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On Derek Jeter and other greats who had to keep playing

Sep 13, 2013, 10:33 AM EDT

Derek Jeter Getty Getty Images

There is really no doubt at all that Derek Jeter will return and play baseball in 2014. People talk about retirement and legacies and Willie Mays falling down in the outfield — and I’m sure there will be more of that talk all offseason — but I’m willing to wager you won’t hear Derek Jeter talk about any of that stuff. Jeter will be back because he has to come back. It’s in his nature. It’s in the nature of all the greats.

George Brett told me more than once that he wishes he had come back for one more season. When you look at Brett’s career,you can’t help but think he rode it out to the end. His last year, at age 40, he hit .266 (this after hitting .272 the previous two seasons) and had his first sub-100 OPS+. He retired in beautiful fashion, famously kissing home plate at Kauffman Stadium, a photograph that countless Kansas City fans have on their walls at home. He finished with 3,000 hits, with more doubles than anyone not named Speaker, Rose, Musial or Cobb (he has since been passed by Craig Biggio), with more great and memorable moments than just about anyone of his time.

Still, Brett wishes he’d come back, just to try it … he says he wishes that he had signed a league-minimum contract and come to spring training to compete for a job, just like he had as a kid in the minor leagues.

“Do you think you could have made it back?” I asked him.

“We’ll never know,” he said. “But, yeah, I do.”

A familiar story. Yaz, one of the great left fielders of all time, stayed around for four years as a semi-regular DH. He already had his 3,000 hits. He already was a Boston legend — soon, finally, he will have a statue at Fenway Park. He stayed anyway. He wanted to play ball.

Hank Aaron — a .300 hitter if there ever was one — hit .234 and .229 his final two seasons. Everyone knows about Ted Williams’ final at-bat, but not as many know that at age 40, the greatest hitter who ever walked down the street hit .254, almost 100 points below his career average. He couldn’t let it end like that. He came back for another season. He somehow hit .316 and somehow hit that home run his last time up.

Al Kaline hit .255 and .262 his final two years — the last entirely as a DH. Stan the Man hit .255/.325/.404 as a 42-year old; at 37, his career batting average was .340. it ended at .331. Mike Schmidt hit .203 with six home runs in 42 games his final year. Cal Ripken, after feats of endurance that boggled the mind, spent his final three years as a part-time player. In his last he hit .239/.276/.361.

The baseball warrior Jackie Robinson hit .266 his final two seasons and the Dodgers actually traded him to the hated Giants. Instead, he quit and became president of the Chock full O’Nuts company. At the end, Tony Gwynn could still hit, but he could not stay on the field — he played just 107 combined games his final two seasons and walked away. A 41-year-old Wade Boggs hit .301 in 90 games for the 93-loss Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Ernie Banks hit .193 as a 40-year-old and realized, painfully, that it was over.

Robin Yount hit .257/.330/.381 his final four seasons and said goodbye. The bat magician, Rod Carew, who had hit .300 for 15 straight seasons, failed to hit .300 as a 38-year-old (he hit .295). He came back at 39-year-old, hit even lower (.280) and gave in. Mickey Mantle stayed on those painful knees as long as he could — he hit .245 as a 35-year-old, came back with the hope of turning it around, and hit .237 and slugged sub-.400 for the only time in his career. Much of it was context. Mantle’s walks still made him very valuable and those were two years when pitching dominated the game. Still, after that .237 season he walked away.

Willie Mays, as we know, played another five seasons, and in the last he hit .211 for the Mets.

Paul Molitor, who seemed ageless, had an 86 OPS+ his final year. Dave Winfield hit .290, .271, .252 and .191 progressively his last four years. Ken Griffey got hit 600th homer, returned to Seattle, hit .214 and then tried to come back one more time to no avail (.184 in 33 games). Harmon Killebrew tried a season with the Royals. Tom Seaver tried a season with the Red Sox. Steve Carlton tried to hook up with the Giants, the White Sox, the Indians and the Twins. Ty Cobb played with the Philadelphia Athletics. Frank Robinson played for and managed the Cleveland Indians. Ron Santo spent a year playing for the crosstown White Sox. Manny Ramirez — who often showed signs of not even liking baseball — played five games for Tampa Bay and still seems to be trying to return.

