“We run out of time at some point.” When David Ortiz announced on The Players Tribune his intention to retire at the end of the 2016 season, it became obvious that Opening Day won’t just mark the beginning of Big Papi’s last campaign; it will launch a retirement tour.
These orchestrated farewells, rife with pomp and circumstance, are reserved for a very small cadre of players. These men belong to a select club, admitted because of long, distinguished careers, notable for their contributions to one franchise, and important to The Game, significant to Baseball. Most ballplayers, even the great ones, won’t have played long enough, or won’t have done enough, to qualify. They won’t be a Jeter or a Jones or a Rivera. They’ll have made the wrong observers angry, or faded away to a second or third franchise. They’ll have been Barry Bonds. And they won’t get to participate in an emerging and truly bizarre tradition, notable not just for the ticket sales and T-shirts and new ways to spell respect.
These tours are the marking and measuring of time, the ability to plead with an audience to remember this moment, to mark this as the end, while actually wishing to evoke a melange of other moments from seasons past, when the idea of retirement was insane because you were a young, strong boy, and you were going to live forever. These tours are the creation of meaning.
Meaning depends on the void; on the presence of a time or place just beyond the meanings we know now. We abhor that potential absence of the familiar. We are shaken by the idea of navigating without the guideposts that familiarity gives us. So we pause. We reflect. We take selfies and mark the occasion and are giddy to be able to say we were there one last time. We fill the void and push the place beyond our current meanings a little further off, like railroad conductors frantically laying track so that the train can keep moving. So we can keep contextualizing baseball with familiar tools and tropes.
So when we see Ortiz come out on the field, we’ll be simultaneously in a memory and creating a new one. Part of the magic of it is the collective significance we feel, with each memory imbued with a collective holding of one’s breath because maybe this is Jeter’s last home run. Maybe he’ll never run out of the dugout and tip his cap again. Maybe this is it. He gets to decide where the terminus is. He gets to say where his own track runs out. Baseball as an apparatus of entertainment and profit spins that into a hashtag and a t-shirt. But we buy it and buy in because we want to hold on to the meaning we all made.
The traditions of baseball, the crackerjacks and the beers and the seventh-inning stretch, are all an exercise is making meaning out of the everyday, of the minutiae defining a tradition notable for its sameness. This is how my grandfather taught my mother to act at the ballpark and she taught me; this is when we stand. This is what we cheer. This is how we baseball. The routinization of those small moments creates and constitutes the game’s meaning. It’s the small made manifest and grand. These meanings aren’t constant, but the process of their creation tends to be iterative, with dramatic shifts being a result of crisis, real or imagined.
But the retirement tour does the opposite. It takes the exceptional and uses that as a frame to make meaning out of the spectacular. It takes the spectacular and chops it up into sombreros and benches and plaques. We all get to see it; we all get to see the big show. And what’s more, you get to make your own special meaning, because your team gave him that gift and not this one. You got to give him a sombrero! And other people didn’t because those things, those tokens of moments past, don’t mean anything with their context removed. Or they at least don’t mean as much. Where traditions rely on the everyday, the retirement tour is predicated on the notion that that which is arresting is worth remembering.
When I was discussing this phenomena with my friend Matt Ellis over at Lookout Landing, he put it beautifully: “It becomes less about Papi hitting the dinger with the bullpen cop, less about 2004. It becomes about how â€‹â€‹weâ€‹â€‹ relate to the moment when it happens, because the reason David Ortiz gets into the Hall of Fame has less to do with him than it does with us."
And he’s right. All careers come to an end. The twilights are milky, clouded by injury and the small upticks and deeper troughs that will eventually tilt downward, but whose slope can be hard to distinguish up close. So often, we’re confronted with the uncomfortable realization that our heroes should hang it up, but we are left to watch them lumber around the diamond anyway, sometimes for years too long. But these tours are something markedly different. Because David Ortiz needs us to make these meanings if these moments are going to have any meaning for him. He gets his finale, but only if we agree to hold our breath in anticipation and wonderment. He, and players like him, need us to look back with nostalgia. With joy. With awe. With the irrepressible desire to tell our friends: We were there.
Because that’s what is necessary for it to matter with BBWAA voters; for it to register as greatness; for it to be elevated beyond the sombreros and highlight reels into something that matters To Baseball. It’s what is required for their names to be those names we hold up in a very shiny, but very small, constellation of the untouchable.
For Ortiz perhaps more than any of the other players who have embarked on this sort of long bow, it is also a very public washing of the hands. An attempt to at long last set aside memories of failed tests and smashed phones. These are our meanings now. We should know. We just made them.
The retirement tour is a bridge; Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant and Mike Trout are just ramping up, but they’ll be there sooner than we care to admit. Hopefully they escape the petty tyranny of injuries and regression and trades. But even if they do, it is only for a time. Their moments of meaning making will come. They too will blend the present with the past, asking us to remember fondly their good old days on this good day. They’ll receive franchise oddities, pomp, and circumstance. They’ll also walk in twilight.
Ortiz said in his announcement, “I wish I could play another 40 years…but it doesn’t work that way.” It doesn’t work that way. The ability to stretch a career to infinity is no more realistic than the game itself lasting that long. But it might be possible for a few guys to reach out, and create meaning with all of us. To look at one last season like they used to. When they were young, strong boys, and thought they were going to live forever.
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