Tim Wakefield, the first baseman-turned-knuckleball pitcher who helped the Boston Red Sox win two World Series titles, has died of brain cancer at age 57, the team announced on Sunday.
Wakefield made public his brain cancer diagnosis late last month.
“Tim’s kindness and indomitable spirit were as legendary as his knuckleball,” said Red Sox owner John Henry in a statement. “He not only captivated us on the field but was the rare athlete whose legacy extended beyond the record books to the countless lives he touched with his warmth and genuine spirit. He had a remarkable ability to uplift, inspire, and connect with others in a way that showed us the true definition of greatness. He embodied the very best of what it means to be a member of the Boston Red Sox and his loss is felt deeply by all of us.”
Our hearts are broken with the loss of Tim Wakefield.
Wake embodied true goodness; a devoted husband, father, and teammate, beloved broadcaster, and the ultimate community leader. He gave so much to the game and all of Red Sox Nation.
Our deepest love and thoughts are with… pic.twitter.com/ah5kV2Yt8j
— Red Sox (@RedSox) October 1, 2023
Drafted as an infielder by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the eighth round of the 1988 draft, Wakefield’s professional start got off to a slow start as he hit just .189 in 54 minor-league games. However, during extended spring training in 1989, a Pirates coach saw Wakefield throwing a knuckleball while playing catch with a teammate and the rest is history.
“I was disappointed [the Pirates] were giving up on me that quick [as a hitter],” Wakefield said in his memoir, “Knuckler: My Life with Baseball’s Most Confounding Pitch.” “But then, they basically told me, ‘You’re going to pitch or you’re going to go home.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll pitch.'”
Wakefield said that he learned the pitch as a boy from his father, Steve, when the two of them would play catch in the backyard at home in Melbourne, Florida.
“It was something to basically tire me out,” Wakefield told ESPN in 2011.
He entered the majors as a midseason call-up with the Pirates in 1992, and he immediately found fame by going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA and then winning two more games during the National League Championship Series vs. the Atlanta Braves.
The next season, however, didn’t go well, and Wakefield, who was 6-11 with a 5.61 ERA, was sent back to the minors and then released.
He was picked up by the Boston Red Sox as a risk-reward candidate for the 1995 season, and Wakefield again found his form, going 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA while finishing third in American League Cy Young Award voting.
His most haunting moment came during the 2003 postseason, when he gave up a home run to the New York Yankees’ Aaron Boone to win the ALCS.
Said Wakefield at the time: “I just became Bill Buckner.”
One year later, after overcoming a 3-0 deficit to beat the Yankees in the ALCS, Wakefield and the Red Sox won the World Series. He got his second ring in 2007. He earned his first and only All-Star Game appearance in 2009.
Wakefield pitched 17 seasons for the Red Sox, winning 200 career games — the fifth to do so in a Boston uniform — while posting a 4.41 ERA with 2,156 strikeouts — and 1,205 walks — in 3,226 2/3 innings pitched over 627 appearances (463 starts).
He retired after the 2011 season at age 45. Only three others played longer for the Red Sox — Carl Yastrzemski (23), Ted Williams (19) and Dwight Evans (19). His 186 wins as a pitcher for the Red Sox ranks second in franchise history only to Roger Clemens (192).
And while his 3,006 innings pitched and 430 starts is tops among Red Sox pitchers, his nature as a knuckleballer explains why Wakefield is also No. 1 in team history home runs allowed, hits allowed, walks, wild pitches, batters hit by pitch, earned runs, losses and hits allowed.
He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2016.
“I’m very grateful I’ve been able to wear this uniform for as long as I have, and reach a milestone that I thought I’d never reach, just … very grateful,” Wakefield said after his 200th victory in 2011.
After his playing career, Wakefield became a Red Sox studio analyst for NESN in 2012.
Wakefield is survived by his wife, Stacy, and their children, Trevor and Brianna.