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Tim Wakefield, former Red Sox knuckleballer who won two World Series, dies at 57

Dan Shaughnessy remembers Tim Wakefield
WATCH: Sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy joins Boston Globe Today to celebrate the life of Tim Wakefield.

Tim Wakefield, a member of two World Series championship teams and one of the longest-tenured and most accomplished players in Red Sox history, died Sunday. He was 57.

A master of the confounding knuckleball, Mr. Wakefield had a 19-year career in the major leagues, the last 17 coming with the Red Sox from 1995-2011. He remained with the team as honorary chairman of the Red Sox Foundation, building what amounted to a second career based on charitable endeavors.

According to friends, Mr. Wakefield’s death was the result of a seizure following surgery for brain cancer on Sept. 15.

“Tim’s kindness and indomitable spirit were as legendary as his knuckleball,” Red Sox principal 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. 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.”

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The news reached the Red Sox a few hours before the team’s game in Baltimore. The Orioles asked fans at Camden Yards to observe a moment of silence in Mr. Wakefield’s memory as Red Sox manager Alex Cora and the players and coaches stood on the field with their heads bowed.

At his core, Mr. Wakefield was one of them. He was a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame, his 17 seasons the most in team history for a pitcher. Only Carl Yastrzemski (23), Dwight Evans (19), and Ted Williams (19) had more.

Mr. Wakefield set team records with 430 starts and 3,006 innings. He was second in appearances (590) and strikeouts (2,590) and his 186 victories trail only Roger Clemens and Cy Young.

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Mr. Wakefield was an American League All-Star in 2009 and appeared in 18 postseason games from 1992-2008, 16 of them with the Sox.

He was the 2010 winner of baseball’s prestigious Roberto Clemente Award for his charitable work off the field. Mr. Wakefield also worked as an analyst on NESN and was a frequent visitor to Fenway Park in that capacity.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Tim Wakefield, one of the most unique pitchers of his generation and a key part of the most successful era in the history of the Boston Red Sox,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said.

“I extend my deepest condolences to Tim’s family, his friends and teammates across the game, and Red Sox fans everywhere.”

MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark, a former teammate, said, “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.”

Former teammate Kevin Youkilis, in Baltimore calling the game for NESN, was in tears when he heard the news, as were others around the team.

“First of all, he was such a fine man,” said longtime Sox radio announcer Joe Castliglione. “He was everything the Red Sox should be. He’s been such an important part of everything this franchise has done.”

Red Sox game planning coach Jason Varitek, who played with Mr. Wakefield from 1997-2011, sobbed as he spoke to reporters.

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“I’ve always said it: Wake exemplified what this uniform is. It’s not just the name on the back, it’s the name on the front. It’s what he’s done in the community, what he’s represented, the way he respected the game.”

After a season-ending 6-1 victory against the Orioles, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Mr. Wakefield was more than a teammate.

“All the guys that I played with, nobody wore his jersey with more pride than Tim Wakefield,” he said. “It’s a tough day for all of us … I’m glad that we went out there and we played a clean game. We pitched well. We represented Wake today.”

Mr. Wakefield took his determination on the mound into retirement, representing the Sox with The Jimmy Fund and other charities across New England and closer to his home in Florida. He raised $10 million for a preschool program for children in his native Florida, with an annual golf tournament and in Boston was an active supporter of Pitching in for Kids, a non-profit organization.

“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. “He was a role model on and off the field, giving endlessly to the Red Sox Foundation and being a force for good for everyone he encountered.”

The Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots released statements expressing their condolences. Via social media, Clemens, Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, and Jonathan Papelbon were among the former Sox players who posted similar thoughts.

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Timothy Stephen Wakefield was born Aug. 2, 1966, in Melbourne, Fla., the son of Steve and Judy Wakefield.

Mr. Wakefield grew up in Melbourne, where he played for Eau Gallie High School before going to nearby Florida Tech, where he was a power-hitting first baseman with 40 career home runs.

In interviews and in his memoir “Knuckler,” written with Tony Massarotti, Mr. Wakefield said his father, who worked an early shift at an electronics company, taught him to throw a knuckleball.

“Dad comes home from work, and I’m, you know, ‘Let’s go play catch,’ " Mr. Wakefield told The New Yorker magazine in 2004. “He was tired, and he wanted to go inside. So the knuckleball was his way of trying to tire me out, ‘cause I didn’t want to have to catch it — it’d go by me and I’d have to go pick it up. It was kind of a subtle way of Dad saying, ‘Time to go, let’s quit.’ "

The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Mr. Wakefield in the eighth round of Major League Baseball’s 1988 amateur draft. After two unproductive minor league seasons, Pirates coach Woody Huyke suggested Mr. Wakefield focus on pitching, having watched him throw a nascent knuckleball while playing catch with teammates.

Presented with the option of being released or becoming a pitcher, Mr. Wakefield embraced his new job and was in the major leagues by 1992, winning eight games for the Pirates and finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

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But the knuckleball proved as hard to command as it was to catch. Mr. Wakefield had a 5.61 earned run average in 1993, was sent back to the minors and then released in 1995.

The Red Sox signed him five days later, starting a relationship that lasted until the end of his life.

Mr. Wakefield made his Red Sox debut on May 27, 1995, allowing one run over seven innings against the California Angels. His last game was Sept. 25, 2011 against the Yankees.

In 2002, he married Stacy Stover, who survives him, as does the couple’s two children, Trevor and Brianna.

A complete list of survivors and plans for a memorial service were not immediately available.

Mr. Wakefield wore No. 49 in honor of fellow knuckleballers Tom Candiotti, Charlie Hough, and Hoyt Wilhelm. As they did for him, Mr. Wakefield was a resource and occasional coach for several knuckleballers who followed in his footsteps.

“It’s a rare occurrence for a two-time World Series champion’s extraordinary personality to shine even brighter than their illustrious career,” Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy said. “Tim was undeniably an exceptional pitcher, but what truly set him apart was the ease with which he connected with people.

“He was an extraordinary pitcher, an incredible broadcaster, and someone who exemplified every humanitarian quality in the dictionary. I will miss my friend more than anything and can only aspire to live as genuinely and honorably as he did.”

Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed.


Read more about Tim Wakefield


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him @PeteAbe.