Former Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield dies at 57

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 former teammate Curt Schilling, who disclosed the illness on a podcast last week without Wakefield's consent. The Red Sox confirmed an illness at the time but did not elaborate, saying Wakefield had requested privacy.

"It's one thing to be an outstanding athlete; it's another to be an extraordinary human being. Tim was both," Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said in the team's statement. "I know the world was made better because he was in it."

Said Red Sox manager and ex-teammate Alex Cora on Sunday: "We lost a brother, a teammate, a family member. One of the best teammates I ever had. ... Of all the guys I played with, nobody wore his jersey with more pride than Tim Wakefield."

Drafted by the Pittsburgh 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 after learning the pitch from his father as a kid.

Wakefield told ESPN in 2011 that he learned the pitch as a boy from his father, Steve, when the two of them would play catch in the backyard at home in Melbourne, Florida.

"It was something to basically tire me out," Wakefield said then.

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.

Wakefield won the Roberto Clemente Award for sportsmanship and community involvement in 2010 and was the Red Sox nominee seven other times. He was the team's first Jimmy Fund captain, visiting with patients and raising funds for the childhood cancer charity, and the honorary chairman of the Red Sox Foundation.

"He was a great man who will be dearly missed," the Pirates said.

But it was Wakefield's role in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry of the early 2000s that turned him into a fan favorite whose impact went far beyond his numbers.

After New York rallied to tie Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, Wakefield came on in relief in the 11th inning and Aaron Boone hit his first pitch for a walk-off home run to end Boston's season and extend a World Series drought that stretched back to 1918.

Said Wakefield at the time: "I just became Bill Buckner."

The following October, with Boston's 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 3-0 series deficit and then sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series to claim their first championship in 86 years.

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

"I can't describe what you mean to me and my family," Ortiz posted on social media. "My heart is broken right now because l will never be able to replace a brother and a friend like you....Rest and peace my brother."

Guardians manager Terry Francona, who led Boston's two championship teams, was in Detroit preparing for his retirement send-off when he heard about Wakefield. "It's just like I got kicked in the stomach," Francona said.

Boone, who is now the Yankees manager, also said he was broken-hearted.

"Ah, man. Just my heart goes out to their family," he said. "My thoughts to all the Red Sox organization but also around baseball, where Tim was beloved. Obviously, a sad day."

Wakefield was 11-3 when he made his only All-Star Game in 2009, becoming the second-oldest player (Satchel Paige was the oldest) ever selected to his first Midsummer Classic. Wakefield was the oldest player in baseball at 45 when he earned his 200th win in September 2011, retiring the final six batters he faced.

He announced his retirement the following spring training, seven wins short of breaking the franchise record held by Clemens and Young.

"I'm still a competitor, but ultimately I think this is what's best for the Red Sox," Wakefield 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 draft pick in 1988, Wakefield converted from a first baseman to a pitcher two years later in an effort to revive his chances of making the majors. He got his call-up midway through the 1992 season and went 8-1, finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

"I was disappointed (the Pirates) were giving up on me that quick (as a hitter)," Wakefield said in his memoir, "Knuckler: My Life with Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch." "But then, they basically told me, 'You're going to pitch or you're going to go home.' So I said, 'OK, I'll pitch.'"

He added two complete games in the NLCS -- 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 outs in the bottom of the ninth.

"[Wakefield] made his big league debut in 1992 and was a key addition to the pitching staff that helped propel the team to its third consecutive Postseason appearance," the Pirates said in a statement. "Off the field, Tim always devoted his time to make an impact on others within the Pittsburgh community. He was a great man who will be dearly missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this difficult time."

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 was 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, 2,156 strikeouts -- and 1,205 walks -- in 3,226 2/3 innings pitched over 627 appearances (463 starts).

Only three others played longer for the Red Sox -- Carl Yastrzemski (23), Ted Williams (19) and Dwight Evans (19). His 186 wins as a pitcher for the Red Sox ranks second in franchise history only to Roger Clemens (192).

And while his 3,006 innings pitched and 430 starts is tops among Red Sox pitchers, his nature as a knuckleballer explains why Wakefield is also No. 1 in team history home runs allowed, hits allowed, walks, wild pitches, batters hit by pitch, earned runs, losses and hits allowed.

"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."

Wakefield was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2016.

"I'm very grateful I've been able to wear this uniform for as long as I have, and reach a milestone that I thought I'd never reach, just ... very grateful," Wakefield said after his 200th victory in 2011.

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. Melany Duval, the Chief Philanthropy Officer at The Jimmy Fund, said Wakefield was a frequent visitor on the adult and pediatric cancer floors and met with the teen patients on their annual spring training trip.

"Tim Wakefield was a respected competitor, a generous soul and a beloved member of the baseball community for more than three decades as a player and a broadcaster," said MLB Players Association President Tony Clark, a Red Sox teammate in 2002. "We at the MLBPA, along with the baseball family, mourn his loss."

Wakefield is survived by his wife, Stacy -- who is also battling cancer -- and their children, Trevor and Brianna.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.