On Derek Jeter and other greats who had to keep playing

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There is really no doubt at all that Derek Jeter will return and play baseball in 2014. People talk about retirement and legacies and Willie Mays falling down in the outfield — and I’m sure there will be more of that talk all offseason — but I’m willing to wager you won’t hear Derek Jeter talk about any of that stuff. Jeter will be back because he has to come back. It’s in his nature. It’s in the nature of all the greats.

George Brett told me more than once that he wishes he had come back for one more season. When you look at Brett’s career,you can’t help but think he rode it out to the end. His last year, at age 40, he hit .266 (this after hitting .272 the previous two seasons) and had his first sub-100 OPS+. He retired in beautiful fashion, famously kissing home plate at Kauffman Stadium, a photograph that countless Kansas City fans have on their walls at home. He finished with 3,000 hits, with more doubles than anyone not named Speaker, Rose, Musial or Cobb (he has since been passed by Craig Biggio), with more great and memorable moments than just about anyone of his time.

Still, Brett wishes he’d come back, just to try it … he says he wishes that he had signed a league-minimum contract and come to spring training to compete for a job, just like he had as a kid in the minor leagues.

“Do you think you could have made it back?” I asked him.

“We’ll never know,” he said. “But, yeah, I do.”

A familiar story. Yaz, one of the great left fielders of all time, stayed around for four years as a semi-regular DH. He already had his 3,000 hits. He already was a Boston legend — soon, finally, he will have a statue at Fenway Park. He stayed anyway. He wanted to play ball.

Hank Aaron — a .300 hitter if there ever was one — hit .234 and .229 his final two seasons. Everyone knows about Ted Williams’ final at-bat, but not as many know that at age 40, the greatest hitter who ever walked down the street hit .254, almost 100 points below his career average. He couldn’t let it end like that. He came back for another season. He somehow hit .316 and somehow hit that home run his last time up.

Al Kaline hit .255 and .262 his final two years — the last entirely as a DH. Stan the Man hit .255/.325/.404 as a 42-year old; at 37, his career batting average was .340. it ended at .331. Mike Schmidt hit .203 with six home runs in 42 games his final year. Cal Ripken, after feats of endurance that boggled the mind, spent his final three years as a part-time player. In his last he hit .239/.276/.361.

The baseball warrior Jackie Robinson hit .266 his final two seasons and the Dodgers actually traded him to the hated Giants. Instead, he quit and became president of the Chock full O’Nuts company. At the end, Tony Gwynn could still hit, but he could not stay on the field — he played just 107 combined games his final two seasons and walked away. A 41-year-old Wade Boggs hit .301 in 90 games for the 93-loss Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Ernie Banks hit .193 as a 40-year-old and realized, painfully, that it was over.

Robin Yount hit .257/.330/.381 his final four seasons and said goodbye. The bat magician, Rod Carew, who had hit .300 for 15 straight seasons, failed to hit .300 as a 38-year-old (he hit .295). He came back at 39-year-old, hit even lower (.280) and gave in. Mickey Mantle stayed on those painful knees as long as he could — he hit .245 as a 35-year-old, came back with the hope of turning it around, and hit .237 and slugged sub-.400 for the only time in his career. Much of it was context. Mantle’s walks still made him very valuable and those were two years when pitching dominated the game. Still, after that .237 season he walked away.

Willie Mays, as we know, played another five seasons, and in the last he hit .211 for the Mets.

Paul Molitor, who seemed ageless, had an 86 OPS+ his final year. Dave Winfield hit .290, .271, .252 and .191 progressively his last four years. Ken Griffey got hit 600th homer, returned to Seattle, hit .214 and then tried to come back one more time to no avail (.184 in 33 games). Harmon Killebrew tried a season with the Royals. Tom Seaver tried a season with the Red Sox. Steve Carlton tried to hook up with the Giants, the White Sox, the Indians and the Twins. Ty Cobb played with the Philadelphia Athletics. Frank Robinson played for and managed the Cleveland Indians. Ron Santo spent a year playing for the crosstown White Sox. Manny Ramirez — who often showed signs of not even liking baseball — played five games for Tampa Bay and still seems to be trying to return.

You can go on like this for as long as it takes to read the Baseball Encyclopedia cover-to-cover. Baseball players — or football players, or basketball players, or hockey, or soccer or, heck, sportswriters or lawyers or recreational softballers or just about anyone else — cannot see the end coming. The body goes before the mind. Speed runs out before the heart. Skill expires before the will.

I think of Ali. Muhammad Ali was clearly fading fast as a boxer in the years after the Thrilla in Manilla. Ken Norton, who always gave Ali hard time, went 15 rounds with the champ. Then a relative journeyman — a Uruguayan fighter named Alfredo Evangelista — went 15 rounds also. Earnie Shavers hurt Ali several times in their 15-round fight. Then Ali fought a game but thoroughly inexperienced Gold Medalist named Leon Spinks. Before the Ali fight, Spinks had fought just seven professional fights — including a draw against the unimpressive Scott LeDoux — and it should have been an easy one for Ali. It was not. He was out of shape, looked slow, and Spinks kept throwing pinches. Spinks shocked everyone and won the title.

