Tribute to the Consummate Winner
Tim Wakefield: 1966-2023
Game seven of the 2003 ALCS between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Of course, the Red Sox were used to eight decades of the Yankees1 kicking their hopes of a World Series victory in the nuts, time and time again. However, this year was supposed to be different. The Sox were supposed to go all the way and reverse the Curse of the Bambino.
Of course, Aaron bleeping Boone hit a clutch home run in the bottom of the 11th to clinch the series victory for the Yanks and send them to the World Series. It was small comfort that the Yankees lost to the Marlins. And who served up the game-winning pitch for Aaron bleeping Boone but one Mr. Tim Wakefield.
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Ah, Tim Wakefield, aka Wake. Yet another name in Boston Red Sox lore that will go down with other legendary losers like the unfairly maligned Bill Buckner. However, and I never realized this until I heard one of the local sports talk radio hosts mention it yesterday, you never heard anybody, fan or commentator, put Wakefield in that class of hapless Boston Red Sox chumps. No, Wakefield was so university loved by everybody involved in the Red Sox organization, the world of baseball, and in his personal life, that to think anything bad of a man just felt wrong, like kicking, puppies, or eating spiders. It’s sad that it takes the man’s death, who succumbed to a short battle with brain cancer on October 1 at the age of 57, to bring up stories like this.
Yes, another celebrity death, albeit a minor celebrity. However, if you have lived in New England for any appreciable amount of time, there is nothing minor about the Red Sox. In fact, minor players loom large in sports legend. I’m sure it’s like that in any region, but I can only speak to my own. The thing is, Wakefield was such a beloved individual that you couldn’t help but pull for him to do well. He was one of those rare sports stars that you actually felt good rooting for. I was rooting for him to recover from brain cancer when I heard the news break of his illness last week.2 Unfortunately, this was one battle Wakefield couldn’t pitch his way out of.
Wakefield exemplified the best of sports, and why we care about grown men playing boys’ games in the first place. The Sox came back in 2004 to not only beat the Yankees in the ALCS, but rattled off four straight wins after falling in an insurmountable 3-0 hole.
The Red Sox got absolutely shellacked at home in game three. It was just awful. And there was Wakefield, who volunteered to pitch the last several innings, getting his ass handed to him by the Yankees, murderous lineup, so that the bullpen would be refreshed for the next several games. Yes, even in the throes of a season-ending death spiral, Wakefield was confident that the Sox still had a chance.3
And son of a gun, they did. Wakefield actually got to pitch in the first game of the World Series against St. Louis, which was a victory. He would also be an important part of a 2007 World Series team.
Not bad for a mediocre first baseman who reinvented himself into a knuckleballer.
But that was a kind of player Wakefield was. Need him to start? He’d start. Need him to pitch middle relief? He’d pitch middle release. Need him to close? He’d close. Need him to not play? He wouldn’t complain. Need him to go visit the children’s ward at Mass General and other hospitals, give to charity, and do it all without any cameras or publicity? He would do it. That was the kind of guy Tim Wakefield was. A family man, a God-fearing man, a fierce competitor, and an optimist. He wasn’t even a New Englander either, but he sure ingratiated his way into all of us sports fans hearts.
It’s terrible that he died so young, and such a heartbreaking fashion. It’s terrible that his diagnosis came shortly after his beloved wife Stacie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But that’s life. He’s gone now, and knowing Tim Wakefield, there’s no doubt in my mind that his final resting place is a good one.
On a personal note, this is the only the second celebrity death that I can honestly say I truly feel anything about. Yes, when people like David Bowie and Prince, musical idols of mine, passed, I was saddened, but it didn’t really affect me. This feels like when Rush drummer, Neil Peart died. Now, Peart’s death inspired me to write a book, and while I am not going to write a book about baseball, lacking the requisite knowledge and passion for the sport that I do for music, I still think it’s important to note that people we never met can affect us in a certain way. Wakefield is one of those guys that you truly felt deserves his millions, because he earned it the right way: through hard work, determination, and a good attitude. Sometimes sports, like music, can teach us things about life, and it is no crime to have exemplars in the entertainment industry that show us that nice guys can finish first. Or, in Wakefield’s case, twice.
Godspeed, Tim. I hope you are showing everybody up in heaven how to pitch that killer knuckleball.
And other teams, for that matter.
The news was broken controversially by Wakefield’s former teammate on those two World Series-winning Sox teams, Curt Schilling, who spilled the beans despite the Wakefield family’s wishes for privacy on his podcast in late September (Wakefield’s wife Stacie has pancreatic cancer). Schilling said he did this so everyone could pray for him, but he could have asked for prayers while respecting the Wakefield family’s privacy.
That whole team was so lovable. Dubbed “The Idiots” by outfielder Johnny Damon, they all had such self-confidence it was crazy. First baseman Kevin Millar also had that swag, telling the Yankees through the press pre-game, “Don’t let us win tonight.”