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July 11, 2008

Prospectus Matchups

Exiting Stage Left

by Jim Baker

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One of the sad realities of life is that we rarely get to choreograph our exits. Things seldom end as we would have wished, and it is no different for most big league ballplayers. Every ex-ballplayer remembers his first big league plate appearance. Those who don't are either lying or probably self-anesthetized in some fashion. On the other hand, how many of them remember their final plate appearance?

With Barry Bonds still sitting in the waiting room at the Major League Baseball Employment Office, I got to wondering what had happened in his final plate appearance last year. On September 26, 2007, he faced the Padres' Jake Peavy in the sixth inning and flied out to center fielder Brady Clark in an 11-3 loss. Should he not resurface with another club, that will remain a very quiet end to a rather noisy career. This got me curious about the final plate appearances of other famous players. I've cherry-picked a few for discussion today. Here they are in reverse chronological order, going back 50 years or so.

  • Rickey Henderson, Los Angeles Dodgers (September 19, 2003 vs. Jason Christiansen, San Francisco Giants)

    With each passing day it seems a little more certain that this is, in fact, the last big league appearance of Rickey Henderson. He was called on to bat for Guillermo Mota leading off the eighth innings with the Dodgers trailing 6-4. Christiansen hit him with a pitch. He eventually scored on a single by Shawn Green, the 2,295th run of his career-a record that appears a lot safer now that Bonds is stalled at 2,227. The next-closest active player is Ken Griffey Jr. with 1,585. The next one with any serious playing time left is Alex Rodriguez at 1,553. It seems likely that Rodriguez will eventually pass Henderson. (Rodriguez is also a very similar distance from Hank Aaron's career RBI record of 2,297.)

  • Mark McGwire, St. Louis Cardinals (October 14, 2001 vs. Curt Schilling, Arizona Diamondbacks; Game Five of the NLDS)

    That sound you hear on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the historic Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase? Crickets. McGwire is in a Nixon-like post-Watergate mode. Will he have the semi-renaissance that Nixon enjoyed later in life? I wouldn't rule it out. In this game, Schilling whiffed McGwire in all three trips to the plate, as Arizona prevailed 2-1. His final regular-season experience came a week before, when he flied out against Billy Wagner of Houston while pinch-hitting in the season finale.

  • Mike Schmidt, Philadelphia Phillies (May 28, 1989 vs. Mike LaCoss, San Francisco Giants)

    Very few Hall of Famers-or any ballplayers, for that matter-end their careers the way Mike Schmidt did. Stepping down in mid-campaign is simply not the route most players take, but Schmidt was not happy with the turn his playing level was taking, and surprised everyone by retiring the next day after the team had moved on to San Diego. In his final plate appearance, he drew a walk in the ninth inning, but was left stranded as the Phillies lost 8-5.

  • Joe Morgan, Oakland A's (September 30, 1984 vs. Mark Gubicza, Kansas City Royals)

    On the last day of the season, Morgan started at second base and pasted a double with one out in the first. Tony Phillips came on to pinch run and went on to score the first of the A's eight runs that day. Unlike a lot of 40-year-olds, Morgan finished his career with something left in the tank, posting a .282 EqA in his final season.

  • Minnie Minoso, Chicago White Sox (October 5, 1980 vs. Dave Schuler, California Angels)

    This was the second of Minoso's novelty "comebacks" in the Bill Veeck regime, so he essentially had three farewell plate appearances. In this one he grounded out. In his 1976 stint he flied out against Sid Monge, also of the Angels. In his first farewell in 1964, he was struck out by Don McMahon of the Indians on July 5.

  • Hank Aaron, Milwaukee Brewers (October 3, 1976 vs. Dave Roberts, Detroit Tigers)

    In the sixth inning with the Brewers trailing 5-1, Aaron hit a run-scoring single and was lifted for pinch runner Jim Gantner so that the assembled multitude of 6,858 could give him one final ovation.

  • Al Kaline, Detroit Tigers (October 2, 1974 vs. Mike Cuellar, Baltimore Orioles)

    I've included Kaline here for the simple reason that nobody seems to talk about him anymore. In his last season, he reached the 3,000-hit milestone with about a week to go, having played almost every day while batting in the middle of the order each time. In this, his final game, he flied out to left field in the third inning and was lifted for a pinch-hitter the next time up. Under 5,000 people were on hand at Tiger Stadium and the whole final series against Baltimore drew under 15,000.

