November 2, 2012
Why Darren Oliver Might Really Retire This Time
We love baseball, all of us, but it can be exhausting, too. There are so many games. The games only matter in that they lead to other, more exclusive games. Then, once those games are played, we wait a few months and we start over, with more games. For you, it’s a hobby and a diversion. But imagine it’s your job, and all these pointless games just pile up on each other, each one bringing a new chance for you to fail in front of everybody. How long until it stopped being fun?
Darren Oliver is 42 years old. The Blue Jays just picked up his $3 million option for 2013, but he’s said to be leaning toward retirement. Many times in his career he has been leaning toward retirement, but this one is a bit different for two reasons: He’s really, really good; and it sounds like he might mean it.
Darren Oliver has the job you wish your dad had had, but his kids just want him home. It almost makes you wonder how anybody makes it to 42 without retiring.
The first time he nearly retired.
The Rockies signed him before spring training, he got attacked by bees, and the Rockies released him. The Diamondbacks signed him in April, and released him. The Cubs signed him in May, and released him, and from May 20 on he was unemployed. He pitched 32 minor-league innings that year, all as a starter. He gave up 34 runs, including 20 in 13 innings for for Iowa; the Iowa Cubs’ web site ran a headline calling his first start “The Mother’s Day Massacre."
Put it this way: he was the oldest pitcher on his PCL team, and he was the worst pitcher on his PCL team.
This is what is now referred to in profiles as Darren Oliver’s semi-retirement. It’s not clear he was ever really retired, though. He wasn’t working, and he didn’t seem to expect to work. He got a little fat, and when the Winter Meetings were held near his home that offseason and his agent invited him for drinks, he went just to see what the Winter Meetings were like. But it also didn’t take much to get him back. It took two Mets executives who joined him for those drinks and asked if he could still throw. He agreed to a minor-league contract, went on a diet, and made the team out of Spring Training, earning $600,000.
"I don't think I was ready to quit, but in this game you never really walk away when you want to, on your own terms," Oliver said. "You usually get pushed out and there's no job there for you. That's just the way sports is and I was really thankful that I got another chance."
The second time he nearly retired.
And he’s getting better. His ERA, which was already pretty good in 2007, has gone down every year since. Only nine other pitchers since World War II have lowered their ERAs in five consecutive seasons (minimum 40 innings) (and an admittedly gimmicky measure). The oldest of the nine was 35 years old when his streak ended; Oliver was 37 years old when his began.
Yes, he has faced a higher percentage of lefties as he has aged,
but there’s not much to suggest that’s all (or any) of what’s causing his improvement, as righties’ .243/.306/.334 line against him over the past five seasons is only a glimmer better than lefties’ .231/.278/.349 line. And most of the difference in those lines is attributable to intentional walks; remove those, and the OBP gap drops by half.
Yet twice during this stretch he has hinted at retirement. After 2010: “Whether he will play in 2011, Oliver said, will be the subject of a future family roundtable.” After 2011: “I talked to my kids the other day. It was kind of funny. (Brock) thinks if I told (Maxwell) that I was only going to play one more year, he might be OK with it, because he could see the light at the end of the tunnel.” And after 2012, he told John Lott that “every kid needs a father at home.”
This time that he is considering retirement.
There’s something admirable about hanging on like that, but the closer you get to it the more melancholy it is, too. That’s not where Darren Oliver is in his career—anymore. You can understand the desire to get out, to be the rare player who does walk away when he wants to.
“The younger one doesn’t want me to keep hanging on, hanging on, hanging on,” Darren Oliver said last offseason. That son was nine years old when Darren Oliver said that—the same age Darren was when Bob Oliver finally quit.
*I had a hard time deciding which of the many ironic-in-retrospect statements from our past to quote. I chose the Moyer one, but this one is also delightful, from 2005: “While Oliver may be as overripe as a sandwich you left in the car over a hot weekend, his ability to keep hanging around is proof that some people will eat anything.”