We welcome back to marc’s blog our favorite–and only–guest corresponsent, Ron Carmean. Ron was a regular contributer to this blog a few years back and I have finally coerced him out of retirement to rejoin this marathon of mirth. I’m not sure how long he’ll be hanging around, but he is always welome. Baseball seems to be the vein we have fallen into given my last blog used it as a theme and now Ron has a two-parter about some stars of the game who, like many other people, have a hard time knowing when to say when.
Some of baseball’s best players have found it difficult to walk away from the game when their skills deteriorated. Fans who saw them play near the end of their careers may have forgotten their best days or never saw them. Those who did not see their heroics were puzzled why they hesitated to depart. For those who did remember their greatness, watching the end was painful.
Ryan Howard is the latest example of a player in such a dilemma. For seven years, he created a legacy that made him the finest first baseman in the Philadelphia Phillies’ 134 year history. He began his career as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2005. He followed that with his finest season: an MVP year, with a .313 BA, 58 home runs, and 149 RBIs. In each of the next five years, he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, and the Phillies finished tops in their division. Twice, they went to the World Series and once they were Champions. The Phillies success and Ryan’s were not a coincidence. In those five years, he hit 40+ homers 3 times and 30+ home runs twice. It culminated with Ryan signing a five year contract worth $125 million. Then, the slide began.
Pitchers gradually learned how to pitch to him, thanks to the initial guidance from the New York Yankees’ pitchers in the 2009 World Series. Against them, Ryan had hit only .174 with 13 strikeouts in six games. Injuries began to take their control, too. Plus, Howard failed to adjust his batting stance and never changed his belief on what the strike zone was —although umpires were required to inform him. Arguing with them did not help. For two years, he played in 80 games or less. Following this came two seasons of hitting less than .230. That brought him to 2016. At present, he is batting .150. 37% of his at bats have resulted in strikeouts. Now, he is 36 years old. Throughout his decline, he has maintained he can still hit. He has balked at playing part-time —or worse, being benched. Howard walking away is not mentioned.
Howard’s end of career difficulties have occurred before —to players even greater than him. For example, Willie Mays. How wonderful a ball player was he? He was the best I’ve ever seen and I’ve followed baseball since 1950. What Babe Ruth was to fans in the first half of the 20th century, Willie Mays was to fans in the second half. He covered Center Field with grace and flair, his arm was a cannon, and his speed legendary. From age 23 to 28, he led the NL in stolen bases four times and triples three times. He hit over .300 ten times and had 660 home runs. He collected 3,283 hits and earned 10 Gold Gloves. He was Rookie of the Year, and twice, MVP. He finished in the top ten in MVP voting 12 times. One writer said of him: “Baseball’s All-Star game was created for players like Willie Mays.” In one game, he hit a triple and the ball went so far that, one person said: “The only person who could have caught that ball, hit it.”
But he couldn’t walk away. I don’t think the fans wanted to say good-bye, either. In his final four years, he hit .238 with a mere 22 home runs. Roger Angell, the great baseball writer, took his young son to see Mays play just before he retired. Mr. Angell had seen Mays during his entire career, beginning in NYC (Giants) and ending in NYC (Mets). Mays struck out and stumbled in the outfield. Angell’s son asked: “Dad, why did you bring me to watch this man?”
Mickey Mantle played for the Yankees. He followed Joe DiMaggio in CF. He was a country boy from Oklahoma who grew up quickly. He enjoyed the nightlife with teammates like pitcher Whitey Ford, another Hall of Fame player. In the daylight, he created his own legend. He made the All-Star team in 16 of 18 seasons; hit .300 ten times; nine times hit 30+ home runs; won three MVP awards. He played with damaged knees and bandaged legs throughout his career. But he said “the only thing I can do is play baseball. It’s the only thing I know.” He continued to play. In his final four seasons, he batted only .254. His last year, he dropped to .237 …and it hurt. “God-damn, to think you’re a .300 hitter and then find yourself looking at a lifetime .298 average. It made me want to cry.” For a player who batted .353 and .365 when he was 24 and 25 years old, it was a harsh realization.
Pete Rose chased Ty Cobb’s ghost for 24 years in baseball. Cobb was baseball’s greatest player —before Babe Ruth. Rose was the sport’s greatest competitor, period. Cobb was a magnificent hitter. Numbers don’t tell the entire story, but they help. Cobb batted .300+ for 23 consecutive seasons. He missed the mark only as a rookie. He hit .400+ three times! He led the American League in some offensive category 67 times! But the milestone Rose wanted to eclipse was the career hits record: 4,189. Finally, at age 44, after hitting .300 15 times, he caught and passed Cobb. Cobb’s lifetime batting average was .366(!). Rose’s was .303. But Pete kept playing. The next year, he hit .219 and planned to continue. His players and coaches on the Cincinnati Reds pressured him to retire by pointing out if he continued to play poorly, he would be known as the man who had gotten more hits than anyone else in the history of baseball simply because he had played longer. (He had more games played (3,562) and at bats (14,053) than anyone.) That would have been embarrassing —even to Pete Rose. He retired.
Perhaps the saddest story of all belongs to Steve Carlton. He prided himself on being i magnificent physical condition. His training program was unique, even bizarre, but his physique spoke for itself —and his career spoke even louder. He was a truly great (Hall of Fame) pitcher who, in 1972, had a season for the ages. Pitching for a sorry Philadelphia Phillies team whose record was 59 – 97, he put up these numbers: 27 – 10, 1.97 ERA, and 310 strikeouts. He pitched for 24 years and produced these totals: 329 wins, six 20 win seasons, 4,136 strikeouts, and 4 Cy Young awards. But in his final four years, as he went from team to team —6 in all— hoping to reignite his career, he put up these numbers: 16 – 37 and an ERA of 5.21 —a full 2 runs higher than his career average. His career ended when no team, literally not one, would allow him another tryout.
Look for Part II to be posted over the weekend