Baseball is a sport of romance. Fictionalizations aside, for its fans, the game continually inspires awe and surprise and wonder, and even in an era when its position as the American national pastime has been challenged, it remains oftentimes fantastical, perhaps allegorical, for those who still follow it. One feels compelled to characterize Tim Wakefield, the late Red Sox pitcher who died of brain cancer two weeks ago, at 57, as a foremost magician in the magical game.
Before Wakefield’s time, baseball lore told of mythical gods named Ted Williams, who could see the spin of the ball as it flew to the plate, and Babe Ruth, who pointed to center field at Wrigley just before he launched a 440-plus-foot home run directly over it. It spoke of the 12th inning of the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, when Carlton “Pudge” Fisk waved his home run to the right of Fenway Park’s left-field foul pole. Science says Fisk’s frantic flailing had no effect on the ball’s path of flight. But baseball lives solidly in the realm of absurdity. It would be foolish to think Pudge’s gesticulations had no effect, just as it would be fruitless to question the veracity of Williams’s acute vision.
And so there was Wakefield, who, like Williams, Ruth, and Fisk, played for the Boston Red Sox, and who also worked miracles. Indeed, Wakefield had a special pitch that few others could throw. It was called the knuckleball, and unlike a curveball, which curves, or a slider, which slides, the pitch would float sullenly and randomly plateward. It moved based on factors like wind speed and temperature, waltzing slovenly forward not at the whim of the pitcher but with the momentum of the world.
He honed the pitch after having been dissuaded from pursuing a baseball career as a first baseman, the position he had originally been drafted to play. Wakefield spent his entire young life and career in Florida—he was born in Melbourne, the same town outside Orlando where he went to high school, prior to attending the Florida Institute of Technology—before the Pittsburgh Pirates took notice of the then 21-year-old, drafting him to their minor-league squad.
A coach on the Pirates’ Single-A team advised Wakefield, in 1989, to sharpen his knuckleball or find new employment. He did the former, and pitched for 19 seasons in the M.L.B., earning two World Series rings. When he officially retired in 2012, at age 45, he ranked second in the Red Sox’s 122-year history in career strikeouts, with 2,156, and third in career wins, reaching 200 just before leaving the game. In 2016, he was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
Tim Wakefield had a special pitch that few others could throw.
Off the diamond, Tim Wakefield was known for his commitment to volunteer work. He focused his efforts on foundations that assisted sick children, and was ultimately nominated eight separate times for the Roberto Clemente Award, which honors the M.L.B. player most devoted to community service and charity. He won in 2010, thanks in part to his extensive dedication to the Boston-based Jimmy Fund, a group that benefits the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “I sometimes try to figure out why somebody like Tim Wakefield is like Tim Wakefield is,” Mike Andrews, the fund’s former chairman, reflected at the time. “He’s very unique.”
Tim Wakefield was special, even “unique,” because he represented what the public believed, and hoped, baseball could foster. Wakefield wasn’t a physical anomaly. He was an Everyman. The things he did—the unspectacular windup, the 60-mile-per-hour pitch shown to him by his father, the generosity he displayed outside of sport—all felt familiar. They seemed relatable to, if not possible for, the median spectator. Fans held a kinship with him in a way they didn’t, or couldn’t, with other players. His air in life and his undertakings on the field revealed in him a benevolence rarely found in other athletes. Drawing from the magic that carried Fisk’s impossible fair ball, Tim Wakefield, despite his eminence, appeared human.
This is quite the trick, seeing as he won the biggest games, and reached the greatest heights, on the largest stages that his chosen arena had to offer. It was a subtle illusion that endeared him to the city of Boston, to seemingly any player who knew him, and to fans of every ilk.
Wakefield, who is survived by his wife of 21 years, Stacy Stover, a Boston native, and two children, Trevor and Brianna, arrived at the game unsteady and found his footing in a bizarre and unlikely fashion. Once stable in his own, unconventional, irreplicable way, he dug in and plugged away, tirelessly, for almost two decades. He built an extraordinary career with an extraordinary pitch, in an oddly ordinary way. He then greeted his catcher, tipped his cap to Boston’s Fenway Park, and went home.
Tim Wakefield, baseball pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, was born in 1966 in Melbourne, Florida. He died on October 1, aged 57
Jack Sullivan is an Associate Editor at AIR MAIL