It was clear that Ali had little left as a fighter. Well, clear to everyone else. Ali had to win back his title, so he got in shape, beat Spinks in a boring but functional 15-round decision. And he retired with the title. He said he was done fighting.

Two years later, Ali came back to fight Larry Holmes. The word was he needed the money. Ali was 38-years old and long past his prime. But he lost a bunch of weight and looked pretty good as he entered the ring. He was always such a good talker that he convinced everyone — including himself, I suspect — that he could still be the Ali of old. Holmes destroyed him. It was awful to watch. Before the 11th round, Ali’s trainer and friend Angelo Dundee stopped the fight. Ali had not landed a solid punch on Holmes the entire fight.

It was over before that fight. It was certainly over afterward. But, even then, Ali had to fight one more time. His mind gave him a million reasons to try once more. He claimed that he had lost weight too fast for the Holmes fight. Medication had left him weak and sick. He had not prepared the way he KNEW he could prepare. The mind will come with a million pretenses to black out the realities of age. Ali just had to fight one more — and it might have been the saddest sporting event of the 20th Century. Ali fought Trevor Berbick in Nassau, with a cowbell someone found nearby used to end and begin rounds. Ali lost a 10-round decision that wasn’t close. Less than three years later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Ali’s life in so many ways is bigger, bolder, more controversial, more entertaining, more awe-inspiring, more maddening — he was just bigger than life. But you could argue he just went through a more dramatic version of the cycle every great athlete goes through. Brilliance. Decline. Denial. Resurgence. More denial. I don’t know if Derek Jeter has anything left. I suspect he’s probably at the end as a shortstop and a regular player — I just don’t think his body has enough spring or durability left — but what do I know? His 2012 season surprised me, and it would be a fantastic story if he could return as a productive baseball player.

But whenever the end comes for Jeter, you can be sure that others will see it before he does. Think of all he has accomplished in his amazing career. Think of all the doubters he silenced. Think of all the hurdles he overcame. Think of all the the times he was right about himself and others were wrong. You can expect Derek Jeter to come back with confidence, with certainty, with an intense belief that he will succeed again. Of course he will. It’s human nature.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Saturday’s slate featured all the components of great (read: entertaining) baseball, from Aaron Judge‘s double-deck moonshot and Jacob May‘s first major league hit to the worst squeeze bunt attempt of Chase Anderson‘s career. Here are the rest of the day’s scores and highlights:

Cubs 12, Reds 8: The Cubs didn’t have to mount another rally to clinch their tenth win of the season. Jake Arrieta led the charge through six innings, allowing five runs, striking out eight batters and putting up his fourth career triple on a changeup from Lisalverto Bonilla:

The rest of the Cubs feasted on home runs, from Anthony Rizzo’s two-run blast in the first inning to Jason Hayward’s three-run shot and Wilson Contreras’ first major league grand slam. The Reds got in a few knocks of their own, with Eugenio Suarez putting up a solo homer in the first and Joey Votto coming just a triple shy of the cyclebut 12 runs ended up being more than enough to see the Cubs through to another win.

Tigers 5, Twins 4: A benches-clearing confrontation, two ejections and a disastrous hit by pitch isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered, but at the end of the day, the Tigers stood atop a 5-4 win for their ninth victory of the season. A better reward? Knowing that while JaCoby Jones needed nine stitches in his lip after taking a 90 m.p.h. fastball to the face, he isn’t expected to miss significant time on the disabled list this year.

Athletics 4, Mariners 3: First place in the AL West may be an unattainable goal for the Athletics right now, but it sure looks like they’re starting to gel. Adam Rosales and Jed Lowrie wasted no time getting on the board in the first inning with a pair of home runs, and Khris Davis added an RBI groundout in the third to give the A’s a much-needed edge. The Mariners, on the other hand, will need to work fast to solve their problems on the road, since they still have another seven games to play before they return to Seattle on May 2.

Nationals 3, Mets 1: Every start Gio Gonzalez has made in 2017 has looked near-flawless, but Saturday showcased some of his best work. The Nationals’ left-hander carried a no-hitter through five frames, retiring 15 of 18 batters, striking out three and issuing three walks before Juan Lagares broke up the no-no in the sixth. Two at-bats later, Asdrubal Cabrera singled home the Mets’ first run of the night, but Gonzalez settled down to strike out the side and the Nats’ bullpen took care of the rest, cementing the lefty’s second win of the year.

