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Brevard County loses one of its favorite sons as Tim Wakefield dies of brain cancer at 57

Tim Wakefield's life, short by many standards, epitomized the ultimate journey of a respected athlete.

Classy, always helping his teammates, his community and the less fortunate, his legacy was much more than the 200 major league games he won with a floating, mystifying 60-mph knuckleball, a pitch he first began throwing on the sidelines when he was a slugging first baseman at Florida Tech.

Wakefield, a resident of Indian Harbour Beach, passed away after a brief battle with brain cancer Sunday, on one of the gloomiest days, news-wise and weather-wise, in recent Space Coast history. He was 57.

Charity work was his biggest accomplishment outside of baseball's chalk lines.

He was an inspiration to the kids at the Space Coast Early Intervention Center (now called Space Coast Discovery)in Melbourne, where he helped raise more than $5 million from his own donations and from 25 years as host of a celebrity golf tournament at Suntree Country Club, where celebrities from all walks of life played and donated items to be auctioned.

As a high school student, Wakefield took advantage of the opportunity to volunteer at the Early Intervention Center. He was so amazed at the services they provided to their students that he made a commitment to the founder, Betsy Farmer, that he would help.

"You have no idea what he meant," said an emotional Farmer, trying to fight back tears. "There would not be a Space Coast Early Intervention Center without him. I've known Tim for many years, and he promised that once he made it to the big leagues, he would help. And he kept that promise.

"The first year he made it with the Pirates, he already was planning the Tim Wakefield Celebrity Golf Tournament."

Wakefield once attended the Sebastian Inlet Pro surf contest, where the likes of surfing legends Kelly Slater and Tom Curren were competing, and cuddled babies while benefiting the Early Intervention cause.

Farmer said, from what she has learned, Wakefield was only diagnosed two weeks ago. That came after hearing the news that his wife, Stacy, was diagnosed with a form of pancreatic cancer.

"The most important thing is, Tim led me to the Lord and I'll never forget that. That's the bond we have had for many years," said Farmer, who sent him a text Saturday to say she was praying for him. Wakefield responded with a "heart" emoji.

In New England, Wakefield also created a similar celebrity golf event for the Red Sox Foundation and would treat young hospital patients, known as "Wakefield's Warriors," to Fenway Park for games.

In 2010, Wakefield was named the major league's Roberto Clemente Award winner for the dedicated work he and his family did serving the communities of New England.

Florida Tech named the Tim Wakefield Batting Facility in his honor and also awarded him the university's highest accolade, the Jerome P. Keuper Distinguished Alumni Award.

“To be honored as an alumnus at FIT — it’s a big thank you, because I don’t think I would have wound up where I am without (this university),” Wakefield said in accepting the honor.

At Eau Gallie High, he was a special talent for Coach Kenny Campbell, once guiding the Commodores to a State Final Four berth at spacious Cocoa Stadium, where he collected three hits, including a homer, in a semifinal loss.

At Florida Tech, he established a season home run record with 22 in 1987, earned multiple MVP awards and in 1988 became the first Panthers player to be drafted — by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the eighth round.

In Wakefield’s book, “Knuckler: My Life with Baseball’s Most Confounding Pitch,” he explained that his coach at Florida Tech, Les Hall, was short of pitchers one day for a non-conference game.

FIT president Dwayne McCay presents an honorary degree to alumnus and  World Series winning pitcher Tim Wakefield at the university's 2019 winter graduation on Saturday, Dec. 14. Wakefield was also the keynote speaker at the ceremony.
FIT president Dwayne McCay presents an honorary degree to alumnus and World Series winning pitcher Tim Wakefield at the university's 2019 winter graduation on Saturday, Dec. 14. Wakefield was also the keynote speaker at the ceremony.

Wakefield volunteered and began to warm up. One pitch fluttered in and the catcher couldn’t handle it.

Hall looked at Wakefield and said, “I don’t think we should use that pitch, it’s not very good.”

Wakefield always joked about that and thought so highly of his coach (the field at Florida Tech is named Les Hall Field) that he stepped away from the broadcast booth for an inning just to speak to a FLORIDA TODAY reporter about how much Hall meant to him when he passed away.

“I have a lot of great memories of Les,” he said, “but the most important thing is he taught me some valuable lessons I took with me to the major leagues, like respect the game, respect my teammates and honor yourself.”

“The world has lost a true champion both on the field and off, and we send our deepest condolences to Tim’s family and friends and the many, many others he touched,” said Travis Proctor, chairman of the Florida Tech Board of Trustees who was named to the board in 2012, two years before Mr. Wakefield joined. “Tim leaves a remarkable legacy, and Florida Tech is a far better place for his nearly 10 years of service as a trustee.”

Wakefield's professional start got off to a slow start as he hit just .189 in 54 minor league games.

He then began working with knuckleball artists Phil and Joe Niekro to quickly resurrect his career as a pitcher.

In 1995, he signed with the Boston Red Sox, where he completed a remarkable 19-year career with 200 pitching wins and took part in two World Series triumphs, including the first Sox title in 86 years.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield throws in the second inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Monday, Aug. 20, 2007, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) ORG XMIT: FLMC103
Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield throws in the second inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Monday, Aug. 20, 2007, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) ORG XMIT: FLMC103

Wakefield posted career numbers of 200-180 with a 4.41 ERA and 2,156 strikeouts.

Just a couple of years ago, Wakefield was sinking a hole-in-one at the Lions Club golf event in Brevard, and earlier this summer, he was in the NESN-TV booth as an analyst for Red Sox games.

"Our hearts are broken with the loss of Tim Wakefield," the Red Sox said Sunday in a statement.

"Wake embodied true goodness; a devoted husband, father and teammate, beloved broadcaster, and the ultimate community leader. He gave so much to the game and all of Red Sox Nation.

"Our deepest love and thoughts are with Stacy, Trevor, Brianna, and the Wakefield family."

Farmer, who spent 15 years with the Space Coast Early Intervention Center, just cannot believe what has transpired.

"My heart just aches (for the family)," she said. "He gave so much for this community, and that's why he'll always have a special place in my heart.

"He knew God blessed him with this talent, and he was all about giving back."

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard County icon Tim Wakefield dies of brain cancer at 57