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Retired Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield dies at 57

Boston Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield works in the second inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta, June 27, 2009. Wakefield has died at age 57.
John Bazemore
Boston Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield works in the second inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta, June 27, 2009. Wakefield has died at age 57.

BOSTON — 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. 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.

Drafted by the Pirates as a first baseman who set home run records in college, Wakefield converted to a 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.

But it was his role in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry of the early 2000s that turned Wakefield 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 got nine outs in extra innings of Game 5, setting up David Ortiz to win it in the 14th. The Red Sox went on to complete their comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit and then sweep St. Louis in the World Series to claim their first championship in 86 years.

"He was a great competitor when he took that mound," former teammate Kevin Youkilis said on the broadcast of Sunday's Red Sox game. "He was just a great teammate and just a great friend. Had the luxury of playing with him on the field, in the booth, and just glad that I had the opportunity over the years to be alongside of him."

The Red Sox, and Wakefield, won it all again in 2007.

"There were some years there where I didn't know if I was going to come back or not," Wakefield said at his 2012 retirement news conference. "But I'm very grateful that I've been able to put this uniform on for such a long time, and win two World Series for this great city."

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 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. So, my family really needs me at home."

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.

Wakefield was also an eight-time nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award that goes to a ballplayer for exemplary sportsmanship and community involvement, winning it in 2010.

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

After retiring, Wakefield became an analyst for Red Sox broadcasts and remained active in the team's charities.

"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. 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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