Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield retires

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After 19 seasons in the majors -- 17 of them with the Boston Red Sox -- knuckleballer Tim Wakefield announced his retirement from baseball Friday afternoon.

"This has been the hardest thing I've ever had to do, so it's with a heavy heart that I stand here today," Wakefield said, pausing to regain his composure. "And I'm saddened to say that I have decided to retire from this wonderful game of baseball."

Wakefield's announcement came at a 5 p.m. ET news conference at JetBlue Park, the team's new spring training facility.

"I'm very grateful I've been able to put this uniform on for such a long time and to win two World Series for this great city and I can finally say it's over," the 45-year-old said.

Wakefield walks away with 186 victories with the Red Sox, just six short of the team record shared by Cy Young and Roger Clemens. He recorded his 200th career victory late last season.

"It's a little surreal for me, still," Wakefield said of his achievements. "Once I get home and start to digest everything, it's pretty cool to have your name up there, but that doesn't change who I am as a person, or as a man and I'm grateful I've had the opportunity to achieve a lot of those goals and be high on the list of a lot of those records. Hopefully one day they can be broken because that's what records are for."

Wakefield had said toward the end of last season that he wanted to return for his 18th season with the Red Sox, but as the winter wore on it became clear he was not in Boston's plans.

"I never wanted to pitch for another team," Wakefield said Friday. "I've always said I wanted to retire a Red Sox and today I'm able to do that."

The team extended him an invitation to spring training but did not guarantee him a roster spot. Had Wakefield accepted, he likely would have competed for the fifth spot in the rotation.

The Red Sox extended a similar invitation to captain Jason Varitek, who has spent the past 15 years with the team. It remains unclear whether the soon-to-be-40-year-old catcher will take them up on the invitation, sign elsewhere or retire.

"I've talked to him a little bit, but it's a decision that has to be made on your own," Wakefield said of Varitek. "It's nothing that he said, or I said to him, or whatever," Wakefield said. "It really comes down to taking a deep, hard look at where your life is at this point. For me, it was the right decision to make. For him, I don't know. If he decides to come back and play, great. If he doesn't that's great, too, because he's one true champion and I'm proud to be able to say I was his teammate for 15 years."

Wakefield, at times misty-eyed as he thanked coaches, teammates, fans and family, seemed at peace with his own decision to hang up his spikes. Nonetheless, he admitted he'd consider a midseason comeback if a desperate Red Sox GM Ben Cherington were to call.

"I have to digest a lot of stuff right now, so I can't answer that question honestly, but more than likely, probably."

Wakefield, who finished last season with a 7-8 record and a 5.12 ERA in 23 starts, won only one of his last 10 starts, the bullpen failing to hold several leads. When the Red Sox desperately needed someone in September to step up and pitch a big game, Wakefield gave up five or more runs in each of his last four starts, lasting five or fewer innings in three of them.

Wakefield said he had a difficult time reaching the decision to call it quits.

"I've been wrestling with this decision for a long time this whole offseason," he said Friday. "I think the final deciding point is when [wife] Stacy and I sat my two kids down and asked them kind of what they wanted me to do. Like I said before, I never wanted to regret missing any part of their lives and I just think the time is now."

Wakefield said he hasn't made any plans beyond spending more time with his family.

"I don't know. I'm honored. Really honored that the Red Sox have asked me to possible be on the board of the Red Sox Foundation and do some stuff on their charitable works that they are so passionate about," he said. "Then also the Jimmy Fund has asked me to be a part of their organization, as well. I'm still weighing all those options right now.

"I just wanted to get through this day. I haven't slept all week, but I'm not going to make a decision anytime soon. But I'm very honored that those two wonderful foundations and organizations have asked me to be a part of them."

To Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Wakefield's retirement "kind of feels right."

"He definitely had plenty left in him. I think he definitely could have played a couple more years," Saltalamacchia said Friday. "He's at a time of his life where family is important, the kids are getting older, and he's accomplished everything anybody wanted to accomplish in this game. It seems right, after 200 wins last year, getting to that, to being with family now."

