Tim Wakefield
August 2, 1966 – October 1, 2023

The last true master of the knuckleball succumbed to brain cancer on Sunday at the age of 57.

Tim Wakefield anchored the Boston Red Sox roster from 1995 through 2011, a veritable eon in terms of tenure with a Major League Baseball team. He never threw a 90-mph fastball. He never signed a record-breaking contract. He never led the league in anything other than hit batsmen and losses. His name, however, will be etched into the memories of Red Sox fans forever. 

MLB roster turnover is eternal. Generally speaking, nobody sticks with the same team for 16 years other than superstars on the level of Mel Ott, Carl Yastrzemski, Derek Jeter, or Cal Ripken Jr.

Tim Wakefield broke the mold, rendering himself irreplaceable to the Boston Red Sox despite not being a transcendent talent. 

As a baseball player, I would describe Tim Wakefield as a serviceable Major League pitcher with versatility, which is certainly not the most glamorous categorization. Yet he managed to linger in Boston from the end of the Roger Clemens era right through the chicken and beer debacle of 2011 due to being a dependable workhorse, a great teammate, and a genuinely good dude.

Nobody ever had a bad thing to say about Tim Wakefield. He never got into public spats with teammates or opponents, he never complained to the press about his contract, and he never opted out of a spot start or emergency relief appearance in deference to his ego. He was a blue-collar type of baseball player that fit in perfectly with the Boston working-class demographic. He was just happy to have the greatest job in the world.

That’s not to say that he didn’t earn his long-lasting seat in the Red Sox dugout with his play on the field. Wake arrived in Boston just when baseball began to get serious here again. Red Sox fans were fed up with being the American League’s lovable losers by April of 1995, and Tim Wakefield was one of the key pickups that got the team moving in the right direction. Wake retained his roster spot when Fenway Sports Group purchased the franchise and cleaned house in 2002. Ten years later, halfway through Boston’s unprecedented reign of sports dominance, Tim Wakefield  was still there — the last man standing from the days when Red Sox fans would have donated certain body parts to experience the joy of just one championship.

I’ve attended more Red Sox games started by Tim Wakefield than any other pitcher by a factor of three. He ingrained himself into the culture of Boston sports long enough to become synonymous with the Red Sox. Long enough to earn his 200th victory, a milestone that is reached with less and less frequency as time goes on.

Long enough to devastate an entire region upon his untimely passing. 

Wakefield’s initial foray into Major League Baseball, a two-year run with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was very schizophrenic … par for the course for a knuckleballer. He was superb in his rookie season, going 8-1 with a sensational 2.15 ERA in 13 starts before hurling two complete game victories over Tom Glavine in the 1992 National League Championship Series. He nosedived — or knuckled — from there though, with a terrible 1993 that saw him demoted to Triple-A in July. He didn’t throw a single pitch in the Majors in 1994 and was released by the Pirates in April of ’95.

Boston quickly scooped up Wakefield and assigned him to Triple-A Pawtucket, but he wasn’t there for long. Injuries to frontline starters Clemens and Aaron Sele resulted in Wakefield being called up to Beantown carry the load in their absence.

He never left.

Wakefield was the best pitcher in baseball for much of 1995, going 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA through his first 17 starts with six complete games. Leading the Red Sox to their first playoff appearance in five years, he immediately cemented himself as an indispensable part of the pitching staff. 

Following the 1996 departure of the greatest pitcher Boston had ever seen, Wakefield and Sele were left behind to pick up the pieces of the Red Sox starting rotation. A year later, Sele flew the coop as well.

Only Wakefield remained. 

Wake was Boston’s only starting pitcher to bridge the gap from one iconic ace to the next. Pedro Martinez arrived from Montreal and took center stage in 1998, and Wakefield thrived in his supporting role for the next 13 years, remaining with the Red Sox long after Pedro had also moved on.

Tim was a made man that stood tall while playing second, third, fourth, and even fifth fiddle to guys named Saberhagen, Lowe, Burkett, Clement, Lester, Beckett, Matsuzaka, Lackey, Buchholz, and some narcissist in a bloody sock. He knew his role and took pride in it, often taken for granted by fans, but always ready to answer our call. We never needed Wake until we needed Wake, a thankless role in a championship-or-bust town.

It’s a hell of a thing to be a knuckleballer in the big leagues. The movement of the pitch is largely a matter of chance. The pitcher just kind of flicks it up in the air. Once it leaves his hand (his fingernails really), the pitch is left to the devices of the wind, the humidity, the concentration of the batter, and the temperament of the baseball gods. If it isn’t knuckling on any given day, you know the pitcher won’t be on the mound for long. But when it’s dancing, the hitter doesn’t stand a chance.

“I never worry about it. I just take my three swings and go sit on the bench. I’m afraid if I ever think about hitting it, I’ll mess up my swing for life.” – Dick Allen

“The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.” – Bob Uecker

“Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor’s mailbox.” – Willie Stargell

Beyond the downright fortuitousness of the pitch, the knuckleball is remarkable because it can be effective while traveling at a speed of 60 – 70 mph. This saves knuckleballers the arm strain that a lot of pitchers deal with every day, which makes them capable of changing roles as needed. This versatility allowed Wakefield to excel as both a starter and a reliever. He racked up 15 or more wins in four seasons with Boston, made 160 relief appearances, and even notched 22 saves, including 15 as the primary closer in 1999.

