Commentary

Tim Wakefield retires a true Bostonian

Over 17 distinguished seasons, Red Sox knuckleballer has marked himself as one of us

Updated: February 18, 2012, 2:14 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- What do you do on an 80-degree day in Florida when you're the only one wearing a dark suit fit for a funeral to a retirement announcement you never wanted to make?

If you're Tim Wakefield, first, of course, you fight back the tears. Then you laugh over a golf story whose punch line involves Kevin Millar, a former Red Sox teammate.

Red Sox chairman Tom Werner was the one who reminded Wakefield of the time they were playing golf together in San Diego and Millar, playing behind them, kept hitting his ball into their foursome, an absolute no-no. It didn't happen just once or twice. It happened on every hole.

Finally, Wakefield had had enough. They were playing a hole that was a dogleg right, out of sight of Millar's group, which had yet to tee off.

"Tim took the pin from the left side of the green and planted it in the ground on the right side," Werner said. "We watched Millar and his group all hit it up to the pin on the right. They got up to the green and Millar said, 'Where's the hole?'"

On a day that was all about memories, it helped to find one that came not only with a chuckle, but without an expiration date. Tim Wakefield, at 45, won't be making any more baseball memories. Maybe the day will come when he takes his son, Trevor, into the backyard and teaches him the same trick pitch that his own father, Steve, once showed him how to throw in another backyard long ago.

But on this day, after 19 years in the big leagues, 200 wins, and two World Series rings, none of which would have happened if Wakefield hadn't stuck that trick pitch into "his back pocket," Wakefield announced he had thrown his last knuckleball. His explanation came the same way his pitch did, with no spin.

"I just think the time is now," he said.

Wakefield had called Ben Cherington with his decision on Monday. This was even harder, standing in front of a gathering that included a dozen teammates -- all of the starting rotation except for Daisuke Matsuzaka, several relievers, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and infielders Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez.

The manager he will never play for, Bobby Valentine, was there, along with bench coach Tim Bogar. A former teammate, Derek Lowe, who lives just down the road, also came to the park when he heard the news.

It was best not only for himself, Wakefield said, but for the team.

"Don't read too deep into that," he said. "But weighing everything this offseason, with the changes being made, I think it's best they move forward."

When last season ended, Wakefield fully intended to return. He was six wins short of the club record for victories, 192, shared by Cy Young and Roger Clemens. The fans deserved to see him break the record, he proclaimed. His agent, Barry Meister, boldly said that Wakefield would win 15 games in 2012, if not for the Sox, then for someone else.

That's not how it worked out. The Sox did not proffer a big league contract, only a minor league deal with an invitation to camp. There were no other suitors.

"It had nothing to do with not wanting Tim Wakefield the person on the team," Cherington said. "It was purely an objective decision about what we felt was best in terms of putting the team together."

The Red Sox decided they had better options to choose from for the back end of their rotation. Wakefield came to the decision that he had better alternatives than trying to hang on for one last go-round. Staying home with wife Stacy and the kids wasn't such a bad idea. The Sox also offered him a role in the Red Sox Foundation, a recognition of the importance charity has always played in his life.

The record?

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

Cherington said Wakefield was always more than the sum of his statistics.

"Even in more recent years," Cherington said, "there always was a stretch of time he bailed us out. He was certainly more valuable than just his statistics."

[+] EnlargeTim Wakefield
AP Photo/David GoldmanTim Wakefield looks forward to spending more time with wife Stacy and children Trevor and Brianna.

For all the times Wakefield willingly gave himself up for the team, spikes always at hand, there were a few occasions that he fell short of his ideal of being the selfless teammate. After being an All-Star for the first time in his career in 2009, he was embittered when Terry Francona yanked him out of the rotation and was mentally unprepared for a role in the bullpen the following season, which became the worst of his career.

But Wakefield, as he has done so many times in a career originally rescued by a minor league lifer named Woody Huyke, who talked the Pirates out of sending Wake home as a failed first baseman until they took a look at his knuckler, found his bearings again.

The way he did when he was cut by the Pirates two seasons after winning two playoff games as a rookie sensation, then was signed by Sox GM Dan Duquette, who was scrambling to put a team together in 1995, after the strike.

The way he did when he came back from giving up a home run to Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS that he feared would forever make him a marked man in Boston to pitching the first game of the 2004 World Series, marveling at the thousands of flashbulbs that went off when his first knuckler fluttered toward the plate.

When he was a boy, Wakefield said, he used to practice writing his name, so that it would look just so when he signed his autograph as a big leaguer. His handwriting was so elegant that whenever a Sox player did something special, Wakefield was the one who signed the ball.

The lasting signature of Wakefield's career -- beyond the winning, the rings, the charity -- is that over these last 17 years spent in a Boston uniform, he has marked himself as one of us.

"My wife is from here, my kids were born here, and my whole adult life, I grew up here," he said. "We will always have a home here. "Hopefully, the Red Sox will want me to come around the park, but I'll be around, probably more than they want me to be."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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