Tim Wakefield, a right-handed knuckleball pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who in 2004 played a critical late-innings relief role in the team’s winning its first World Series championship in 86 years, died on Sunday. He was 57.
The Red Sox announced his death in a statement, saying the cause was brain cancer. Tom Werner, the team chairman, later said in a text message that Wakefield died at his home in Massachusetts, though he did not say in what town or city.
In 2010, near the end of his career, Wakefield won Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award, which recognizes a player’s community and charitable work.
“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,” John W. Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, said in a statement.
Wakefield was part of a small tribe of pitchers — Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and R.A. Dickey, among them — who had long careers specializing in the knuckleball, which, when thrown properly, takes a slow, darting, fluttery path to home plate.
“You’re better off trying to hit Wakefield when you’re in a drunken stupor,” Jason Giambi, the longtime first baseman for the Oakland A’s and the Yankees, told The New Yorker in 2004.
Wakefield was deeply ingrained in the fierce Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. During the 2003 American League Championship Series, he surrendered the game-ending home run in Game 7 to Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone in the 11th inning.
But a year later, when the two teams met again in the A.L.C.S., Wakefield pitched three innings of scoreless relief in extra innings in Game 5, putting Boston in position for David Ortiz to single in the winning run in the bottom of the 14th.
“Last year was last year,” Wakefield told Jackie MacMullan, a columnist for The Boston Globe, adding, “I was just trying to keep us in the game for as long as possible.”
The Red Sox went on to win the American League pennant — stunning New York by peeling off four games in a row after losing the first three — then swept the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series, the team’s first since 1918.
Wakefield pitched 17 seasons with the Red Sox after two with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had a career record of 200-180 and an earned run average of 4.41. He ranks second in career Red Sox victories, with 186, second to the 192 of Roger Clemens and Cy Young.
Timothy Stephen Wakefield was born on Aug. 2, 1966, in Melbourne, Fla.
He took a circuitous path to becoming a knuckleballer. He was drafted by the Pirates as a first baseman in 1988 but didn’t show much hitting prowess. While playing for the Pirates’ Class A minor league team, a coach, Woody Huyke, watched Wakefield throw knucklers and was impressed.
Two days later, as Huyke told The New Yorker, “we had an organizational meeting because, you know, he was on the bubble as an infielder. I said, ‘Before you let him go, I’d like to see him on the mound, ’cause he’s got a good knuckleball.’ So they kept him around. They told him, ‘Either you pitch or go home.’”
He was called up by the Pirates in 1992, won eight of his nine decisions, with a 2.15 E.R.A., and pitched two complete victories in the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves (who won the series in seven games). But he began struggling with the knuckleball, leading to a subpar 1993 season with Pittsburgh and to poor results in the minors in 1994. The Pirates released him, and the Red Sox signed him in early 1995.
In June of that season, Wakefield took a no-hitter against the Oakland A’s into the eighth inning, but a single by Stan Javier with one out ruined the gem. He nonetheless won, 4-1, using his knuckler for all but four of his 114 pitches.
“Soon Tim Wakefield’s legions will organize,” Dan Shaughnessy, a Globe columnist, rhapsodized. “They will sit together in the center field bleachers and crack their knuckles between pitches. They will be the Loyal Order of Knuckleheads.”
Wakefield had a 16-8 record with a 2.95 E.R.A. that season, perhaps his best. He was with the Red Sox to stay.
Following his retirement after the 2011 season, Wakefield and Dickey were featured in a documentary, “Knuckleball!” (2012). Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, the film also focused on Niekro and Hough.
After the film’s release, Wakefield told The Newport Daily News in Rhode Island that a young knuckleballer’s chances of being drafted by a major league team were almost nil given the MLB’s emphasis on a pitcher’s speed.
“They may sign him as a free agent,” he said. “There’s always that doubt, because of the nature of the pitch, and I felt like I had to prove myself year after year.”
He joined the New England Sports Network as an analyst for Red Sox games in 2012 and was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame four years later.
Last week, the former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a former teammate of Wakefield’s, revealed on his podcast that Wakefield and his wife, Stacy, had cancer. The Red Sox issued a statement saying, “Unfortunately, this information has been shared publicly, without their permission,” adding, “Their health is a deeply personal matter they needed to keep private as they navigate treatment and work to tackle this disease.”
In addition to his wife, Wakefield’s survivors include his children, Trevor and Brianna.
Wakefield said he learned to throw the knuckleball from his father.
“Dad comes home from work, and I’m, you know, ‘Lets go play catch,’” he told The New Yorker. “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.’”