Tim Wakefield, Who Revived His Career and Red Sox Trophy Case with Knuckleball, Has Died at 57

AP Photo/John Bazemore file
Boston Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield works in the second inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta, June 27, 2009.

BOSTON (AP) — Tim Wakefield, the knuckleballing workhorse of the Red Sox pitching staff who bounced back after giving up a season-ending home run to the Yankees in the 2003 playoffs to help Boston win its curse-busting World Series title the following year, has died. He was 57.

The Red Sox announced his death in a statement Sunday that detailed not only his baseball statistics but a career full of charitable endeavors. Wakefield had brain cancer, according to ex-teammate Curt Schilling, who outed the illness on a podcast last week — drawing an outpouring of support for Wakefield. The Red Sox confirmed an illness at the time but did not elaborate, saying Wakefield had requested privacy.

“It’s one thing to be an outstanding athlete; it’s another to be an extraordinary human being. Tim was both,” Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner said in the team’s statement. “I know the world was made better because he was in it.”

The news brought condolences from baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and Players Association President Tony Clark — a former teammate — from Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey and her predecessor, current NCAA President Charlie Baker, and from teams and players around the majors. Mariners pitcher George Kirby even broke out a knuckleball Seattle’s game against Texas.

The Red Sox released a tribute video on X, formerly known as Twitter. Ex-catcher Jason Varitek fought back tears as he told reporters: “I don’t know if I have to tell you anything. I think I’m showing it.” Boston manager Alex Cora had all his players in the dugout wearing their jerseys without jackets or overshirts in the season finale against Baltimore, so they could represent the uniform proudly.

“We lost a brother, a teammate, a family member,” Cora said. “One of the best teammates I ever had. … Of all the guys I played with, nobody wore his jersey with more pride than Tim Wakefield.”

Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a first baseman who set home run records in college, Wakefield converted to pitcher after mastering the knuckleball in the minor leagues. Relying on the old-timey pitch that had largely fallen into disuse, he went on to win 200 major league games, including 186 with the Red Sox — behind only Cy Young and Roger Clemens in franchise history.

Wakefield won the Roberto Clemente Award for sportsmanship and community involvement in 2010 and was the Red Sox nominee seven other times. He was the team’s first Jimmy Fund captain, visiting with patients and raising funds for the childhood cancer charity, and the honorary chairman of the Red Sox Foundation.

“He was a great man who will be dearly missed,” the Pirates said.

But it was Wakefield’s role in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry of the early 2000s that turned him into a fan favorite whose impact went far beyond his numbers.

After New York rallied to tie Game 7 of the ’03 AL Championship Series, Wakefield came on in relief in the 11th inning and Aaron Boone hit his first pitch for a walkoff home run to end Boston’s season and extend a World Series drought that stretched back to 1918.

The following October, with the Red Sox season again at risk against the Yankees in the ALCS, Wakefield sacrificed his Game 4 start to pitch in relief in a Game 3 blowout, saving the bullpen for the rest of the series. Boston lost 19-8 to fall behind three games to none but rallied with four straight wins, with Wakefield getting nine outs in extra innings of Game 5 to set up David Ortiz to win it in the 14th.

The Red Sox swept St. Louis in the World Series to claim their first championship in 86 years, then won it all again in 2007.

“I can’t describe what you mean to me and my family,” Ortiz posted on social media. “My heart is broken right now because l will never be able to replace a brother and a friend like you….Rest and peace my brother.”

Guardians manager Terry Francona, who led Boston’s two championship teams, was in Detroit preparing for his retirement send-off when he heard about Wakefield. “It’s just like I got kicked in the stomach,” Francona said.

Boone, who is now the Yankees manager, also said he was broken-hearted.

“Ah, man. Just my heart goes out to their family,” he said. “My thoughts to all the Red Sox organization but also around baseball, where Tim was beloved. Obviously, a sad day.”

Wakefield was 11-3 when he made his only All-Star Game in 2009, becoming the second-oldest player — to Satchel Paige — ever selected to his first All-Star Game. Wakefield was the oldest player in baseball at 45 when he earned his 200th win in September of 2011, retiring his final six batters.

He announced his retirement the following spring training, seven wins short of breaking the franchise record for wins held by Clemens and Young.

“I’m still a competitor, but ultimately I think this is what’s best for the Red Sox,” he said at the time. “I think this is what’s best for my family. And to be honest with you, seven wins isn’t going to make me a different person or a better man.”

An eighth-round Pittsburgh draft pick in 1988, Wakefield converted to a pitcher two years later in an effort to revive his chances of making the majors. He got his callup midway through the 1992 season and went 8-1, finishing third in the NL rookie of the year voting.

He added two complete games in the NL playoffs — one in Game 6 to keep Pittsburgh alive. He was voted the MVP of the Series late in Game 7, before the Atlanta Braves rallied to win on Francisco Cabrera’s single with two out in the bottom of the ninth.

But Wakefield was unable to recapture his success in his second year in Pittsburgh, going 6-11 with a 5.61 ERA. He was released by the Pirates after another trip through the minors, and signed six days later by the Red Sox.

Wakefield again strung together a dominant run, starting 14-1 in 1995 before finishing the year at 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA. After 17 seasons with Boston, he retired as the franchise leader with 3,006 innings and 430 starts, and second in games and strikeouts.

In all, he was 200-180 with a 4.41 ERA.

“Tim was more than just a versatile and reliable All-Star pitcher, a highly respected teammate, and a two-time World Series champion,” Manfred said in a statement, citing “the dedicated work he and his family did serving the communities of New England.”

Melany Duval, the Chief Philanthropy Officer at The Jimmy Fund, said Wakefield was a frequent visitor on the adult and pediatric cancer floors and met with the teen patients on their annual spring training trip.

“Tim Wakefield was a respected competitor, a generous soul and a beloved member of the baseball community for more than three decades as a player and a broadcaster,” said Clark, a Red Sox teammate in 2002. “We at the MLBPA, along with the baseball family, mourn his loss.”

After retiring, Wakefield became an analyst for Red Sox broadcasts and was the honorary chairman of the Red Sox Foundation.

“Tim’s kindness and indomitable spirit were as legendary as his knuckleball,” Red Sox owner John Henry said. “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.”