Friday, October 6, 2023

Insight: Making a difference in life

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

The world has recently lost two sports figures who for me define the epitome of class. One I knew personally and the other I’ve admired since I was young, and the deaths of both these men left me profoundly saddened.

Baseball fans everywhere are mourning the recent deaths
of two great ballplayers and charitable men, Tim Wakefield
and Brooks Robinson. COURTESY PHOTO 
Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, 57, died of brain cancer on Oct. 1, while Hall of Fame Third Baseman Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles passed away from heart failure on Sept. 26 at age 86. Each of these individuals leave behind a legacy of love for their families and the respect of countless fans who followed their lives and careers.

I first came to know Tim Wakefield as a sportswriter for Florida Today, a newspaper in Melbourne, Florida. Wakefield grew up in Melbourne and played high school baseball and attended Brevard Community College before transferring to Florida Tech University in Melbourne to play first base. He was drafted in the eighth round by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who converted him to a pitcher.

Wakefield debuted in 1992 for the Pittsburgh Pirates and he also pitched for the team in 1993 before spending the entire 1994 season in the minors and then was released. He wasn’t ready to call it a career though, and learned to throw a unique pitch called a knuckleball. In April 1995, he signed with the Red Sox and pitched another 17 years for Boston, winning two World Series titles, and earning Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award in 2010 as a player who exemplifies the game of baseball through sportsmanship, community involvement and contributions to his team.

In 2008, I covered the Tim Wakefield Celebrity Golf Classic for the newspaper and was tasked with writing about the annual event he launched to raise money for the Space Coast Early Intervention Center, now known as Space Coast Discovery Academy for Promising Futures. The school offers Preschool, Kindergarten, and First Grade classes for children with or without disabilities in Brevard County, Florida.

I walked up to Wakefield before the tournament started and introduced myself and he graciously answered all my questions. He then introduced me to some of the celebrity friends playing golf that day, including then Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who would one day serve as Boston’s manager, and Hall of Fame outfielder Jim Rice of the Red Sox. Wakefield also introduced me to actor Jeffrey Donovan of the television show “Burn Notice” and designer Candice Olson of the HGTV show “Divine Design.”

Several years later, Wakefield called me at the paper with a story idea for me about Lee Stange, a former Red Sox pitcher who was serving as pitching coach at Florida Tech. Later that week, he met me at the field in Melbourne and introduced me to Stange to set the article into motion.

In 2012, Wakefield was one of the inaugural inductees into the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame and at the induction dinner in Cocoa Beach, I had to interview him once more. He was kind and generous with his time and even bought me a drink before the event started.

When I heard the news that he had passed away last weekend, I was floored, and it’s taken me a few days to come to terms with his death. I’m shocked and deeply saddened for his family and those he cared about. Through the years, Wakefield raised more than $8 million for the Space Coast Early Intervention Center, and he made a difference in the lives of many disabled children.

Over the years working for different newspapers in my career, some colleagues would notice that I kept a 1965 Topps baseball card of Brooks Robinson on my desk. I grew up as an Orioles fan and remain so to this day. One of my favorite players was Brooks Robinson and I sat transfixed as a high school senior in the fall of 1970 watching the televised games when he nearly single-handedly helped Baltimore to win the World Series through his defensive prowess and driving in runs in the first four games of the series.

In 1979 while serving in the U.S. Air Force, I was assigned to The Pentagon in Washington D.C., and considered myself lucky to tune to hear Brooks Robinson as the color analyst for Orioles games on WMAR-TV. Robinson was renowned for endearing himself to baseball fans throughout his lifetime by always being available for them, signing autographs and asking about their lives and their families.

His care for others extended to going out of his way to welcome new teammates and helping found the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, an organization that helps retired professional players secure benefits, promotes baseball, raises money for charity, and helps retired players interact with each other. Robinson served as that group’s president for 33 years before stepping down because of his declining health.

Author Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Both Tim Wakefield and Brooks Robinson did that and today we mourn their passings.

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