You can go on like this for as long as it takes to read the Baseball Encyclopedia cover-to-cover. Baseball players — or football players, or basketball players, or hockey, or soccer or, heck, sportswriters or lawyers or recreational softballers or just about anyone else — cannot see the end coming. The body goes before the mind. Speed runs out before the heart. Skill expires before the will.

I think of Ali. Muhammad Ali was clearly fading fast as a boxer in the years after the Thrilla in Manilla. Ken Norton, who always gave Ali hard time, went 15 rounds with the champ. Then a relative journeyman — a Uruguayan fighter named Alfredo Evangelista — went 15 rounds also. Earnie Shavers hurt Ali several times in their 15-round fight. Then Ali fought a game but thoroughly inexperienced Gold Medalist named Leon Spinks. Before the Ali fight, Spinks had fought just seven professional fights — including a draw against the unimpressive Scott LeDoux — and it should have been an easy one for Ali. It was not. He was out of shape, looked slow, and Spinks kept throwing pinches. Spinks shocked everyone and won the title.

It was clear that Ali had little left as a fighter. Well, clear to everyone else. Ali had to win back his title, so he got in shape, beat Spinks in a boring but functional 15-round decision. And he retired with the title. He said he was done fighting.

Two years later, Ali came back to fight Larry Holmes. The word was he needed the money. Ali was 38-years old and long past his prime. But he lost a bunch of weight and looked pretty good as he entered the ring. He was always such a good talker that he convinced everyone — including himself, I suspect — that he could still be the Ali of old. Holmes destroyed him. It was awful to watch. Before the 11th round, Ali’s trainer and friend Angelo Dundee stopped the fight. Ali had not landed a solid punch on Holmes the entire fight.

It was over before that fight. It was certainly over afterward. But, even then, Ali had to fight one more time. His mind gave him a million reasons to try once more. He claimed that he had lost weight too fast for the Holmes fight. Medication had left him weak and sick. He had not prepared the way he KNEW he could prepare. The mind will come with a million pretenses to black out the realities of age. Ali just had to fight one more — and it might have been the saddest sporting event of the 20th Century. Ali fought Trevor Berbick in Nassau, with a cowbell someone found nearby used to end and begin rounds. Ali lost a 10-round decision that wasn’t close. Less than three years later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Ali’s life in so many ways is bigger, bolder, more controversial, more entertaining, more awe-inspiring, more maddening — he was just bigger than life. But you could argue he just went through a more dramatic version of the cycle every great athlete goes through. Brilliance. Decline. Denial. Resurgence. More denial. I don’t know if Derek Jeter has anything left. I suspect he’s probably at the end as a shortstop and a regular player — I just don’t think his body has enough spring or durability left — but what do I know? His 2012 season surprised me, and it would be a fantastic story if he could return as a productive baseball player.

But whenever the end comes for Jeter, you can be sure that others will see it before he does. Think of all he has accomplished in his amazing career. Think of all the doubters he silenced. Think of all the hurdles he overcame. Think of all the the times he was right about himself and others were wrong. You can expect Derek Jeter to come back with confidence, with certainty, with an intense belief that he will succeed again. Of course he will. It’s human nature.

  1. maikoch - Sep 13, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    “Jeter will be back because he has to come back. It’s in his nature. It’s in the nature of all the greats.”

    Hm, guess I did not realize that Barry Sanders was not one of the greats. Or Jim Brown, for that matter. Or Ted Williams. Or Mickey Mantle. Or Bjorn Borg. Or Steffi Graf. Or Wilt Chamberlain.

