Early in the season last year I did a piece on Jorge Posada as he contemplated retirement. With skills eroding, a manager's confidence declining and the media hinting it might be time, the longtime Yankees star faced a life-changing decision.
I wrote that the difficulty is not based on whether he could or couldn't perform at a decent level, but whether he could face life outside the game. Say all you want about seeing the kids more often, or traveling, golfing, fishing and hunting -- not heading for the yard everyday at 3 p.m. is scary. Especially when you're changing to a normal lifestyle where the alarm rings at 7 a.m., the kids get up and need attention, mom wants you to run errands and do chores around the house, school pickups, you eat dinner at 6 with the family, homework, bedtime, and then do it all over again the next day.
Where are the bright lights, cheering crowd, clubhouse antics, camaraderie, people who wait on you hand and foot, the constant stroking of your ego, and the energy that comes with fame and fortune? Now you are "outside the game" or "gone but not forgotten" or "out of sight, out of mind." And believe it or not, the game goes on.
Yes, baseball will be fine without you, but will you be fine without baseball? That's the tough question. In your baseball life, if you were on the road you slept in, went out to lunch with the guys, then to the yard five hours before game time because the clubhouse was like a frat house, it was your private retreat. At home you also slept in, ate the family meal at lunch, and left for the sanctuary of the clubhouse as soon as you could.
My first retired day at home, I had to remind myself I wasn't going to the stadium. What the hell was I going to do from 3 till 7 p.m.? The clubhouse atmosphere, the fraternity, the laughs, the friendships and all that goes with being on a team cannot be replaced outside the game. It's very hard to leave, because you can't ever go back once you're gone.
Chipper Jones recently announced this would be his last year. Jim Thome won't be far behind. On the bubble are Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Mariano Rivera, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, Scott Rolen and Jamie Moyer. A key to all of their decisions is their team. My decision was easy. Our Phillies team in 1989 was rebuilding, a player named Ricky Jordan was the future at first base, where I would have moved, and my personal career left nothing to accomplish. A perfect script.
These guys we're talking about are on contending teams and it's tough to leave a championship environment. They are also around 40, when it's just not as easy physically. Thome, Helton and Rolen have back issues. Chipper has chronic knee issues and will start the season on the DL. Jamie Moyer at 49 just had his elbow rebuilt. In his case, the challenge of doing the impossible, returning from surgery at age 49, is motivation. Any way you look at it, as you approach the age of 40, your health and skills start to erode. In baseball, you can only get by on savvy for so long.
Baseball, unlike any other team sport, forces you into a lifestyle that brings you close to so many people. The tears during retirement announcements are not because it's the end of the actual competition on the field. No, they are because the end to many rewarding and personal friendships has come. Those guys from the clubhouse staff, training staff, the grounds crew, the traveling secretary and the front office, all have been like family for nearly 20 years for some of them. Especially Chipper, a lifetime Brave, as I was a lifetime Phillie.
These relationships are based on love. My greatest memory of my final day was hugging men who told me they loved me. That meant more to me than any on-field accomplishment. These friendships will go on, though only through phone calls, emails and occasional special occasion meetings.
It will never be like it was.
Now you can understand why it's so tough to let it go, so hard to walk away from the lifestyle on the inside. You're talking about half a lifetime, when you consider the development years as a kid, school years, the minors, plus the major leagues. My counsel to these guys would be to find an interest away from the game, if they haven't already. Something separate from family, like broadcasting, a popular second career. Or writing, teaching -- heck, Jim Lonborg became a very successful dentist.
Family is a given. For 20 years, the wife and kids have sacrificed so you could live the of the rich and famous, they need you to be a normal dad. But you will also need something of substance for your free time. It's a must to find it.
Professional athletes have varying degrees of passion for their sport. The ones who make it as far as the guys I've mentioned are at the top of the scale. You don't play for 20 years without loving what you do.
Paid to play a game you love, what a special opportunity and privilege. Imagine living the life and playing the game as your profession, your career, your job. In the real world, people go to work from 9 to 5, punch a time clock, answer to a boss, hope for a promotion, get a raise and make it all work for a pittance compared with what big leaguers get. This generation of ballplayers, as with mine, will never have to face that in retirement. But there was a time they had to tear the uniform off of guys, when retiring to the real world meant getting a job.
No one can tell you when it's time. Sometimes the body does, sometimes the mind, sometimes the circumstances of the team. Often times it's all of these.
My story, I've told it before. May of 1989, Candlestick Park. Two outs, Robby Thompson hits a ground ball between my legs and Will Clark follows with a grand slam. To me, that was the "sign." I decided right then -- that was it, my final game. Like I said, the perfect script.
From experience I know that once the thought of retiring becomes real in your mind, it's not far away. Knowing the end is near affects each and every moment in the present. A fastball you used to crush gets by you, a ground ball eats you up, your fastball loses 5 mph, you're always in the training room, you can't eat another room service cheeseburger. And autographs, whew, don't get me going on that. Those are the signs, none of which bothered you before, but now it's in your mind and you see things from a new perspective.
The end is near and you know it. Entering that new phase of life can be scary. It happens to everyone. Just be glad you are one of the fortunate ones who can leave on your own terms.