FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Tim Wakefield has never been afraid to face a hitter with his knuckleball, kind of like he’s never been afraid to face the truth.
After all, he pitched in parts of three decades, won 200 games along the way, was a part of two World Series titles, and, above all else, he realizes just how precious baseball careers can be.
So, with all that — as well as a ton of memories garnered over 19 years in the majors, the last 17 with the Boston Red Sox — an emotional Wakefield, 45, announced his retirement Friday.
“Now,” he said, “I’ll have a lot of time to really reflect on all of the accomplishments I have been able to do.”
That he played for so long seemed unlikely early in his career. Drafted as a first baseman by the Pirates in 1988, Wakefield was converted to a knuckleballer after just two seasons. But in April 1995, after going 5-15 with a 5.84 in Triple A, Pittsburgh released him.
The Red Sox pounced, signing him just six days later. And somehow, he raced out to an improbable 14-1 start with Boston, finishing 1995 at 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA.
Now, all these years later, he has to admit: His long career surprised even him.
“A little bit,” Wakefield said. “There were some years there where I didn’t know if I was going to come back or not. But I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to put this uniform on for such a long time, and win two World Series for this great city.
“Now, I can finally say it’s over.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, though. Especially after he was offered a minor league contract with a chance to come into Red Sox spring training and compete for a job.
“I’ve been wrestling with this decision a long time, this whole offseason,” he said. “I think the final deciding point was when (my wife) Stacy and I sat my two kids down and asked them what they wanted me to do. Like I said before, I never wanted to regret missing any part of their life, and I just think the time is now.”
The decision helps the team avoid the potentially awkward situation of having a veteran player, and fan favorite, compete for and perhaps lose a roster spot.
“It’s a unique situation, where you sort of put the ball in his court whether to come into that type of situation. And frankly, we just wouldn’t do it in most cases,” Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said. “For a guy like Wake, who has accomplished as much as he has, I think that could have been a challenge to be in camp without a little more definition as to the role.
“And Tim and I had conversations about that. I don’t know if that factored in at all. That’s something you’d have to ask Tim, but I could see that being a challenge potentially.”
Wakefield is the third-winningest pitcher in Red Sox history, at 186-168. Cy Young and Roger Clemens both have 192 wins.
As the oldest player in the majors last season, he was 7-8 with a 5.12 ERA last season in 23 starts and 10 relief appearances.
“I’m still a competitor, but ultimately I think this is what’s best for the Red Sox,” Wakefield said. “I think this is what’s best for my family. And to be honest with you, seven wins isn’t going to make me a different person or a better man. So, my family really needs me at home.”
Several Red Sox were in attendance at the press conference at Jet Blue Park, the Red Sox new spring training home.
“I was happy to see that he did it the way he wanted to,” starter Jon Lester said. “I don’t think you can ask for anything more than that.”
Lester’s locker has been next to Wakefield’s since Lester broke into the majors in 2006.
“To be honest with you, he was tough,” Lester said of his first impressions of Wakefield. “He’s probably one of the tougher veterans that we had when I first came up and that’s not a bad thing. I think he did a good job of being a tough leader and making sure that he was vocally present.
“He made sure I stayed in line and did the right things both on and off the field. So I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for the fact that I got to be a teammate of his, and see him do a lot of great things for this organization both on and off the field. His charitable work is unbelievable.”
Wakefield is well known for his charity endeavors. He has established community service work in his hometown of Melbourne, Fla., as well as in Boston.
Cleveland starter Derek Lowe, who lives in Fort Myers, was a teammate of Wakefield for eight seasons. In Lowe’s last year in Boston — 2004 — the two helped the Red Sox to their first World Series crown in 86 years.
“He led by example,” Lowe said. “He was a guy you could look up to, a guy you could talk to.”
Wakefield finished his Red Sox career with a 4.43 ERA. He is first in team history with 3,006 innings and 430 starts, and second in games and strikeouts. For his career, Wakefield was 200-180 with a 4.41 ERA.
On Sept. 13, Wakefield earned his 200th win on his eighth try, in an 18-6 rout of the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Wakefield went six innings and overcame a shaky outing to retire his final six batters. He left with a 6-5 lead after allowing six hits and two walks. He struck out two.
The following day, prior to a matinee game with Toronto, he was honored for his accomplishment.
It turned out to be his last victory.