    • maikoch - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:02 AM

      Ah, I see that he mentioned Mantle and Williams later in the column. In any case, I am not very sure what the point here is. Does Posnanski really think that this is some unique characteristic of Hall of Famers? I think that even the scrubs hang on as long as they can. It’s just that lack of talent tends to end their career before age does–we don’t see a 42 year old David Eckstein trying to eke out one last hit.

      • dowhatifeellike - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:12 AM

        The better players are also given more opportunities to redeem themselves after a poor season, or injury problems, or what have you. How Jason Giambi is still in baseball is beyond me– he was bad last year, worse this year, and he says he still wants to play next year at 43. He did pretty well in limited time in 2011, but before that his last good season was 2008.

      • rpearlston - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:20 PM

        No, he’s say that it’s a human characteristic to not know when to stop. It is the rare person who can see this in themselves, athlete or not. In fact, it’s difficult for us to be subjective about ourselves, no matter the reason. Think, just ofr a minute, about all of those people who use the Internet to diagnose their problems and then go to their doctors to insist on being treated for something that they simply don’t have. It’s the same thing.

    • raysfan1 - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:27 AM

      Mickey Mantle’s hit .237, 18 HRs and 54 RBI his last season. His legs were balky. He was finished when he retired.

      Bjorn Borg did surprise many when he retired at only 26, but then he tried and failed to mount a comeback in his 30’s. he certainly could have stayed a great tennis player a few more years, but he was not able to be one when he tried in his mid-30’s.

      Wilt Chamberlain scored 13.2 points a game his final season, about 17 lower than his career average, and it had been 2 years since he had last averaged 20 or more a game. Then he decided to try professional volleyball. He definitely didn’t go out on top of his game either.

      Steffi Graf? Have you forgotten all her injuries from 1997-1999, her last year as a touring pro? How she lost her #1 ranking for good to Martina Hingis? Granted she had a brief resurgence in 99 to get to majors finals, but lost. She was still a very good player but her greatness was done.

      I’ll grant you Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. However, they are memorable for being exceptions to the rule.

      • maikoch - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:30 PM

        Mickey Mantle had a bWAR of 2.6 in his final season. That’s All-Star territory. His seemingly poor numbers were actually a product of an overall decline in offense across the league.

      • raysfan1 - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:45 PM

        True enough. Also true that that was his lowest total in 3 years. The point wasn’t that he wasn’t still good. It was that he, like most, played until he was no longer capable of playing at the level he expected of himself.

        I also personally see nothing wrong with that. As far as I am concerned, Jeter can play until he is no longer good enough to make a 40-man roster, and it won’t hurt his legacy as a once-great player at all.

      • paperlions - Sep 13, 2013 at 3:05 PM

        Mantle’s fWAR was 2.8 his last year, which was 55th out of 98 qualified position players, in a league with only with only 20 teams. That wasn’t borderline AS, but rather a little above average regular. The only real valuable contribution that year was his crazy high BB rate (nearly 20%).

      • jimeejohnson - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:47 PM

        Two words: Barry Sanders.

    • maikoch - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:31 PM

      Wow, look at all the thumbs down! I forgot that one must never criticize St. Posnanski, no matter how sloppy his articles may be.

      • maikoch - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:35 PM

        I mean, look at the final sentences of this column:

        “Think of all he has accomplished in his amazing career. Think of all the doubters he silenced. Think of all the hurdles he overcame. Think of all the the times he was right about himself and others were wrong. You can expect Derek Jeter to come back with confidence, with certainty, with an intense belief that he will succeed again. Of course he will. It’s human nature.”

        Does NOBODY see what schlocky tripe this is? They should embed Vangelis’ theme from “Chariots of Fire” to play in the background when you load this article.

        I truly don’t understand why Bill Plaschke and Mitch Albom and Rick Reilly get crucified (rightly) for writing maudlin crap like this, but Joe Posnanski is lauded for his brilliance.

