The tide of emotion has yet to subside, powered by the kind of sadness and shock that recedes neither quickly nor easily. For Tim Wakefield to go from diagnosis to death in something like 10 days just doesn’t seem real. But it is, and the broken hearts left in Wake’s wake stand as testament to the mark he left on the world.
When brain cancer claimed the life of the Red Sox icon Sunday morning, the insidious scourge of the medical world proved once again it has no boundaries, as liable to affect a legendary baseball pitcher as it would any one of us. Yet this can’t help but feel particularly unfair, targeting a man whose giant heart had done so much to raise money to fight the same disease that took his life.
As honorary chairman of the Red Sox Foundation, as a fierce warrior for the Jimmy Fund, Wakefield made himself available not only in spirit — lending his name and fame to fund-raising efforts — but in body too, his regular visits with cancer patients not nearly as publicized but just as important. He was a real one, which is why the suddenness of his demise fuels not just shock and sadness, but anger too.
“It’s unfair when life is cut short and bad things happen to good people,” said Dan Duquette, the former Red Sox general manager who had the brilliant foresight to sign a little-known knuckleballer to a free agent contract in 1995. “It’s hard to reconcile. But Tim Wakefield, he was an inspiration to a lot of people and he did some great work for the team.”
And that’s the thing. Wakefield always seemed to know it was never about him.
Of all the testimonies shared in the days since he died, there is a common thread in the way Wakefield understood the value of service above self. As seen in his life, as recalled in his death, he regularly prioritized those around him. On the field, that might have meant stepping up to pitch to allow others to rest. Yes, he knew his knuckleballing arm could take the extra work, but he also had no problem sacrificing a bit of himself to help others shine.
But he, too, shined, even if he didn’t seek the spotlight.
Duquette recalled meeting with Wakefield in the spring of that ‘95 season, when the GM was on his usual hunt for pitching, a search made even more wide-ranging after the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series and delayed the start to spring training.
Wakefield’s story was different enough to be intriguing, a former infielder who stared down an early end to his career with the Pirates by retraining himself as a knuckleballer.
Wakefield’s attitude made the decision even easier, so willing as he was to learn, so eager as he was to keep playing. When Duquette and his assistant Eddie Haas reached out to legendary knuckleballer Phil Niekro (who happened to be using some back fields at the Sox’ Florida facility to coach the Silver Bullets women’s baseball team), the road to Wakefield’s Red Sox life was paved.
“Phil told him a couple of things in the very first workout, things that would be required for him to get back on track, before Tim even threw a pitch,” Duquette recalled. “He said, ‘You’re going to have to control your knuckleball, you’re going to need to change speed with your knuckleball, and you’re going to need to field your position. With a knuckleball, you’re going to get a lot of balls hit back to you.’
“And then he said, ‘If you can do that, you can pitch till you’re 45 years old.’ ”
Wakefield did just that, retiring in 2012 after 19 major league seasons, the last 17 with the Red Sox. He walked away as the game’s oldest active pitcher, with an armload of honors and awards, including two World Series titles.
His legacy with the franchise was secured by a team-record 430 starts and third all-time 186 victories (behind only Cy Young and Roger Clemens). It only grew in the years since, through his work as a NESN analyst to his role as a philanthropist. It’s almost unfathomable to accept he is gone.
“We were aware of the family’s health challenges,” said Duquette, whose family had an ongoing friendship with Wakefield’s. “I called Tim last week and he ended up texting me back. He did so many things for the club for so long, we were heartbroken. My family was heartbroken.
“But we were grateful for his first service to the team and the community. He lived a life of service. One of those rare guys, uniquely talented but he thought of the team first and himself second. That’s a rare combination.
“He was so considerate of the team and he understood his stature in the community. He took seriously his ability to represent himself and the team.”
Wakefield’s legacy lives on. His 57 years were not in vain. There’s a social media movement to rename Jersey Street as Wakefield Way. (Here’s hoping the Red Sox are listening.) The Worcester Red Sox announced that the inaugural Brain Cancer Awareness Day they held during the 2023 season will pay tribute to Wakefield going forward, because as the team’s principal owner Larry Lucchino put it, “Tim, we will fight for you.”
Lucchino is also the Jimmy Fund chairman, and he spoke for so many in his comments after Wakefield’s death:
“My sentiments are of sadness, for this great and good man was taken far too soon. But they are also of anger, as they are whenever an innocent person is struck by a form of cancer. We have come so very far in the treatment of cancers, and this crushing news brings into stark relief — yet again — that we have miles to go.”
Wakefield walked those miles. May he rest well.