Here’s to Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and all the others who want to keep on keeping on. I applaud you.
When Brett Favre was flirting with retirement a couple of years ago, he turned on his radio to hear Phil Simms offering some free advice.
“Play until they cut the uniform off you,” he said.
Simms understood that Favre very likely would never do anything as fulfilling or as fun or as challenging as playing in the National Football League. I’m not sure he felt that way when he was playing, when he was tired, when he was beat up, when his body felt 100 years old.
Once he got some distance between himself and his playing career, he got it. He understood that competing at the highest level is a gift few people get, and that the ones who do have it had better cherish it and stretch it out as long as possible.
About the only thing Roger Clemens ever failed at was retirement. I know him well enough to believe he was sincere those two or three times he tried to walk away from the game. He found the idea of life without baseball appealing. He looked forward to a life when he didn’t have to be up at 5 am to work out, wasn’t constantly dealing with aches and pains and didn’t have to take an array of medication by the handful.
Clemens discovered what a lot of others have discovered over the years. In the end, it’s not about money or milestones or any of that stuff. It’s about playing the game, about being part of a team. There’s nothing better. Living without it can be difficult.
Even Nolan Ryan, who was as prepared for retirement as a man can be, said he missed the game terribly that first year after retirement.
“There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed,” he said.
Larry Dierker said the first time he walked onto a field after quitting were incredibly awkward.
“I felt naked,” he said.
Maybe it’s a simple thing like being part of a team and trying to achieve something. Maybe it’s the spotlight or the competition or any of a dozen other things. In the end, though, nothing else Clemens does in his life is going to be as much fun or as challenging as attempting to beat the Kansas City Royals on a Thursday afternoon in a game only the most avid fans will remember.
I’ve thought about Favre and Clemens a lot these last few days as I’ve listened to people wondering why Johnny Damon or Jason Varitek haven’t hung it up. After all, we’re down to the final few days before spring training, and they’re still free agents. There could be a message in there somewhere.
On the other hand, there could still be another opportunity out there. There could be a contender looking to add a veteran presence or maybe a guy to assume a part time role or something. Regardless, I’m happy Damon wants to play again, and I’m guessing it has zero to do with the pursuit of 3,000 hits.
I’m guessing he just loves playing. It’s what he has done most of his life and it’s what he loves. He’s not going to leave until the game tells him to leave.
Damon, like Varitek, has a legacy that’s secure. Both were winners. Both were good teammates. Both were professionals in every way the word can be defined.
Maybe it’s time for them to go. And then again, maybe there’s another ride out there for them. Maybe that phone call won’t come until April or even later, but as long as there’s even a tiny chance they can put on a major league uniform again, they should go for it. Would you trade places with them for a minute? Of course you would.
Ty Wigginton, who spent nine years in the minor leagues, has this routine he goes through right before taking the field. He stands in front of a mirror, adjusts his cap, his uniform, makes sure everything is just right. And then the very last thing he does is look at the MLB logo.
“I just like reminding myself how lucky I’ve been,” he said.
They’ve all been lucky, Damon and Varitek and Wigginton and all the others who’ve been blessed to play this wonderful game. To play in the major leagues is to fulfill lifelong dreams. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to continue. Here’s hoping they get the chance.