For we non professional athletes working nine to five or whatever the hours may be, aging gracefully is putting in 30 plus years and hoping to have the house paid off, the kids finished college, and having a bit of leftover cash to travel to exotic or not so exotic destinations with maybe some fishing or golf thrown in. Our job skills have probably improved over the years and being over the hill is often just a state of mind. We look forward to no traffic jams, no alarm clocks and t-shirts and shorts. We retire and soon after, we are usually forgotten in the collective office minds, replaced by a younger generation full of vim and eager to work hard and prove their worth. Yuh know-like most of us were way back then.
For the professional baseball elite, the story and result can be much different. Most of us would trade places in a minute being able to retire for life at 40, wealth beyond our imagination and many moments in the seemingly glorious spotlight. We would have a big home, a fancy car, money enough to take care of our grandchildren’s children’s children.
But for many baseball stars, those rewards can fall far short of why they sought out such a career in the first place. Baseball at the major league level is an extremely difficult game, mentally and physically.
When you possess every toy and necessity you could possibly use, why continue?
As the recent Jorge Posada blow-up illustrated, being successfully competitive and maintaining a personal pride in your ability to continue to be one of the elite players is the common drive. The belief that, despite your obvious to everyone else eroding of skills, you maintain the firm belief that father time catches up with all players, but not you. It’s only bad luck and bad breaks or a temporary mechanical problem which is the cause of you sub .200 with no power batting average. Those balls which you reached easily in the beginning of your career are simply being hit harder than you remember back then or the wind is more of a factor than ever before.
One of my more painful memories was watching the decline and stumble of the great Willie Mays in the 1973 season, the last of his Hall of Fame career. There have been many others who went on too long but his decline was particularly heart breaking. Routine fly balls and mediocre pitching made him look old and foolish. Players and fans who had been witness to his astonishing feats of years before could now only look away. Fortunately, Mays is far and away remembered for his brilliant play before his downfall and continues to be rightly revered but it could have been the opposite.
Many over the hill stars continue to demand salaries which might have been commiserate with their performance of the past and angrily declare that their team does not appreciate their talents and what they mean to the organization. Many of these same players move on to a lesser role with another team, ending a long and successful career with their original teams.
Present management are often reluctant to agree to such demands and hope that their aging former star will come to realize on his own that his skills are no longer among the elite and that he should retire gracefully and afford his team to accord him richly deserved accolades his final season. Players who realize that their productive playing days are over are rewarded and celebrated in parks throughout baseball for their stellar careers. They continue to be celebrated for years afterward.
Say what you want about those evil New York Yankees but this past winter, they agreed to salaries for Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter which did not reflect their current playing abilities but rather rewarded them for outstanding careers. Jeter has rebounded somewhat in the month of May but Posada is clearly finished. He has threatened to leave the Yankees and seek employment elsewhere but that would ruin his place among Yankee legends. Clearly, New York had no option when it came to Jeter. Clearly they are hoping that Posada realizes the inevitable and calls it a career. I don’t want to remember Posada as the player who was released by New York with a final season of hitting .145 with no power and unable to catch.
Players such as Posada have nothing to apologize for and everything to be proud of. Maybe I should send them a copy of the book written by the greatest National Football League running back ever, Jim Brown, Out of Bounds. Brown got out at the top of his profession. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned there.