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02/17/12 7:28 PM EST

Emotional Wakefield announces his retirement

Knuckleballer finishes 19-year career at age 45 with 200 wins

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Tim Wakefield came to the Red Sox as a reclamation project. Nearly two decades later, he departs as one of the most successful pitchers and respected individuals in team history.

The venerable knuckleballer formally announced his retirement during a 5 p.m. ET news conference Friday at JetBlue Park, Boston's new Spring Training facility.

Wakefield's voice cracked at times while he spoke, and his young son Trevor fought back tears.

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

Wakefield had hoped to extend his career for another season, and said that he badly wanted it to be with the Red Sox.

However, the team didn't have a defined role for Wakefield, and the club wasn't comfortable with a player of Wakefield's stature coming to camp and competing for a job.

A few weeks back, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington told Wakefield the club could not offer him a guaranteed contract. At that point, Wakefield's options narrowed: He could try to latch on with another team, come to Boston's camp as a non-roster invitee or retire.

"I've been wrestling with this decision for a long time this whole offseason," Wakefield said. "I think the final deciding point was when [wife] Stacy and I sat our two kids down and asked them what they wanted me to do. I never wanted to regret missing any part of their lives. I just think the time is now. I never wanted to pitch for another team. I always said that I wanted to retire a Red Sox, and today I'm able to do that."

A large contingent of teammates attended his press conference, including Josh Beckett, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz. Indians right-hander Derek Lowe, who won a World Series with Wakefield in 2004 and lives in Fort Myers, was also on hand.

Red Sox chairman Tom Werner began the press conference with an eloquent recap of Wakefield's career, and called the pitcher one of his closest friends.

"Tim Wakefield has been the epitome of class and determination in his remarkable career," said principal owner John Henry. "He will be known as much for his character, dedication and perseverance as he will be for his knuckleball, his victories, and his key contributions to two World Series championship seasons."

It turns out that Wakefield's 200th career victory, accomplished Sept. 13 at Fenway Park, was the last of his career.

"His career here has been pretty legendary," said Bard. "I think you look at the career records, he's up there in everything. I won't remember him for that so much as for the teammate and friend he became after playing three years with him."

Over 19 seasons in the Majors, the 45-year-old Wakefield went 200-180 with a 4.41 ERA. Wakefield pitched all but two of those seasons for the Red Sox, the team that signed him in 1995 after his release from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Wakefield made the low-risk signing look like a smart one right from the outset, winning 14 of his first 15 decisions during that 1995 season and playing a leading role as the Red Sox won the American League East.

"Tim Wakefield has an exceptional place in Red Sox history and lore," said Werner. "He has made more starts and pitched more innings than any other pitcher in our history. What's more, his sense of sacrifice and his team-first attitude were pivotal in our stunning comeback to win the 2004 pennant, and the historic World Series championships that followed.

"Yet, when it comes to Tim Wakefield, we will remember with equal regard his extraordinary devotion to the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston, the Space Coast Early Intervention Center in his hometown of Melbourne, Fla., and his tireless fundraising for Pitching In For Kids, the Jimmy Fund, and the Red Sox Foundation. Those contributions, which earned him Major League Baseball's Roberto Clemente Award in 2010, mean as much to us as his many memorable moments in our joyous championship seasons."

Wakefield said that the Red Sox Foundation and the cancer-fighting Jimmy Fund have already contacted him about doing work with them now that he's done playing.

With 186 wins in a Boston uniform, Wakefield retires trailing only two pitchers in team history, Cy Young and Roger Clemens, who both recorded 192 victories for the Sox.

Surpassing Young and Clemens is about the only goal Wakefield didn't reach during his time in Boston.

"Ultimately, I think this is what's best for the Red Sox," Wakefield said. "Honestly, seven wins aren't going to make me a different person or a better man. My family really needs me at home. This is a very special time in my kids' life, and I never wanted to regret missing it."

To a man, Wakefield's teammates appreciated the way he called it a career.

"I think looking 10 years down the road, he's going to look back and realize he walked away the right way," said Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "He didn't have to go back to win 193 to realize who he is. He knows who he is. He doesn't have to accomplish anything else to be happy with himself."

While Wakefield's situation is now resolved, his long-time teammate Jason Varitek is still trying to decide if he will retire. The catcher weighed in on Wakefield's retirement by issuing a statement through the Red Sox.