In my opinion, the 2004 American League Championship Series is the greatest representation of what made Tim Wakefield so special. He served up the walk-off home run to Aaron Boone to close out the 2003 ALCS, a dejecting moment that could have killed the confidence of a pitcher without such a steely resolve. The next season, the Red Sox and Yankees were back in October for the greatest seven-game war either team has ever seen. Wakefield toiled in the trenches like Private Taylor in Platoon, one of many nameless grunts who would never receive a medal, but whose contribution to the effort was critical.

After giving up a pair of runs in Boston’s Game 1 loss, Wakefield was then beaten up by the Bronx Bombers in the 19-8 Game 3 drubbing that put the Red Sox down three games to none. The knuckler didn’t knuckle, and when things went from bad to worse, manager Terry Francona left Wakefield on the mound to take it on the chin and preserve the bullpen for a potential 0-3 comeback, something that had never been accomplished in MLB history.

Two days after giving up five runs in 3.1 innings during Game 3, Wake got the call once again in a win-or-die extra-inning Game 5. The knuckler knuckled on this night though. Wakefield surrendered only one hit and one walk while striking out four over three innings of shutout work. His effort bought the Boston offense some desperately needed time until David Ortiz’s heroic case of deja vu sent the series back to New York so the Red Sox could dance on the Yankees’ lawn after Game 7.

The Game 5 victory was Wakefield’s only decision of the 2004 playoffs. But the greatest comeback in American sports history would have never been possible without the unheralded yeoman’s work he carried out in the 6.1 innings he pitched on October 16th and October 18th of 2004.

Five nights later, Tim Wakefield became the first Red Sox pitcher to start a World Series game in Fenway Park since Bruce Hurst took the mound against the New York Mets exactly 18 years prior. Wake was knocked around by the Cardinals in that game (which Boston won 11-9), but Francona’s decision to open the World Series with him on the mound was yet another testament to his versatility. Wakefield was not even in the starting rotation throughout the ALDS and ALCS, but after an epic series that left the entire pitching staff gassed, Francona knew that his resident workhorse was the only sensible choice. Wakefield collected his first ring, but few accolades for his considerable efforts in the 2004 playoffs.

The Red Sox returned to the Fall Classic three years later and, as usual, Wakefield was a huge factor. He was one of only two Sox pitchers to start 31 games that season, tying his career high mark of 17 wins. He appeared in only one postseason game, stepping aside once again to let Boston’s high-profile flamethrowers seal the deal. The 2007 Red Sox were a wire-to-wire first-place buzz saw. And although Wakefield’s signature was all over that team, he was an afterthought to virtually everybody but his 24 teammates.

“One of the best teammates I ever had, and this is not BS,” said Alex Cora, who played with Wakefield on the 2007 championship team. “This guy was there for us all the time. He was accountable. He was what a Boston Red Sox should look like.”

“I’ve always said it,” a teary Jason Varitek explained following the death of his teammate of 14 years. “Wake exemplifies what this uniform is … He exemplifies what it means to be a Red Sox and what it means to be a professional.”

In case that doesn’t say enough about what kind of guy Tim Wakefield was, his work with the Jimmy Fund and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute was almost as extensive as his work on the field. He hosted and organized cancer research fundraisers during and after his playing career. His wine, CaberKnuckle, contributed every penny of its proceeds (over $100,000) to Pitching in for Kids, a charity that donated grants to improve the lives of impoverished New England children.

He was a nine-time nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, handed out annually “to the player who best represents the game of Baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.” 

He won the award in 2010.

The news that Tim had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer hit us like a punch to the gut only a few days ago. It was even more heartbreaking to learn that his wife, Stacey, is also suffering with pancreatic cancer to this day. It feels so cruel that a couple who has done so much to aid the fight against cancer has been victimized so tragically by that same illness. What’s more, their two teenaged children have had to endure this pain every step of the way.

It feels weird to talk so glowingly about the personal life of someone I’ve never met before, even though I’ve seen him in person countless times. We routinely admire athletes on a professional level and make assumptions about who they are on a personal level. All too often, it’s not until they die or fall gravely ill that we hear the unanimously positive tributes about their character. At times it feels genuine, and it times it feels manufactured. But we never truly know for sure what kind of people they are.

This time feels like an exception. We watched Tim Wakefield play ball for 16 years without a single negative incident. Even when he struggled on the field, we never saw a single crack in the armor of his character. He was a good player that always worked hard, always sacrificed for the team, always supported his teammates, and always gave back to his community.

None of the tributes we’ve seen in the days following his death have been the garden variety “thoughts and prayers for his family.” People across baseball are torn to shreds over the passing of this man.

And I think I understand why.

Tim Wakefield was a lowkey guy that tended to fade into the background of the MLB world of big money and star power. Humble, generous people like him rarely stand out in a crowd, and that makes us miss them so much more after we’ve lost them. It makes us feel ashamed for taking them for granted while they were still among us. And when they go, we kick ourselves in the ass for not telling them how much they meant to us before it was too late. I believe that Tim Wakefield has left behind a world of family, friends, teammates, colleagues, and fans that are desperately sad right now because they feel they didn’t fully appreciate all that he brought to their lives until now.

In the professional athlete sense of the word, Tim Wakefield was the perfect role model. A selfless public figure who never made the story about himself, who would do anything for his fans and teammates, and who was admired by everyone close to him.

In the spectrum of professional sports, Tim Wakefield was not a rich man.

But this guy had it all.



By Luke

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