3/19/2013 9:40 A.M. ET
Hanging on: Vets have tough time calling it a career
By Zack Meisel / MLB.com
It's certainly no foreign scenario. Just when we think that graying athlete is leaving for a life of leisure, travel, business ventures or coaching, he extends his career, opting to squeeze out every last ounce of athletic juice his body can muster.
As Mariano Rivera sat beside his family and before his Yankees teammates, the iconic closer thanked general manager Brian Cashman for inking him to a two-year extension through the 2015 campaign. Of course, everyone at George M. Steinbrenner Field knew Rivera was really in front of a microphone to announce his upcoming retirement.
We've learned to be wary of assumptions, though, as athletes have proven that the decision to retire can require more effort than it takes to persist through an entire 162-game grind.
"We cannot all make a decision," said Yankees bench coach Tony Pena, who played until he was 40 and then immediately transitioned into a coaching role. "Not everybody can say, 'Well, I'll retire.' It's more difficult to accept that."
Players prefer to retire on their own terms, sidestepping a career-ending injury or such a sharp decline in ability that teams opt to look elsewhere. Those terms vary. Sandy Koufax called it a career at 30, citing an arthritic left elbow, despite posting a 27-9 record and a 1.73 ERA in his final season. Jamie Moyer, on the other hand, tried to pitch with his AARP card tucked into his cleat.
Rivera admitted he would have walked away following the 2012 season had he not suffered a season-ending right knee injury. Instead, he'll tie the bow on his Hall of Fame career just prior to his 44th birthday this fall.
"Now is the time," Rivera said. "I have given everything, and the time is almost ending. The thing that I have, the little gas I have left is everything for this year. After that, I'll empty everything. There's nothing left. I did everything and I'm proud of it."
|"Not everybody can say, 'Well, I'll retire.' It's more difficult to accept that."|
|-- Tony Pena|
Some players struggle to objectively pinpoint just how much remains in their "tank." A dormant cell phone, devoid of calls from general managers, can, in the most sobering manner, take care of that.
Jim Thome, 42, who has tallied 612 home runs over 22 big league seasons, is still waiting for an invitation to a Spring Training camp. Manny Ramirez, 40, held out for a Major League inquiry as long as he could before latching on with a team in Taiwan.
The Indians may keep Jason Giambi on their regular-season roster as a part-time designated hitter. After the Rockies passed over the 2000 American League Most Valuable Player for their managerial position, Cleveland reached out to Giambi with a Spring Training invitation.
"It's been a long road, and I've had the greatest time in the world," Giambi said. "I'll give it one more shot and see what I have left."
Seasoned sluggers such as Giambi and Thome can no longer play every day, and maybe not even every other day. That diminishes their on-field value, typical for any player approaching a half-century on Earth.
When Thome broke in with Cleveland in 1991, he was a scrawny 21-year-old third baseman. Aside from four appearances at first base last season and a nostalgic one-batter cameo at the hot corner in 2011, Thome hasn't clutched a mitt since '07.
"When you're 25 and you get out of bed, you're ready to run and take an at-bat and hit a triple," Omar Vizquel said last season. "[When you're 45], you have to get up and make sure that you're going to the bathroom and you don't knock things around. Every day, every hour is just hard on your body. There is no way you can hide age."
Vizquel, an 11-time Gold Glove Award-winning shortstop, adapted to playing first, second and third base as he neared the finish line. He finally switched to a coaching role this winter after playing with the Blue Jays last season at the age of 45.
"It's very tough," Vizquel said last month. "Obviously, it's always hard to walk away from the field when you think that you can still play. I believe that I can still play, but mentally, it was pretty tough for me to go through the same things again and playing once a week, having little opportunities to play. So I just decided just to call it quits."
Miguel Tejada, who will blow out 39 candles in May, hasn't had that realization yet. The 2002 AL MVP said his body feels closer to 20 years old and he can still hit "high-caliber pitching." Those beliefs have him vying for a reserve infielder role with the Royals.
"I like baseball, love baseball," Tejada said, "and I know that when I retire as a player, I'll be involved in this game one way or another."
Tejada has followed in the footsteps of other players who became baseball nomads in the twilight of their careers. Since 2010, Tejada has played with the Orioles, Padres, Giants and now the Royals. Kenny Lofton played for nine Major League franchises after his 35th birthday. Johnny Damon suited up for a different team each of the last four seasons before the Indians cut him last August. The 39-year-old dreams of one more shot at the big leagues.
|"Obviously, it's always hard to walk away from the field when you think that you can still play. I believe that I can still play, but mentally, it was pretty tough for me to go through the same things again and playing once a week, having little opportunities to play. So I just decided just to call it quits."|
|-- Omar Vizquel|
"I didn't want to leave baseball that way," Damon said this winter. "I hope I can still get a job. You have to be honest with yourself."
The ones who earn the right to walk away on their own terms typically enjoy longevity with one team. Rivera fits that description, as did Craig Biggio, who retired after playing 141 games for the Astros in 2007, his 20th season with the organization that drafted him.
Chipper Jones spent two decades with the Braves, the only Major League team to benefit from his bat. Jones retired last October and said he has "not had the itch whatsoever" to change his mind. A week as an instructor at Spring Training tested his willpower, but Jones said he "put the cap on it and closed it tight. It's not opening back up."
"When they're running and they're huffing and puffing, and I'm sitting over there with a grin, I don't miss it," Jones said from the Braves' complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Diversions certainly help dissipate the urge to return. Jones said he has spent much of his newfound free time on the golf course. Rivera spoke of plans to vacation with his wife and three sons. As a roving infield instructor, Vizquel now devotes his time to monitoring the defense played by the Angels' Minor Leaguers.
Indians closer Chris Perez already knows what will occupy his post-career itinerary. His wife gave birth to their second child, Madeline, in September. Perez, who has already warned future suitors of his only daughter, said that when Madeline brings home a boy, it will serve as his signal to hang up his cleats.
"She's not going to be 16 for a while," Perez said. "I can play for 15 more years until I'm 42."