Baseball players struggle with age-old quandary: when to retire

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Some years ago, I sat in Cleveland Municipal Stadium on a cold July day -- every day was a cold day at old Cleveland Municipal -- and I watched the great pitcher Steve Carlton get smacked around like Carlo from The Godfather. Carlton, of course, had been one of the dominant pitchers of his time; "Future Hall of Famer" was an official part of his name.

Unfortunately, Carlton's time was the Mesozoic Era. Carlton was -- I believe this to be accurate -- 847 years old when he pitched that day.*

*Though, because of his intensive Eastern martial arts training, Carlton had the lithe body of a 763-year old.

Carlton continued to believe that he could pitch well, despite ample evidence to the contrary. After failing to convince Major League teams, he signed with my Cleveland Indians. The Tribe also signed biblical character Phil Niekro that same year in a bold effort to retroactively win the 1972 pennant.

Anyway, that day, Carlton gave up a bunch of runs to the Angels, got yanked in the fifth inning, and walked off to the spirited boos of the 5,000 or so people who were there.

"Why don't you retire, you bum?" someone shouted nearby.

Then one of those great, hardcore Cleveland fans I love -- one of those tough-looking characters who drank from a flask and undoubtedly had one of those improbable Cleveland jobs like lifting vending machines so someone can clean underneath them -- yelled at the heckler, just as loud, "Hey buddy, would YOU retire?"

I often think about that line. This, you probably know, will be an amazing baseball off-season for the old-timers. At last count, there are a dozen potential Hall of Famers who are considering retirement or, anyway, are having others consider retirement for them. There has never been anything quite like it. This offseason is like the line for the early-bird special at the Golden Corral buffet.*

*Technically speaking it's "golden corral" -- all lowercase letters. This is what I admire about golden corral -- they give you all the food you can eat, and they are so modest about it they don't even capitalize their name.

It looks like the legendary Greg Maddux will retire. ("As it stands now, he is not going to play," his agent Scott Boras told reporters.) But the legendary Pedro Martinez seems determined to go on . ("He'd not ready to retire," his agent Fernando Cuza told the New York Daily News.) The legendary Randy Johnson is 45 years old, but he's also just five wins shy of 300, and it's too late to turn back now*.

*I believe, I believe, I believe I'm fallin' in love.

The Los Angeles papers are reporting that second baseman Jeff Kent, who has hit 66 more homers than any other second baseman in history, has already retired. But that just might be wishful thinking -- there has been no official word. Pitching bookends John Smoltz and Tom Glavine have both talked about hanging 'em up, and both also have talked about pitching again. Curt Schilling hints on his blog that he might come back and pitch when he's, you know, not promoting something called "Azeroth Advisor," for serious World of Warcraft gamers.

Frank Thomas filed for free agency and, it seems he wants to play a little more. Ken Griffey Jr. is a free agent too, and he feels like he has two or three years left in him. Trevor Hoffman wants to keep pitching even if the San Diego Padres want him to stop. Mike Mussina seems to be going back and forth like Hamlet.

And, of course, Barry Bonds is still out there, lurking.

The two that interest me most are Maddux and Mussina, not only because that sounds like a rock-pop duo, but because they represent the two sides of sports retirement that were so eloquently outlined for me at Cleveland Municipal Stadium so long ago.

On the one hand, you have Mussina, who turns 40 in December. He is coming off his first 20-win season, and the Yankees would like very much to re-sign him, and he still seems to be very seriously thinking about retiring. "I think it'd be pretty cool," he told The New York Times, and there is something pretty cool about retiring on top. Only four pitchers since 1900 have retired after winning 20 games:

1. Sandy Koufax, 1966: He went 27-9, and retired at age 30 because of arm trouble.

2. Eddie Cicotte, 1920: He went 21-10,and he was suspended for life because of his role on the 1919 Black Sox.

3. Lefty Williams, 1920: He went 22-14 and was suspended for life because of his role on the 1919 Black Sox.

4. Henry Schmidt, 1903: He went 22-13 in his one and only year with the Brooklyn Superbas. At the end of the season, Schmidt, who was from Texas, sent a telegram saying, "I do not like living in the East and will not report." The Superbas, no doubt, thought that this was a Scott Boras ploy, but Schmidt never threw another pitch.

Anyway, Mussina clearly seems to have a sense of history and awareness. He has talked about not wanting to limp to the finish line. He does not want to dull what he has accomplished; I think he has already earned his way into the Hall of Fame. He does not want to have the succession of 8-14 seasons, ballooned ERAs, all so he can chase some number like 300 victories, all the way hearing drunks yell, not unconvincingly, "Why don't you retire, you bum?"

You have to respect that sort of thinking. It can be sad watching a once-great player swing late on the fastball and a once great pitcher who cannot put away a hitter with two strikes.

But there's another side. There's Maddux. After the 2002 season, Maddux was 273-152 with a 2.83 ERA. He had won four Cy Young Awards, four ERA titles, 13 consecutive Gold Gloves, and he had his claim as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. He kept on pitching, of course, and he pitched reasonably well in 2003, a little less so in 2004, even less so in 2005 and by 2006 it was painfully obvious that while he was not embarrassing himself, he was not going to break new ground either.

But he still kept on pitching. Maddux was probably a slightly below average pitcher the last two years. Heck, he was pitching middle relief for the Dodgers at the end of last season. He already had his 300 victories. He already had his place in history. Why do it? But maybe the better question is: Why not? He loved it. He got paid a lot of money to do it. Hey, buddy, would YOU retire?

The reports now are that Maddux will retire, but you sense he's doing it on his own terms, the game is no longer as much fun for him, he's walking away having squeezed the last drop out of his pitching career.

See, in the end, there's no right way to retire. Sure, it can be hard for fans to watch Willie Mays fall down in the outfield, to watch Michael Jordan when his shoes are stapled to the ground, to watch Ken Griffey drives die at the warning track. Then again, it's hard for players to sit in their dens after the cheering has drowned and think, "Man, I could have had one more year." Some players walk away as soon as they feel like their skills have diminished, some are dragged off the stage kicking and screaming, and some, most even, are simply left at home by the phone facing involuntary retirement.

It reminds me of an interview with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. He was asked about retirement, and the interviewer said: "The pitchers tell you when it's time to retire, right?"

And Winfield, who finished his career hitting .191 with the Cleveland Indians when he was 43 years old, shook his head.

"No," Winfield said, "the owners do."