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Michael O’BrienOctober 13, 2023
Tim Wakefield in 2006 (Waldo Jaquith/Wikimedia Commons)

As a teenage Yankee fan beginning to learn about the team’s illustrious history, I loved watching the Youtube video of the monumental home run Aaron Boone smacked against the Boston Red Sox in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series to send the Yankees to the World Series. I can remember thinking to myself: “Why would that pitcher throw a lollipop like that in such a huge spot?”

This was before I came to learn who was on the mound for the Sox at that moment—Tim Wakefield and his signature knuckleball.

Wakefield was one of the last true knuckleballers in Major League Baseball, an art of pitching that has become all but lost in today’s game. He became a Red Sox legend by the end of his career, racking up the third most wins by a pitcher in franchise history, with two World Series rings to boot. Off the field, Wakefield was recognized for his admirable charity work, earning the Roberto Clemente Award in 2010, which is given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team.”

Watching that 2003 home run sequence, you can see Wakefield stoically walk back to the dugout from the pitcher’s mound, knowing that a mistake on one pitch he threw was enough to end the Sox’s postseason run. 

Seeing that video for the first time, I had an unfamiliar (perhaps unspeakable) thought creep into my young, pinstriped brain—“I might actually feel bad for this guy.” Sports can be a cruel affair, especially for us fans who have never and will never play in a high-stakes game like that one. Seeing Wakefield lose the game that way helped me to cultivate empathy for the people who provide us with so much joy and entertainment on the diamond. Even if they play for the Red Sox.

I was therefore heartbroken to see the news that Wakefield died at 57 years old on Oct. 1 after a battle with brain cancer. And I was dismayed that one individual decided to make Wakefield’s tragic passing about himself—that individual being Curt Schilling. 

As anyone who has struggled with the prolonged death of a loved one knows, a diagnosis as grave as Wakefield’s is entirely up to him and his family to share with the public. 

Days before Wakefield passed, Schilling went on his podcast and said, “This is not a message that Tim has shared and I don’t even know if he wants it shared. But as a Christian and a man of faith, I have seen prayer work and so I’m going to talk about it. Recently, Tim was diagnosed with a very serious, very aggressive form of brain cancer.” 

And just like that, the Wakefield family’s privacy was shattered in Tim’s final days. Was Schilling well-intentioned for wanting people to pray for Wakefield’s recovery? Sure. It’s possible. But was it his place to do so without the permission of Wakefield’s family, which he freely admitted? No.

For those skeptical about the ethics of Schilling’s decision and unfamiliar with his past, this is not the first time Schilling has been  shrouded in controversy. This is why it’s hard for me to accept Schilling’s reasoning for sharing Wakefield’s diagnosis from his position as a “man of faith.” 

As anyone who has struggled with the prolonged death of a loved one knows, a diagnosis as grave as Wakefield’s is entirely up to him and his family to share with the public. 

I talked about this incident with Joyce Rupp, O.S.M., the best-selling author of Praying our Goodbyes and other books on how we process death. She said she is not surprised by Schilling’s actions. She also says it’s become a new cultural norm for us to think we are entitled to invade the privacy of the sick.

Sister Rupp told America over email: “In our culture rife with self-orientation and judgmentalism, we can be allured into thinking we have a right to invade other people’s personal lives, to project our beliefs and values onto them, even with someone as vulnerable as a dying person suffering severe pain.” 

Sister Rupp went on to say, “I feel such sadness when I hear the egoic interpretations, selfish curiosity, and demeaning accusations of others in regard to the origin of someone’s illness or about the way in which they are experiencing their final months or days. 

“As someone rooted in Christian teachings and principles,” Sister Rupp continued, “I’m doubly grieved by this, knowing that the central quality of the Gospels is that of compassion, a virtue meant to alleviate suffering, not contribute to it—which is what happens when the ego leaps in to make false judgments and force personal beliefs onto others.”

As Christians, then, let us accompany those near death into the afterlife with pure intentions of making their last days as comfortable as possible.

The role of the Christian should be to ease the pain that the dying are undergoing rather than contributing to their distress, following the example of Jesus. As Benedict XVI pointed out in his address at World Day of the Sick in 2012: “From a reading of the Gospels it emerges clearly that Jesus always showed special concern for sick people. He not only sent out his disciples to tend their wounds but also instituted for them a specific sacrament: the Anointing of the Sick.”

Sister Rupp’s words resonate with other advocates for respecting the privacy of the sick as well. In an article from the American Cancer Society titled “When Someone You Know Has Cancer,” a section titled “Respect the privacy of someone who has cancer” includes statements like, “If someone tells you that they have cancer, you should never tell anyone else unless they have given you permission. Let them be the one to tell others. If someone else asks you about it, you can say something like, ‘It’s not up to me to share this, but I’m sure (____)  will appreciate your concern. I’ll let them know you asked about them.’”

Statements like these help to both express sympathy and care for the dying while still upholding the right to privacy that they are entitled to. 

The unfortunate publicity of Wakefield’s diagnosis must have brought serious pain and heartache to his family. For us, it can serve as a reminder that how we talk about the dying has serious implications. While calls for prayers are admirable, it is always up to the sick to choose how public or private they want their condition to be. As Christians, then, let us accompany those near death into the afterlife with pure intentions of making their last days as comfortable as possible and respecting their inherent right to decide how to share this news with others.

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