      • stlouis1baseball - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:21 PM

        I don’t know it’s so much a result of everyone being pro Posnanski.
        Rather, I think it has to do with your approach at criticizing him.

      • daviddmsvcp - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:39 PM

        Who are you people and why are you so gay for sportswriters?

        Are you all taking sports writing classes at your local community college?

        And, yes, this article sucked. I could not read it to the end.

        “And now, let me tell you about another player …”


      • raysfan1 - Sep 13, 2013 at 3:08 PM

        @Maikoch–Don’t worry about the thumbs. You stated your opinion, and were not rude or offensive about it.

      • paperlions - Sep 13, 2013 at 3:12 PM

        Maybe we just think you are wrong.

        It is, in fact, human nature to continue to compete, to continue to struggle. Indeed, that is why people that don’t are called “quitters” and referred to negatively….because the basic instinct is to keep trying until it is obvious that you can not succeed, rather than to quit because you might not succeed any more.

        FYI, Jim Brown quit football in part because he wanted to pursue an acting career, which was far more lucrative than playing football.

      • daviddmsvcp - Sep 13, 2013 at 4:54 PM

        Giving a Thumb’s Down is like, the ultimate power trip, for the lame.

        Professional athletes play until they are cut because it is what they have done all their lives. It’s what they know how to do. And they probably like it.

        People walking away in their prime less common than playing until it is obvious that you can’t do it anymore, much less do it like you did it in your prime.


      • jimeejohnson - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:48 PM

        Jim Brown played a great cowboy!

  2. Detroit Michael - Sep 13, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    Will Clark, Mike Mussina and (now) Mariano Rivera are great players who retired after performing well in their final seasons. Still, that’s a pretty short list and they aren’t nearly as great as the players cited in this post who fared poorly in their final seasons.

    • rpearlston - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:42 PM

      Tell us all, please, how it is that you believe Rivera is still pitching well. Have you checked his numbers, including his BLOWN saves? Yes, that’s right, he’s piling up blown saves this season as in no other.

      Rivera was right last season when he came into the season saying it would be his last. He would have been able to go in style, but that knee injury made him want to come back so that he could retire on his own terms. The way he’s pitching this season, he’s NOT going out on his own terms.

      • Detroit Michael - Sep 16, 2013 at 12:03 PM

        The numbers are there for all to see.

        7 blown saves and 43 saves means an 84% conversion rate, which is merely OK, not great. 2.30 ERA, 3.15 xFIP are excellent. 2.42 wins probability added and 6-2 W-L record show that he’s been well above average in the clutch despite the blown saves.

        Yes, it is well off of Rivera’s best seasons, but I would characterize it as “performing well in [his] final season.” I stand by my original comment.

  3. dowhatifeellike - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    He’ll be back because the Yankees have to pay him no matter how poorly he performs.

    Retirement is the only way he doesn’t get paid.

    • bigharold - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:45 PM

      Not that money is irrelevant to him but I’m pretty sure Jeter isn’t worried about getting paid.

      Unless Jeter is convinced he’s not physically capable of withstanding a MLB season he will return because like others sighted in the article it’s part of their make up. It’s a vague mixture of drive, competitiveness, fear and self confidence that makes them great athletes in the first place that also refuses top allow them to see their decline. They have to be convinced, .. they have to see it and feel it for themselves.

      If Jeter thinks he’s healthy enough he’ll be back. He won’t embarrass himself but he will need evidence that he can’t play to his expectations before he packs it in. This year, because of the linger affects of last year’s injury, is not enough to convince him it’s time. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2014 he has a terrible year or if he hit .315 and had 600 plate appearances. Either way, it ain’t over for him until he says so.

    • rpearlston - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:58 PM

      I doubt that he needs that $9.5M. ANd he’s not that arrogant man-child known as A-roid, who doesn’t understand that he has enough, or that we and baseball have had more than enough of him. (The last part doesn’t apply to Jeter.)