Saltalamacchia lauded Wakefield for his professionalism, friendship and humility. He also dismissed the suggestion that Wakefield's prolonged quest to nail down his 200th win and set the club record for wins became a distraction for either Wakefield or the team.

"Not at all, not one bit," the catcher said. "He was a guy in the dugout every day, the same exact guy every single day. I think I probably got away from what was going on because I wanted it as bad as him. He's a humble guy.

"He never talked about the 200th or anything during the season. I know he would have liked to accomplish that, because this is a game where you set goals and he wanted to be the best at what he did. But looking 10 years down the road, he's going to look back and realize he walked away the right way.

"He didn't have to win 193 to realize who he is. He knows who he is."

Wakefield had a career record of 200-180 with a 4.41 ERA and 2,156 strikeouts. He was drafted in 1988 by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a first baseman, but when he was made aware of reports that he didn't have much of a future as a position player, he started to develop the knuckleball.

He had success in the minors as a pitcher and made it to the big leagues down the stretch for the playoff-bound Pirates in 1992. He went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA and then won two starts in the National League Championship Series.

But he couldn't sustain his success and bounced between the majors and minors before being released in 1995.

The Red Sox almost immediately signed Wakefield, and he ended up going 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA in 1995 as Boston won the AL East.

Wakefield became a vital cog on the Red Sox's staff, winning 17 games in 1998 and even filling in as closer and picking up 15 saves in 1999. From 2003 to 2008 he made at least 30 starts, winning 12 games for the 2004 World Series champs and 17 for the 2007 team that won it all.

When Friday's ceremony at JetBlue Park was over, Wakefield hugged and shook hands with a slew of teammates, past and present, who were in attendance.

"It's kind of a bittersweet thing," said Red Sox left-handed pitcher Jon Lester. "It's the end of a great career, and the start of a new career for him, a new beginning. I'm just happy he did it on his terms and it wasn't something where he comes into camp and something happens and it ends not the way he wants to. I was happy to see he did it the way he wanted to and I don't think you can ask for anything more than that."

Fellow starter Josh Beckett, carrying his five-month old daughter, said he was shocked to learn of Wakefield's decision to retire.

"It kind of snuck up on us," Beckett said. "I was aware he wasn't here, but it's definitely going to be different without him in the clubhouse. He's always had that methodical voice and he's a great leader and he was awesome to be around. I'm going to miss my golf partner on the road."

Wakefield's 17 years of service with the franchise is exceeded by only three players: Carl Yastrzemski (23), Ted Williams (19) and Dwight Evans (19). His name is at or near the top of Boston's all-time lists in a number of categories -- third in wins; first in appearances (590), starts (430) and innings pitched (3,006); second in strikeouts (2,046 to Clemens' 2,590).

"He's had such an amazing career, his age and all the memories," Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis said Friday. "You can also look at it as how time flies and '04 was almost nine seasons ago. For him, you see the end of a great career and you can't put it into words that Wake's not going to be there.

"Wake's always been a staple of being out there and when you think of the Boston Red Sox, you think [of Wakefield]."

Wakefield also pitched to 13 players who have gone on to manage in the big leagues, including Joe Girardi, Mike Scioscia, Ozzie Guillen and Bud Black.

Despite having been a part of so much history, Wakefield was able to identify what he considered the top highlight of his career.

"I would have to say, especially the first [World Series title in 2004]. Going through college a Red Sox fan and knowing the history behind everything that was going on back in the '80s and finally getting a chance to win a World Series for this great city and bringing it back after 86 years, it was truly special and it's one of the highlights that I'll remember for a long time. Being able to share it with current players, with past players, the Jim Rices, the Johnny Peskys, Yaz, all those guys was truly special."

Red Sox DH David Ortiz hasn't arrived at camp yet, but sent along his well wishes through Twitter.

"Shout out to my boy Tim Wakefield on a great career," Ortiz tweeted. "Thanks for being a great teammate and friend."

Information from ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes and Joe McDonald was used in this report.