While working through the pain of having a Jody Gerut-shaped hole in my heart, I started thinking about retirements in baseball. Jeff mentioned in his post that the "lost passion" explanation is fairly rare: the vast majority of players are forced to walk away, either because of age, injury or inability. And why wouldn't it be this way? There aren't too many more awesome ways to spend a summer than by being paid healthy sums of money to play baseball and pound the proverbial Budweiser.
Being a curious fellow, I looked up a list on baseball-reference.com detailing the best 25 "last seasons" for hitters, ranked by WAR. I then removed any player whose career ended because of injury, whether major or painful and debilitating, as well as those players who were shown the door and never came back. This trimmed the list down to six players, and I think you'll agree that it's an interesting half-dozen:
This would be a good time to reiterate that this list contains Stan Javier. Yes, the 2001 Mariners were so incredible that their thirty-seven year old fourth outfielder, in a mere 323 plate appearances, had one of the best voluntary final seasons in baseball history.
So there's the four Hall of Famers, guys for whom these excellent seasons were still a signal of a hastening decline phase. They were all (except for Teddy Ballgame) fairly young by HoF retirement standards, but they all lived at a time when money and fame were still more lucrative outside the baseball world. If we're to understand Jody Gerut, really plumb the depths of his soul, it's Clark and Javier that will shed the insight.
Will Clark had settled into a workmanlike second career with Texas and Baltimore, averaging between two and three wins above replacement a season. He'd already announced his plans to retire when the Cardinals traded for him in mid-2000 to fill in for an injured Mark McGwire. He responded by hitting .345/.426/.655 in 197 plate appearances, and imposed pitchers at a .770 clip, his highest since 1990, Despite being offered millions of dollars and the choice of Walt Jocketty's prize duck decoy collection, Clark stuck to his plan and walked away. He remained in baseball as an advisor, but it's obvious that he knew his body's limitations and that he would never top that 2000 playoff run.
Stan Javier is not Ted Williams. He is not even Bernie Williams. His 21.8 career WAR places him squarely in Brad Ausmus territory, which is a land full of grit, leadership and grocery-store autograph promotions. But though he may not have driven fear directly into the center of your heart, Javier shares quite a bit in common with The Thrill: he announced his retirement plans early in the 2001 season, and he didn't go back on his promise. And like Clark, Javier enjoyed a magical playoff run in which he made major contributions, including a "game-changing," over-the-wall catch in game 3 of the ALCS. Boring news release in the block quote:
Javier emphasized that his decision won't be economic, but rather a family decision. He had three children, ages 12, 7 and 2.
"I'm still young, but I've been playing such a long time," he said. "My body breaks down a lot easier. Lou (Piniella) does such a great job in using us the way we're supposed to be used, but I need to put in a lot of time over the winter to get my body ready for spring training. I don't want to play just to play ball. I want to be able to perform as well as I can and work as hard as I can, and if I can't do that, I won't cheat myself or cheat the organization. We'll see."
It all sounds pretty Gerutian. What Javier fails to mention in this Mad Libs-derived baseball quote is that his plans included moving back to the Dominican Republic to engage in some good old-fashioned forestry. Yes, he did eventually get back into baseball as a general manager in the D.R. But given the choice of playing for a championship-caliber ballclub and performing the kind of labor that the Barenaked Ladies would never approve of, Javier chose to commune with the nature.
So what did we learn from this? Nothing, really. If I had to guess, I'd say that there is no such thing as "perfect health" to a professional athlete, at least not for long. But also, at its heart baseball is a repetitive game; Jody Gerut stepped up to a plate in a mjor-league game 1,992 times, and at some point, diminishing returns will kick in. Our lives are finite; there are always more things to do. And each of these players did enough to make them happy. Javier got his ring twelve years before, so he was good. Clark never did, but he got to prove he could be Ted Williams for two months if he felt like it. Ted Williams got to prove the exact same thing. Robinson, Greenberg and DiMaggio got to have decent-paying jobs. And Jody Gerut gets his self-respect, more time for jigsaw puzzles, and our fleeting admiration, already mostly spent. In the meantime, best of luck to you, Jody.