and Kelly, when the bullpen felt full even if it wasn’t always terribly good. There’s a lot of question marks this year. Guys out there need to make strides and accept and excel in new roles. Steven Wright could have been, at the very least, a stabilizing presence. Barnes or Brasier can’t find the range? Just have Wright go out there and confuse the shit out of ‘em for a while.
But it’s not just the state of the Sox bullpen, or this season, that makes this taste so lousy going down. Steven Wright was supposed to be the Next Knuckler. The Next Knuckler to continue the long line of Knucklers that somehow began with Phil and Joe Niekro even though they never played for the Sox. The Next Knuckler in an actually not-so-long-line of Knucklers that really began with scrap-heap wonder Tim Wakefield in 1995. The Tim Wakefield who studied at the Niekro brothers’ knees, learning all the secrets of ancient Knucklelore, from the really slow Knuckler to the slightly faster than really slow Knuckler. The Tim Wakefield who baffled the A’s on May 30, 1995, giving up only two hits over 7 and a third, and capturing my undivided attention ever since. The Tim Wakefield that went frickin’ 14 and frickin’ two over the first half of that season, and who I was so obsessed with that year, I actually thought Weezer referenced him in My Name is Jonas when they sang they had a “box full” of his toys (it’s “WePeel,” not Wakefield).
That I thought that a band based in southern California referenced an obscure Red Sox knuckleballer’s miraculous season in a song clearly recorded before that miraculous season began serves not only to underscore the depths of my obsession with Wakefield, but also what a revelation that season actually was. Here was a guy who was throwing a pitch that, if things had broken a little differently, that I could’ve thrown in the majors. It wasn’t thrown that hard. You (obviously) didn’t need to be some sort of athletic paragon to throw it. Its charm was in its gift for tantalization, deception. You can’t hit deceit. Unless you’re Jim Thome and it’s the playoffs. Or this other guy (shudder).
Steven Wright was supposed to be a part of that. And, starting in 2016, really, he was. He threw harder than Wakefield did, was more of a pitcher than just a Knuckler. Okay, a little harder. And he was going to eat innings, my God, the innings this man was going to eat. Then Farrell decided to have him pinch run (in the midst of an all-star year, no less) and he goes out with a shoulder. Then it’s a knee. Then it’s domestic issues. Then it’s the knee again. Now this. Jeez-laweez, enough already. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the long line of Sox Knucklers wasn’t very long at all.
I hope Wright is telling the truth when he says he doesn’t know how the foreign substance got into his body, and I hope he is, as he says, going to use the time to get even healthier in order to help the club upon his return. But he can’t pitch in the postseason, and by the time he comes back, he’s not exactly going to have the luxury of time to be able to play himself back into form. If the club needs another arm, it’s hard to see how Dombrowski doesn’t go out and get one at some point before July. And then where does Wright fit in? It’s not clear. It could very well be that this is yet another lost season for him in what is fast beginning to look like a lost career. A man (and a knuckler) can hope, I suppose. There’s always 2020.