  4. tcostant - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    Doesn’t anyone know why the DL was used? Meaning after Sept 1st you can have 40 guys on the roster and the Yankees don’t have all 40 in NY, so no roster spot was needed. Why DL him???

    • rmcd13 - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:52 AM

      Two possibilities: 1) Injured players can be replaced on playoff rosters by a player not on the August 31 25-man roster. This move allows them greater roster flexibility for the playoffs. 2) It is a clear signal to the team, player, and media that Jeter will not be playing any more games this season regardless of other circumstances. There will be no drama about will he or won’t he play.

      • rpearlston - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:53 PM

        Any player in an organization’s system, at any level, can be on their post-season roster. What you can’t do is add to that roster a player who arrived in the organization after Aug 31. However, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the DL in September.

        I could understand putting him on the 60-day DL, because that opens a spot on the 40. But he was put on the 15-day DL, and that is a move that could use an explanation.

      • mazblast - Sep 15, 2013 at 1:08 PM

        I think this was done for the second reason, to make it clear that there will be no Disneyfied, melodramatic comeback for Captain Intangibles this year. For once, the Yankees are not looking for ink, air, and publicity. They’re putting the disaster of Jeter’s 2013 behind them and trying to keep the public’s mind (and what passes for the media’s minds) on the goal.

    • Detroit Michael - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:28 PM

      Another reason is that starting 2-3 years ago, MLB started encouraging teams to keep using the disabled list in September to keep its injury statistics constant throughout the season. Hence, when teams have close to 100% certainty that a player will be out for the season, they do sometimes use the 15-day disabled list even in September.

  5. sdelmonte - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    I think that Jackie Robinson is a very different case than many of the others. A warrior for sure, but from what I’ve read about him, he didn’t have a passion for baseball that many others did. It was more a job by the end of his career, and one that didn’t pay as well as what was offered to him by Chock Full o’Nuts. He was also not treated particularly well by the Dodgers at the end.

    Yes, the years of wear and tear from a life spent as an all around athlete were taking a toll on him, but I think he was more ready to go. That he was traded to the Giants was merely the final insult. If he were treated as well, and paid as well, as Derek Jeter, maybe he would have stuck around longer. But I doubt it.

    • largebill - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:31 PM

      I may be misremembering, but I thought Robinson later said he had the position with Chock Full of Nuts lined up well before the trade was proposed. The company just wasn’t ready to announce the move yet.

  6. philliesblow - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    Gordie Howe had 15 goals and 26 assists at age 51 with the Hartford Whalers. He then came back and played 1 shift at age 69 with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL.

    • sadtwinsfan - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:01 PM

      i remember gordie howe saying something to the effect of ‘most people work 30 plus years at their job, why should i be different?’

  7. cackalackyank - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:57 AM

    I certainly may be wrong, but to insist the Jeter HAS to keep playing is highly presumptuous too. I am sure this guy can probably make way more $ in endorsements, movies, and the broadcast booth than he will get next year to play. The only thing that I think is now a virtual certainty is that there is very little chance of the “opt out and hit them up for more money” scenario.

    • Detroit Michael - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:33 PM

      I disagree. Jeter will be paid $8MM in 2014 under his contract. If he retires, he’ll lose that amount plus his endorsement income as a retired athlete will probably be lower than what it is today. No way that in movies and the broadcast booth he can recover that lost income.

      • jwbiii - Sep 13, 2013 at 2:43 PM

        $9.5m, actually. His 2012 Silver Slugger Award triggered an escalator clause.

  8. Old Gator - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    I watched Willie Mays in his final season with the Mutts. It was pretty sad. My die hard Dodger fan uncle, who was on a family suicide watch when the Bums went west, used to mutter about Mays, “he kills us” oblivious to how he killed everybody else too. But I had a mystic’s awe of Willie growing up, and when I watched him lope out to the field in that final year, it was really bittersweet – I got to see him play, but he was just a shell of himself. Then, in that improbable pennant run of 1973, I remember flinging my popcorn in the air watching the game on TV when Mays drove in Harrelson with the last single of his career in the twelfth inning. But it all seem so labored for the guy whose gracefulness afield was always his signature. Still, I’m grateful for that final season, for its poignancy as well as for its excitement.

