FORT MYERS Fla. - There was a temptation to be stubborn, to show up at spring training and prove to the Red Sox once again that he wasn’t finished with baseball, that his knuckleball was good for one more season.
But Tim Wakefield, the most unconventional of pitchers, decided to follow a straight path instead. This decision he would make himself.
Fighting back tears that belied his stoic nature, Wakefield stood on a field he won’t get to play on and announced his retirement yesterday. At 45, the knuckleballer was headed home after 19 seasons, 17 of them in Boston.
“It’s the end of an era, that’s what it is,’’ teammate Jon Lester said.
Wakefield was 200-180 in his career. The Florida native spent his final 17 seasons with the Red Sox, going 186-168.
In Red Sox history, only Carl Yastrzemski (23), Ted Williams (19), and Dwight Evans (19) played more years with the team. Unlike those men, Wakefield retires having won two world championships.
Wakefield leaves the Red Sox having pitched the most innings (3,006) and made the most starts (430) in team history. He was second in games pitched (590) and strikeouts (2,046).
Wakefield will retire seven wins shy of breaking the franchise record of 192 held by Cy Young and Roger Clemens. It was a milestone he badly wanted. But in the end, Wakefield could not justify chasing it.
“I’m still a competitor. But ultimately I think this is what was best for the Red Sox and 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,’’ he said.
Wakefield was an All-Star for the first time in 2009, going 11-5 with a 4.58 ERA. But he was 11-18 with a 5.22 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP in the two years that followed as his knuckleball became easier to hit.
Wakefield won his 199th game last July 24. His quest for 200 victories became painful as he failed to record a victory in eight consecutive appearances. It finally came on Sept 13 at Fenway Park against the Blue Jays.
Wakefield received a standing ovation from the crowd. But it was clear that his effectiveness was coming to an end. Wakefield was 2-5 with a 5.55 ERA after the All-Star break and had a 6.30 ERA in his final four starts, contributing to the team’s historic September collapse.
But Wakefield fought the idea of retiring, saying in late September that fans deserved to see him break the franchise wins record. In November, agent Barry Meister campaigned for his client to return, saying the Red Sox would be making a mistake by letting him go.
Wakefield reiterated that in December, saying he wanted to return and was preparing himself to pitch another season.
But the Red Sox were turning away from their longest-tenured player. New general manager Ben Cherington steadfastly said throughout the winter that he respected Wakefield, but had to be honest with him about his chances of making the team. As such, the Sox were not willing to offer him a major league contract.
“It has nothing to do with not wanting Tim Wakefield the person on the team. It was purely an objective decision,’’ Cherington said. “I don’t want to speak for him, but my sense was that he didn’t agree with that. But he was always incredibly respectful.’’
When it became clear Cherington would not budge, Wakefield discussed the matter with his family and elected to retire. Stacy, his wife, was in agreement as were their two children, Brianna and Trevor.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is what was best for our team and the organization, whether it was starting, closing or whatever I was asked to do. I always had my spikes on and was ready to go,’’ Wakefield said.
“I’ve been so blessed to have been able to wear this uniform and be part of this historic franchise for as long as I have and I’ve enjoyed many successes along the way. But when it came down to it, I had to take a hard look at what was best for me, my family, and the Red Sox.’’
With little notice, the Sox put together a fitting ceremony for the most durable pitcher in their history.
About a dozen teammates emerged from the left field wall at new JetBlue Park, followed by Wakefield and his family. The players included Lester, Josh Beckett, Kevin Youkilis, and Daniel Bard.
Wakefield wore a dark suit and had his 2004 World Series ring on (“It’s the one that means the most to me,’’ he said later) as he walked to the podium in shallow left field.
Wakefield’s voice cracked when he said he was leaving “this wonderful game of baseball.’’ But once that moment passed, he thanked the owners, team staffers, teammates, his managers, and coaches.
He also thanked Woody Huyke, the Pirates coach who in 1989 told Wakefield he should try to become a knuckleball pitcher. A first baseman at the time, he was on the verge of being released.
At the end, he thanked the fans.
“You are the greatest fans in the world,’’ he said. “I have enjoyed every minute of every game I’ve played for you. I am eternally grateful for the love and respect that you’ve shown me over the years and I will hold every one of those memories close to my heart.’’
As manager Bobby Valentine said, Wakefield “seemed at peace.’’
Wakefield, who won the 2010 Roberto Clemente Award for community service, has been invited to sit on the board of the Red Sox Foundation and been offered a formal role with the Jimmy Fund. He is weighing those offers.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet day,’’ Lester said. “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.’’Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.