Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It ends in dust and disarray

There’s something universal about being told your services are no longer needed, even when the discarded employee is a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher with a nine-figure bank account. And so it was John Smoltz who last week provided the latest reminder that professional athletes are never as compelling as when they are in the twilight of their careers, when they come to realize a burning passion for the craft is no longer enough when they are at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

Smoltz’ resume and legendary competitiveness convinced the Red Sox he was going to come back from major shoulder surgery and contribute as a 42-year-old, but he was designated for assignment last Friday, less than 24 hours after he gave up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Yankees. At least Smoltz was let down somewhat gently by Sox management, which gave Smoltz the conflicted “it’s not you, it’s us” treatment.

The coldly corporate bloodletting Friday was left to the Athletics, who released Jason Giambi hours before the Sox cut Smoltz. In the press release announcing the transaction, the Athletics made sure to point out that Giambi had the lowest batting average in the bigs and the American League’s fourth-lowest slugging percentage when he went on the disabled list in July. Presumably, the only reason the A’s didn’t mention Giambi’s bad breath is because there’s no statistical measure of halitosis. Stay classy, Billy Beane.

Smoltz’ dismissal was also far smoother than the one executed by the Braves June 3, when they released 300-game winner Tom Glavine—Smoltz’ longtime teammate and friend—just as he was ready to return to the Braves after rehabbing elbow and shoulder injuries.

But no matter the delivery, the message and the lesson is always the same. Regardless of how good a player is or was, he almost certainly will not have the chance to dictate how he exits the stage. For every player who walks off in triumphant fashion—John Elway, Barry Sanders, Mike Mussina—there are thousands, from mere mortals to iconic superstars, who have the decision made for them.

The player almost always disagrees with the decision, as he should. The self-confidence that makes these athletes the best in the world disappears long after their bat speed, fastball, arm strength or foot speed. There’s always something else to try or an adjustment to make that will allow a player to leave on his terms, even if he admits he can’t quite identify what those terms would be.

Presuming Curt Schilling does not re-scratch that itch, he’ll always be able to say he won a World Series game in his final big league appearance. Pretty awesome, yet not at all how he would have scripted it. Schilling signed a one-year deal with the Sox shortly after the 2007 World Series and spent several months in 2008 trying to rehabilitate his wrecked shoulder before he finally underwent another surgery, after which he worked out for a few more months in hopes of returning in 2009 before he finally retired in March, his ending penned for and not by him.

“We’re always wired to think that we can find a way—I can still do this somehow, someway,” David Cone said in April 2003. “Part of that wiring is what drives great athletes, keeps them going. We’re supposed to think that way, almost unrealistically, at some juncture.”

Cone, who isn’t going to the Hall of Fame but had one of the most memorable careers ever in winning five World Series rings and throwing a perfect game, spoke days after he was placed on the disabled list due to an arthritic right hip. He came back in late May, made one relief appearance for a Mets team headed for 95 losses and realized he was done the next morning when he had a hard time walking to the bathroom because of the hip pain.

At 40, there was no way to top what he’d already accomplished, but Cone still wanted to pen his own ending, as unattainable as it seemed and until it was physically impossible to do so. “The bottom line with me is I’m no different than any other athlete at the end of his career, searching for a perfect ending that may not come,” Cone said a month earlier.

The final imperfect ending is rarely the first for a player. Many members of the 2004 Red Sox lamented management’s refusal to keep the team completely intact. Along those lines, the release of Smoltz is just the first of many awkward exits on the horizon for these Sox. The acquisition of Victor Martinez means the beginning of the end for Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek, two irreplaceable parts of the 2007 title team but a pair of players who no longer fit into the Sox’ long- or short-term plans.

Tim Wakefield is beloved inside and outside the clubhouse, but after four straight injury-plagued seasons, the Sox are, at some point soon, going to decide that they can no longer go forward with him, even at $4 million per season. David Ortiz built up a lifetime of good will from 2003 through 2006, but that credit only goes so far when the batting average is hovering just above the Mendoza Line and the reputation is in tatters.

Most of the time, the decision made by management is the right one. To try and recapture the 2004 championship magic with a team that had eight everyday players, four starting pitchers, a closer and two top set-up men all on the wrong side of 30 wasn’t the smart thing to do from a baseball perspective and would have delayed the retooling that resulted in the 2007 championship.

It’s also hard to argue with the recent moves made by the Sox, Athletics and Braves. Maybe Smoltz and Giambi can still contribute in smaller roles, but it didn’t do the contending Sox nor the rebuilding Athletics any good to continue sending them out there as regulars. And Tommy Hanson, the 22-year-old who took the spot in the rotation once reserved for Glavine, is 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA in 12 starts.

Still, that aging players usually lose their jobs because of the ultimate bottom line, not some random figure devised by a bean counter 3,000 miles away, makes their fates no less poignant. We don’t know what it’s like to stand on a mound or in the batter’s box, never mind throw a fastball 95 miles an hour, hit a baseball 400 feet or celebrate a world championship. But to have someone attempting to extinguish the fire that still rages inside? That—that we all know about.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment