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Deal keeps Wakefield in team's grip

Basically, they signed him forever.

Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox' longest-tenured player, yesterday signed a one-year, $4 million contract extension for 2006, a deal that includes a club option for 2007 and each season thereafter for as long as the Red Sox want him.

"Wake deserves all the credit in the world for having priorities and acting in line with those priorities," said general manager Theo Epstein. "He could have pushed this to free agency and gotten other teams involved and maxed out dollars."

But Wakefield, who turns 39 Aug. 2 and is making $4.67 million this season, didn't do that. By signing for a base of $4 million, he took less than he probably could have gotten from another team after this season.

Wakefield's agent, Barry Meister, told the knuckleballer during this past offseason that, given age and productivity, he might command $6 million from some club at the end of the season.

"He said, `Is that club the Red Sox?' " Meister said. "I said, `No, might not be.' He said, `If you said the Red Sox, that's one thing.'

"He waved me off and said, `Money is important, but it's kind of down the list for me. My desire is to be in Boston and be a Red Sox. That's just who I am now.' "

Performance bonuses will give Wakefield the chance to earn another $1.25 million for a maximum 2006 payday of $5.25 million if he makes 30 starts. The breakdown: an additional $50,000 for each start between 11 and 20, and $75,000 for each start between 21 and 30.

The $4 million guarantee for next season is contingent upon Wakefield not being on the disabled list with an arm injury at season's end.

There is a perpetual team option with the same terms, meaning Wakefield is here at the same money as long as the team sees fit. If Wakefield wants to retire, he simply does so and forfeits the money if the option has been picked up for the ensuing season.

Wakefield said that, based on the careers of former knuckleball pitchers Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, and Joe Niekro, he conceivably could pitch "at least until I'm 45," though he added, "I don't know if that's possible right now."

What does he know? "I want to play for a lot longer."

Wakefield, who is approaching his 10-year anniversary with the team (April 26, 1995), was asked what he'd do if the team didn't pick up the option and he still wanted to pitch.

"I'd have to weigh my options at that point," he said. "Honestly, I don't know."

Wakefield is off to a stellar beginning, 2-0 in three starts with a 1.37 ERA. But both Meister and Epstein said this deal was the culmination of something that began during the offseason, not a reaction to three appearances.

"We never really discussed whether or not that had an impact," Meister said. "I'd suspect it didn't. They felt like this should work for the right reasons, not because they were panicked. The discussions never changed based upon whether Tim was 1-0 or 2-0 or still in spring training."

That said, Wakefield appeared perturbed late in spring training that he did not have a deal in place as the season opener neared.

"He may have had momentary frustration," Meister said. "But I think he understood we needed to take the time."

Now that the deal is done, Wakefield said, "It takes a lot of pressure off of me."

Wakefield received no assurances that he will remain a starting pitcher. Manager Terry Francona, who will have to send Bronson Arroyo or Wakefield to the bullpen when Wade Miller comes off the disabled list, wasn't receptive to the question when asked how Wakefield's contract would affect that decision.

"I'd love to start," Wakefield said. "That's my main objective here. If there comes a time I'm not doing my job as a starter, or [there are] other guys they want to stick in, I don't have a problem going to the bullpen, or even between starts, still."

Francona said that's less and less likely to happen as Wakefield ages.

"I think people forget he still gets tired, he still conditions, he still has to lift weights," Francona said.

This deal is somewhat unusual for Sox management, which doesn't like to address contractual matters during the season. (The only prior exception was David Ortiz's contract extension last May.) But it allowed them to secure a durable pitcher and, in Epstein's words, someone "who brings honor to the Red Sox uniform . . . probably best personified in Game 3 of the ALCS last year."

Wakefield volunteered to pitch in that game, the infamous 19-8 loss to the Yankees, sacrificing his scheduled Game 4 start for the good of the bullpen.

"It was really remarkable," Epstein said. "It's not lost on anyone."

The Sox now have six starting pitchers under contractual control for 2006. Curt Schilling and Matt Clement are signed through 2007. David Wells, like Wakefield, is under contract for 2006. Arroyo and Miller are signed for this season only but the Sox hold their rights for next season.

Wakefield is already solidified on the Sox' all-time pitching lists. He's second in appearances (390), third in innings (1,866), starts (253), and strikeouts (1,343), and seventh in wins (116).

Seven more wins will tie him with Mel Parnell for third, behind only Roger Clemens and Cy Young, both with 192.

"There's no reason to think he's slowing down at all," Epstein said. "His retirement isn't in sight."

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