TIM WAKEFIELD was just a pitcher in the minors in 1992 when he made a major pledge to his friend Betsy Farmer, the cofounder of a cash-strapped, five-year-old preschool serving 30 children with special needs in Melbourne, Fla. "If I ever make it to the big leagues," Wakefield said, "I want to help you out."
The Pirates called up Wakefield that summer; a few months later the Space Coast Early Intervention Center was down to its final $51.12. "I was getting ready to close the school," recalls Farmer. But Wakefield (center), a Melbourne native, kept his word and used his new major league connections to organize an off-season golf tournament. It raised nearly $40,000, an amount matched by Wakefield, who was making $150,000. "We wouldn't be here if it weren't for him," says SCEIC executive director Sally Shinn. "It's that simple." The 16th annual Tim Wakefield Celebrity Golf Classic, held last January, netted more than $250,000.
The school, which now has 90 full-time students, will open a new, 15,000-square-foot facility on Jan. 7. "It's very important to recognize that children with special needs can function normally in society," says Wakefield, 41, whose knuckleball helped propel the Red Sox to two titles. His aid isn't just financial. A father of two, Wakefield regularly visits the school, sitting on the floor and playing with the children. "He'll go for the most severely challenged child, and he doesn't bat an eye," says Shinn. "He's got a great touch."