    • larrytsg - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:44 PM

      Anytime we can look back fondly at the career of Willie Mays it’s a good day. As for Jeter, I have never liked the Yanks, grew up a Mets fan and now live in Boston, but I like him. I was hoping he could pile up a bunch of hits once he got past 3,000 and would keep going for a while, but it’s too bad the Yankees haven’t setup their team to allow for Jeter to play anywhere else besides SS. I would have loved to see him over at 1B, chatting it up with hitters like David Ortiz, Konerko, Cabrera, Trout and the likes.

      Ah, Willie Mays, there will never be another.

  9. hackerjay - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:19 PM

    I think Rickey Henderson is one of the greatest examples of this. He spent three years in a small independent league after his MLB career ended. And that’s on top of the fact that he had just finished four years in the MLB barely making over the league minimum. The guy obviously just loved to play.

    • ptfu - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:30 PM

      Padres fans used to joke that we could still have a great ballplayer if we could combine Tony Gwynn’s hitting with Rickey Henderson’s legs.

  10. yankeepunk3000 - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:26 PM

    man great article Joe. makes me think how age catches all of us. except me, I will be young forever.

    • bigharold - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:51 PM

      ” I will be young forever.”

      You keep thinking that. Me .. I know the only place in the universe where I’m still quick, agile and can run all day is on top of my Kawasaki.

  11. southofheaven81 - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:42 PM

    Wow, 22 comments so far & not a single “Reedings hard I don wanna!!!” complaint about the length of Joe’s post. It’s a miracle!

    • jimeejohnson - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:43 PM

      I need a miracle every DAY so that works.

  12. mikhelb - Sep 13, 2013 at 2:11 PM

    Jeter WANTS to come back, he doesn’t have to come back.

    It is different for a player when he wants to keep playing than when he has to keep playing because he’s under contract or because he needs the money; Derek Jeter certainly doesn’t need the money as much as say, a rookie who was drafted in the final round.

  13. neelymessier - Sep 13, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    Yes you have used Jeter to dredge up old news about athletes who played too long.

    The only real concern I see is the recent pattern of injuries. Yeah, he will likely have to DH at least part of the time next year. Since his last great year at 35, he’s had three solid years averaging 293 or so for three straight years. Of course we are all better in our primes, but I see no evidence Jeter will play mediocre or worse and embarrass himself. He basically didn’t play this year.

    If he can heal and play less field, he can play three years before he goes anywhere near 280 for a season. As long as he can help and contribute, bless him for gibing it a go.

  14. bat42boy - Sep 13, 2013 at 3:01 PM

    Really enjoyed reading your exposé on Jeter and the other great athletes. Nice job of writing and very informative.

  15. chicoruiz - Sep 13, 2013 at 3:32 PM

    Anyone remember the story about the two Old Timers sitting in the stands in the New Yankee Stadium?
    One says, “what do you think DiMaggio’s batting average would have been, nowadays?”
    The other says, “.235, .240”.
    “Why, relief pitching? More travel? TV pressure?”

    “No, Joe’d be 85 years old!”

    • larrytsg - Sep 13, 2013 at 4:57 PM

      I thought that story was about Ted Williams, when asked how he’d do against today’s pitching (probably in the 1980’s) he responded that he’d hit around .240. When asked why, he said “I’m 72 years old!”.

  16. mgv38 - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:36 PM

    “I’ve got a lot of years to live after baseball and I would like to live them with the complete use of my body.”

    Retire, Derek. It’s been a good run. Let it go.

  17. jimeejohnson - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:42 PM

    I saw Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle only because they stayed on “too long”. I’m glad they did.

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