  • Willie Mays, New York Mets (October 16, 1973 vs. Paul Linblad, Oakland A's; Game Three of the World Series)

    Mays did not appear in the final four games of the '73 World Series, so his last plate appearance came in the 10th inning of Game Three, when he grounded into a 6-4 force out to end the inning. The A's won in the next frame. His final regular-season plate appearance came on September 9, when he struck out against Chuck Taylor of the Expos. He ended his career much as he started it: in a hitting funk. Famous for starting his career 1-for-24, he ended it 1-for-16.

  • Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates (October 11, 1972 vs. Tom Hall, Cincinnati Reds; Game Five of the NLCS )

    Clemente's final plate appearance before his tragic death resulted in an intentional walk in the top of the eighth inning after Al Oliver sacrificed Rennie Stennett to second. He was left stranded there, and the Pirates would lose the game and the series on a wild pitch by Bob Moose in the next inning. More famous is Clemente's final regular-season at-bat, which came on September 30 against Jon Matlack of the Mets. Clemente stroked a double for his 3,000th career hit. The Pirates actually had three more games to go, however, during which Clemente played one inning of defense and did not bat.

  • Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees (September 28, 1968 vs. Jim Lonborg, Boston Red Sox)

    Mantle's final big league at-bat came at Fenway Park on the next-to-last day of the season. He batted third and popped out to shortstop. He never took the field, though, as Andy Kosco played the rest of the way at first base. His final Yankee Stadium plate appearance had come three days before against Luis Tiant and resulted in a walk. In the first inning of that game, Mantle singled for his final big league hit, which also proved to be the only safety Tiant would surrender en route to his ninth shutout of the season.

  • Yogi Berra, New York Mets (May 9, 1965 vs. Tony Cloninger, Milwaukee Braves)

    Yogi's final appearance had come on September 28, 1963, when he lined out against Bill Dailey of the Twins while pinch-hitting for Al Downing. Two years later, however, he signed on with the Mets in the wake of losing the Yankee manager's job in spite of winning 99 games. He then became what I am assuming to be the only player ever to be listed as "catcher-coach" on his baseball card. In his second shot at a last plate appearance, he hit into a force out with one out in the ninth.

  • Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals (September 29, 1963 vs. Jim Maloney, Cincinnati Reds)

    In the bottom of the sixth, Musial broke a scoreless tie when he singled home Curt Flood. A crowd of over 25,000 was on hand to bid him farewell and they got their chance when Gary Kolb was sent in to pinch run. The Cards eventually won in the 14th. For those who constantly say that baseball is not as popular as it once was, I have to ask this: if a one-team icon like Musial retired in this day and age, would there be 5,000 empty seats?

  • Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox (September 28, 1960 vs. Jack Fisher, Baltimore Orioles)

    In what is probably the most famous final career at-bat on record, Williams hit a home run to center field with one out in the eighth inning to bring the Red Sox to within one run of Baltimore. Williams was lifted for a defensive replacement to start the ninth. Interestingly, his batting slot was on deck when the winning runs scored in the bottom of the ninth. I'm sure that many of you, like me, thought this home run occurred on the last day of the season, but this was not the case-there was another series to go in New York. Does it somehow undercut the drama that Williams got to choose this to be his last at-bat?

  • Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers (October 10, 1956 vs. Johnny Kucks, New York Yankees; Game Seven of the World Series)

    In the following offseason, Robinson refused to participate in a trade to the Giants and called it a career. This left as his last plate appearance the final out of the 1956 World Series. He struck out with a runner on first against Kucks, who tossed a three-hitter as the Yankees won 9-0. Robinson's last regular season at-bat came two weeks before against Pittsburgh's Bob Friend, and resulted in a groundout to shortstop.

  • Monte Irvin, Chicago Cubs (September 30, 1956 vs. Hal Jeffcoat, Cincinnati Reds)

    Irvin's coda in Chicago is not well-remembered, as the major league portion of his career is so closely identified with the Giants. He was picked up by the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft and made a nice showing, posting a .289 EqA in 111 games. He wasn't in the lineup on this, the last day of the season, but was called in to pinch-hit for starting pitcher Bob Rush in the ninth with the Cubs trailing 4-0, two out, and runners on second and third. After a wild pitch plated a run, Irvin drew a walk to bring the tying run to the plate. He was then pulled for a pinch runner and the Cubs went on to lose 4-2.

Some other time, we'll look at the final batters that some famous pitchers faced.

Related Content:  Farewell,  Roberto Clemente,  The Who,  September

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