"There is so much to say about Wake," said Varitek. "He's been a part of so many things, and he's meant so much to the game, the organization, the community, and personally as a friend and teammate for 14 years. He is a consummate professional with a one-of-a-kind talent that allowed this team flexibility, dependability and endurance for 17 years. His competitiveness will be missed, but his legacy and friendship will last a lifetime. It's sad to see it end, but this will be an exciting new chapter for him in his life."

Aside from becoming a dependable and durable pitcher for the Red Sox under five managers, Wakefield also became one of the team leaders in the community. In 2010, Wakefield won baseball's Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who best exemplifies a combination of on- and off-field excellence.

"Good guy -- unbelievable in the community," said Bard. "He cares about other people and never forgets to give back, and I'm sure he'll keep up with that stuff."

Wakefield was drafted by the Pirates as a first baseman in 1988, but struggled at the plate in his early days as a pro. He used to throw a knuckleball on the side just for fun. His manager at the time, Woody Huyke, suggested Wakefield convert to a knuckleballer.

By 1992, Wakefield got a chance to display just how well that switch in roles went, as he went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA for the Pirates, and went 2-0 against the Braves in that year's National League Championship Series.

"Tim had a long and tremendous career," said Jim Leyland, Wakefield's manager in Pittsburgh. "I'm proud to have been his first manager, and I've enjoyed watching his success over the years. I wish him nothing but success in retirement."

For a while, it all fell apart. But everything changed when Dan Duquette, then the general manager of the Red Sox, called Wakefield in the spring of 1995 and told him to get to Fort Myers and he had the Niekro brothers -- Phil and Joe -- ready to tutor him.

"We have been friends from the first day we met," said Phil Niekro, a Hall of Famer. "I don't know where the Red Sox would have been without him."

It was in Boston where Wakefield was able to have sustained success.

"For 17 years, Tim Wakefield has been the Red Sox rock of consistency," said president/CEO Larry Lucchino. "Reliable, available, and versatile, his contributions to this franchise are innumerable. Each of us can name a 'Wakefield Moment' that touches our heart. He is as much a part of our storied history as any player who has worn the Red Sox uniform. We thank him and salute him."

The low point of Wakefield's career occurred in Game 7 of the 2003 AL Championship Series, when he gave up a walk-off homer to Aaron Boone in the 11th inning that sent the Yankees to the World Series.

Wakefield feared at the time that he was going to be looked at as a goat in Red Sox lore, along the lines of Bill Buckner. However, it became clear that wouldn't be the case when, three months later, he received a rousing standing ovation at the Boston Baseball Writers' Dinner.

In 2004, Wakefield helped the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years. During the epic Game 5 of the ALCS against the Yankees, Wakefield fired three shutout innings in relief to get the win in a 14-inning game that helped Boston become the first team in history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit.

Of course, one of Wakefield's most selfless acts came in Game 3 of that ALCS, when the Red Sox were getting blown out and he offered his services in relief to save the rest of the bullpen. By doing so, Wakefield gave up his start for Game 4. Without that gesture, the Red Sox might not have been able to come back against the Yankees.

"I think Wake's career can be embodied by Game 3 against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS," said his former manager Terry Francona. "With the team down, he came to me in the fourth inning and asked what he could do. He pitched more than three innings that game, sacrificing his start the next day for the good fo the team. A lot of what he did went under the radar. I wish him congratulations on a wonderful career and hope his second career is as good as his first."

Three years later, when the Red Sox won another World Series, Wakefield was a 17-game winner.

"Congrats to Tim Wakefield on a great career!" tweeted Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. "It was a privilege being your teammate."

Wakefield became an All-Star for the first time in 2009.

The past two seasons, Wakefield bounced between the bullpen and the rotation.

"I was just glad and fortunate that I was able to play with a professional like him. It kind of feels right," said Saltalamacchia. "He had plenty left in him. I think he definitely could've played a couple more years, but he's at the time of his life, I think, where family's important, [his] kids are getting older, and he's accomplished everything anyone could want to accomplish in this game. It seems right after 200 wins, getting that, to kind of be with the family right now."

It's hard to imagine another pitcher will ever quite duplicate the path Wakefield took over his 19-year career.

"You look at his career and sit back and say, 'this guy got released.' To play 19 years and be third in wins in Red Sox history. That's something to be proud of," said Lowe.

As for his legacy with the Red Sox, Wakefield is still a little awed by it.

"It's a little surreal for me still," Wakefield said. "Once I get home and start to digest everything, it's pretty cool to have your name up there, but it doesn't change who I am as a person, or a man. 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."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.