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June 29, 2004

Breaking Balls

Pride

by Derek Zumsteg

I've been getting a lot of e-mail lately that runs like this:
I know you like Edgar Martinez, but don't you think he should retire? He can't run, he can't hit. He should have some pride.

It's true, I'm emotionally attached. But I know that, so I can recognize it, take a deep breath, and be rational about it.

And my answer is: "I have no business telling Edgar, or any player, to retire."

Martinez has been on a slow and steady decline for years. His isolated power's down, his secondary average drops year after year. He still sees four pitches an at-bat, even with his flawed eyesight betraying him (when you see Edgar bailing out on pitches, that's what he does when he can't pick up the pitch) as it conspires with an aging body that simply can't drive the ball as well as it once could.

Edgar's hit for years when most projection systems and any rational person would figure his production had to dry up entirely. Last year at 40 he hit .294/.406/.489, which was about in line with PECOTA's weighted projections, after coming back from knee surgery in 2002 to remove a ruptured tendon. He fought, as he does nearly every year, balky hamstrings. As with every season of late, though, he came back and hit a little less...but he still hit, and hit, and hit.

Edgar wanted to retire to spend more time with his family this off-season, but his son wanted to see dad play, everyone else was cool, so it turned out he really didn't take much convincing to return. He wanted another season, as healthy as he could get, to return to .300 for a year. He last did that in 2001, and set that as his goal last year, only to barely miss it. Returning would give him 300 home runs and 500 doubles--nice round numbers that nonetheless may know have helped him make the Hall of Fame. Edgar's case is largely built on rate stats, and being the best designated hitter ever.

A player doesn't retire because he had a good season and figures he won't duplicate it. He's forced to find other work only when his agent can't get him a tryout, or when the doctor shakes his head and says another season's not only going to make everyday life painful, but unbearable. And even then the player takes his cell phone on fishing trips and keeps looking at it to make sure it's got a signal. The player seems unable to believe even in the dusk of his playing days that he's not fundamentally as good as he ever was. He looks to each year as a comeback, each game as a chance to turn back the clock. It's a rare player that leaves on his own terms.

Jeff Bower wrote a great guest column in Rob Neyer's space last year on great last seasons by players. They're few and far between. Pick your great player, and you'll usually find he spent the last years of his careers scraping for at-bats or getting the last couple of hits in a Devil Rays uniform.

Why?

To become a professional baseball player, a player needs to be not only talented but also confident in his own abilities--to the point of delusion. Sometimes past the point of delusion. It's always funny to hear some scrub talk about how he's mad that he doesn't get more playing time. But it's that same belief in the value of his ability and the drive behind it that got him into the major leagues. While only a few players like Barry Bonds may be justified in saying they're the absolute best, even an honest assessment from a smart player of modest talents would sound arrogant: "I'm a decent major league player, better at my job than all but a couple hundred people on the planet. And you know...I think I'm better than a lot of those guys, too. See, I've been working on this new grip on my curve..."

That's the drive. No player wants to be platooned, because he wants to be up at bat, diving for a ball, scoring the winning run. Few pitchers accept limited roles because they think they can't handle larger ones; players will sometimes choose the opportunity for playing time over money, or even a chance to play with a contender.

Rickey Henderson is one of the greatest baseball players the game has ever seen. He's willing to play in the independent leagues if that's what it takes to keep putting on a uniform and taking the field (and hitting .236/.382/.455 as I write this). The last two seasons he's still found a way into the major leagues. In 2002 with Boston, he hit .223/.369/.352 in severely limited duty, and last year with the Dodgers at age 44, he hit .208/.321/.306. And yet he'd show up for your favorite team if called next week, and probably begin agitating for increased playing time at some point in the season. His late career's eaten into his overall rate stats, but he doesn't care. He can't hit for average even in the Atlantic League, but he's working pitchers for walks in front of tiny crowds. Can anyone say that Rickey doesn't have pride in himself?

Retiring isn't about pride for any of these guys. Pride is what keeps them going, training, playing hard. Thinking that after spending their lives playing baseball they would somehow be able to turn it off so easily is silly. We can blame the managers, who are supposed to make the decisions on who can best help their team, and calm troubled waters. We can blame the front offices, who are supposed to supply managers with the best talent, and to tell the manager it's OK to bench the popular player.

But to blame anyone who got to the major leagues on pride and hard work for wanting to fight against the end of his career as long as hard as he can, after accomplishing a task in reaching the majors that's beyond almost all of us, especially after putting together a long and productive career...it feels like cheering for people to give in to illness, in a way.

I don't want to see Edgar take his last wave, walk into the clubhouse, and sit down, listening to the sounds of the game under the televisions and PA system, and think "that pop single wasn't so bad." I want the Edgar I have. The Edgar who even when struggling thinks about how he got under it too much and walks back to the cage, determined to put so much on his next hit that the friction from the connection causes the stitches to catch fire, whipping past that kid pitcher's head. To drive that same pitch into the scoreboard with such force that it knocks the thing back onto the rail lines behind Safeco Field. Edgar shouldn't have pride, as people suggest. It is because he has pride that we even have this discussion.

If Edgar or any player continues to try and fail as his desire pushes him to keep on, that's not ignominy. That's an admirable human quality in the struggle that defines each of our lives.

Related Content:  Retire,  The Who,  Managers Of The Year

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