January 16, 2014
The Historical Precedent for an A-Rod Comeback
His name is Candy Nelson, and more than 120 years ago, he did what Alex Rodriguez is facing the prospect of having to accomplish when his 162-game suspension ends. Rodriguez will be four months short of his 40th birthday when he comes back to play, presuming both that no federal court intervention changes the decree and that he does desire to return.
The diminutive Nelson was 41 when he returned from a year off in 1890. At least he might have returned from a year off. Records at Baseball-Reference.com have him playing in what were considered the minor leagues in 1888 for Albany and Buffalo and returning to what was considered a major league in 1890 to play 60 games for the last-place Brooklyn Gladiators of the American Association. He might not have played in 1889. There seems to be no record of it, anyway.
When looking for any pattern for A-Rod to emulate as precedent after an unprecedented suspension process, we have to allow for some words like “might,” because there just aren’t many guys at all who have come back from a year completely off at his age.
In the 140-ish years that we’ve had entities that we consider major league baseball (with lowercase letters), only 33 times has a position player successfully made a comeback (>10 games) at A-Rod’s age or older after being out of the majors for a full season.
The list is, understandably, heavily concentrated in the 1940s, with one-third of it making their comebacks between 1943 and 1947 as players were returning from World War II.
Over the 66 years since, there have been fewer than in that four-year stretch. Just 10 position players Rodriguez’s age or older have even been away from the majors for one year—let alone baseball altogether—and realized a comeback.
Most of those 10 don’t really count because they played professionally in another country, whether Japan, South Korea, Mexico or New Jersey. A couple more played in affiliated minor league ball, just never making it back to the majors until the following season.
So if you’re looking for any sort of recent comp for how Rodriguez might come back refreshed or lethargic after a year away from the game, you’d want to look to Andres Galarraga or Jim Edmonds, who did so under very different circumstances.
Galarraga, like Rodriguez will, missed what was technically going to be his age-38 season in 1999—Rodriguez is 11 months older in his age 38, though. Galarraga was diagnosed with lymphoma and sat out the year in order to recover through chemotherapy. When he got back to the Braves, his statistics declined from the .305/.397/.595 he produced for Atlanta in 1998. But even after treatments, he was still playing at an All-Star level. His bat didn’t take long to recover—he had a .910 OPS with 20 home runs in the first half, an .872 with eight home runs after the break. He would go on to play four more seasons for a mashup of four more teams at about a league-average offensive level.
Edmonds, meanwhile, sat out for lack of a suitable offer in 2009. He returned at age 40 to hit .276/.342/.504 in 86 games with the Brewers and Reds and then call it a day in a somewhat more dignified manner.
So let it not be said that a player of this A-Rod’s cannot come back after missing a year. The greatest uncertainty—even if you’re not a believer in his being adversely affected by presumably being off the good stuff—will stem from the fact that before the suspension, he was a declining player to a much greater extent than the others. Galarraga and Edmonds were down from their peaks, but they were still notable stars when they went out (Edmonds’ 26-game disaster in San Diego the exception).
The scary path would be that of the Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville, who was also clearly on the decline—his ridiculous MVP vote totals notwithstanding—and completely collapsed, hitting .149 in a sad epilogue after missing the 1934 season to injury.
As for passing the time and trying to avoid that particular fate, there are plenty of options for Rodriguez that involve some baseballing, whether or not he shows up to Yankees spring training in mid-February. All of them might not befit a 654-home-run hitter and one of the greatest offensive players of all time, but they’re all better than going off to war or some of the other alternatives that have still allowed for some successful comebacks in old age.
He might be able to play independent ball, though teams appear to be against it. Japan is probably out given NPB’s sensitive relationship with Major League Baseball, but he could presumably go practice every day with the Miami Hurricanes, for whom he paid almost $4 million and scored the stadium naming rights.
Or he could just give up. He’s still due $61 million in the next three years whether or not he shows up at 300 pounds or in actual shape—as long as he shows up. Playing would be the only thing that gets him to the $6 million bonuses for 660, 714, 755, 762 and 763 home runs, but what were the chances anyway beyond that first milestone?
This could just be the Summer of A-Rod. Mini-fridge in the recliner and everything.