Sunday, April 01, 2012

Ordonez Latest to Prove It: Retirement Usually Chooses Players, Not Vice-Versa

The 39-year-old third baseman, less than two months into his 18th big-league season, went 0-for-3 against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park and decided he’d had enough.

The 0-for-3 added to a brutal slump that made the Hall of Fame-bound slugger 2-for-38 in his past 12 games. That’s when he called a press conference.

His batting average barely over .200, his once lightning-quick swing having abandoned him, Michael Jack Schmidt, through unabated tears, sat before reporters and announced his retirement, effective immediately.

It was late May, 1989. Schmidt started the season strong—two home runs in his first two games. He was hitting a decent if not spectacular .255 when his skills vanished quicker than ice cubes dunked in boiling water.

The 2-for-38 that led to one of the greatest third baseman of all time to hang them up began innocently, as all slumps do. It was an 0-for-4 against the Dodgers at Veterans Stadium on May 12. Two weeks later, to the day, Schmidt played what would be his last game for the Philadelphia Phillies, at The Stick.

Schmidt felt he was hurting the team more than helping it. It went against his grain, he said, to retire at any point other than during the offseason. But the batting average was sinking like a stone. Two hits in 38 at-bats were enough to convince Schmidt that it was time to say goodbye as a player.

Just three years earlier, Mike Schmidt had been named National League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. It was a typical Schmidt season: 37 homers, 119 RBI, a .290 batting average. He turned 37 in the season’s final weeks, but his play defied his birth certificate.

1987 was another strong year for Schmidt: 35 homers, 113 RBI, .293 BA.

But in 1988, things started to turn. It started, as it often does, with the injury bug.

Schmidt only made it into 108 games in 1988, and he took just 390 official at-bats—the fewest for him in a non-strike year since his official rookie season of 1973.

Under the HR column next to Schmidt’s name in 1988 was the paltry number of 12. The batting average was a pedestrian .249.

Schmidt, at his best, could hit 12 home runs in a fortnight. He was as reliable as the Liberty Bell.

But the Schmidt of 1988 was 39 at season’s end, and there were whispers.

The murmurs about whether Schmidt was finished didn’t stop him from showing up at spring training in 1989, ready to go. Then he hit those two dingers in two games, raising the possibility that maybe Schmidt was actually getting better with age.

Fitting, in a way, that Schmidt should retire around Memorial Day.

As gut-wrenching as it was to watch Schmidt sob through his retirement press conference, at least he had one—a press conference, that is.

Oh, how many fine big-league ballplayers are there, who don’t get to call their own shot when it comes to giving up the game?

The body is what usually does them in.

How wonderful was it that Tigers great Al Kaline was able to go riding off into the sunset of his own volition in 1974, his 3,000th career hit safely in his back pocket?

We didn’t have to watch Kaline toward the end with one eye opened and the other closed. He didn’t go up to the plate as a shadow, though he certainly wasn’t the Kaline of 10 years prior.

Kaline was the Tigers’ full-time DH in his final season, which we all knew it was going to be when he arrived at Lakeland in February 1974.

Kaline told us that 1974 would be it for him. He was 39 and other than the chase for 3,000 hits, there really wasn’t anything else for him to play for. The ’74 Tigers were about to embark on a long and grisly rebuilding journey, and Kaline knew it. Some of his teammates from the 1968 World Championship team were still on the roster, but they were all six years older, too.

In August, the Tigers released Norm Cash and traded Jim Northrup, two ’68 heroes. Bill Freehan was still around, bad back and all. Gates Brown still traipsed to the plate as a pinch-hitter, but his magic was gone. Willie Horton was there, but he was injury-prone in those days.

Lefty pitchers John Hiller and Mickey Lolich were Tigers in 1974, but age was working against them as well.

So Kaline politely declined an offer to play beyond 1974, and no one could blame him.

Kaline was one of those players lucky enough to tell the game when enough was enough, rather than the other way around.

Cash was cut and went unclaimed. No press conference for him. Just…fading away.

Schmidt had his presser, and even though it was sad and filled with tears, at least he had it.

Magglio Ordonez won’t have a press conference. Not likely, anyway.

Ordonez took to the social media platform of Twitter to fire off a couple of tweets last week, hinting strongly at retirement.

That’s how they do it these days, I guess.

The offseason has been unkind to a certain contingent of Tigers fans.

Carlos Guillen, the Gentlemanly Tiger, is gone—not re-signed and then off to retirement last month. Victor Martinez, who became the team’s glue in just one season, wrecked a knee in January and will miss the season.

Now Ordonez, author of the second-greatest home run in team history, after finding no takers after the Tigers bid him adieu following last season, has no choice but to retire.

Unlike with Kaline, baseball is telling Ordonez that enough is enough. So often that’s how it goes.

The player whose career is long and extends well into his 30s, and who is able to declare with certainty when he will see or throw his last pitch, is the rare player indeed. And quite fortunate.

For every Kaline or Schmidt, there’s a whole bunch of Guillens and Ordonezes and much lesser-known players whose careers just kind of crumble with little fanfare.

Oh, and the author of the first greatest home run in Tigers history, Kirk Gibson, thumbed his nose at retirement like he did at the fans and the media in his younger days.

Gibby looked to be waived out of the big leagues after 1992, but convinced the Tigers to give him a shot in 1993. He came back and had two-plus productive seasons before retiring in the middle of the 1995 season—on his terms.

It had nothing to do with his body—he just didn’t want to play anymore. He saw a team whose wheels were coming off, and so said, “Sayonara.”

Another lucky one, Gibson was.


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