Yankees 11, Pirates 5: In the words of the inimitable George Orwell: All home runs are equal, but some home runs are more equal than others. Specifically, this home run — a ninth-inning, 2-2 fastball obliterated 457 feet into the second deck of PNC Park — was created to stand above the rest.

Rays 6, Astros 3: Fun fact: George Springer currently leads all active MLB players with 205 consecutive major league appearances. Not-so-fun fact: That streak likely came to an end on Saturday, when Springer exited in the fifth inning with left hamstring discomfort. Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch told reporters that the outfielder is expected to sit out of Sunday’s finale against the Rays.

Phillies 4, Braves 3 (10 innings): The dramatic finish to Saturday’s 10-inning marathon was less the product of individual heroics and more of a group effort, due in part to some defensive miscues that perfectly positioned the Phillies for a walk-off win. Third baseman Maikel Franco had the honor of driving in the winning run with a two-run, bases-loaded single, his first game-winning knock since August 3, 2016.

Orioles 4, Red Sox 2: No retaliatory measures were taken against the Orioles on Saturday after Dustin Pedroia was injured on a takeout slide during Friday’s 2-0 loss, but Boston manager John Farrell is still pretty upset about the whole ordeal. Baltimore prevailed a second time, turning in a four-run fourth inning on back-to-back home runs from Trey Mancini and Jonathan Schoop and an RBI single from Adam Jones.

Indians 7, White Sox 0: Jacob May probably slept a lot easier on Saturday night after recording his first major league hit during the White Sox’ 7-0 loss. The 25-year-old center fielder subbed in for an injured Melky Cabrera in the seventh inning and promptly singled off of the Indians’ Carlos Carrasco, ending his streak at 26 hitless at-bats.

The crowd gave the rookie a standing ovation for his feat, though the team would go on to lose 7-0 after Carrasco and Zach McAllister joined forces for the club’s second consecutive shutout of the year.

Cardinals 4, Brewers 1: Bunts are tricky animals, nearly impossible to wrangle unless you get the timing and circumstances just right. Neither the timing nor the circumstances were aligned for Brewers’ right-hander Chase Anderson, who attempted a squeeze bunt in the fifth inning of Saturday’s 4-1 loss and watched the play unravel in the worst way:

Rangers 2, Royals 1: Heading into Saturday’s game, the Royals’ rotation held a combined 2.36 ERA, good for lowest in the league. Their 2-1 loss to the Rangers did little to move the needle there, though their offense still leaves much to be desired. Mike Moustakas drove in the Royals’ only run of the night, making Saturday’s loss the sixth consecutive game in which they’ve mustered two or fewer runs.

Diamondbacks 11, Dodgers 5: Dodgers’ skipper Dave Roberts is weighing his rotation options, which should come as little surprise after Kenta Maeda was shelled in Saturday’s loss. The right-hander, who self-diagnosed his problem as being more “results-oriented” than “process-oriented,” gave up nine hits, five runs and four homers in five innings against the Diamondbacks. It was a significant boost for the D-backs, whose double-digit win helped tighten their grip on the NL West with a 12-7 record, just half a game shy of tying the Rockies for the division lead.

Rockies 12, Giants 3: Speaking of NL West competitors, it’ll take some effort to unseat the Rockies after they bulldozed the Giants in a 12-run finish on Saturday. It wasn’t an entirely fair match, however, as the Giants have lost several players to injuries over the past week and were forced to remove outfielder Denard Span in the second inning after he sprained his right shoulder on a catch at the wall.

Marlins 6, Padres 3 (11 innings): Giancarlo Stanton‘s home runs bookended the Marlins’ first extra-inning victory of the year, but the win wasn’t all about flashy home runs and game-winning knocks. Martin Prado snared a would-be walk-off hit in the 10th inning, preserving the tie and giving Stanton — and the rest of the Marlins — another chance for redemption in the 11th.

Angels 5, Blue Jays 4: There have been quite a few grand slams circulating in the majors this weekend, and the most recent one belongs to Andrelton Simmons. Simmons’ slam off of Casey Lawrence in the third inning proved the deciding factor in the Angels’ 5-4 win, providing Anaheim with just enough of a buffer as Toronto attempted a comeback in the ninth.

It’s a nice break for the Angels, who snapped a three-game losing streak and currently sit fourth in the AL West. The same can’t be said for the Blue Jays, whose 4-13 record is the worst across both leagues.

Angels move Garrett Richards to 60-day disabled list

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Angels’ right-hander Garrett Richards has been moved to the 60-day disabled list, according to a team announcement on Saturday. Richards was originally placed on the 10-day disabled list in early April after sustaining a right biceps cramp during his first start of the season. No timetable has been given for his return to the mound, though Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times speculates that his return date could be pushed back to June.

While the Angels report that Richards is making some progress in his recovery, he’s still experiencing some “irritation of the cutaneous nerve,” which could be preventing him from working back up to full strength. The veteran righty already missed 154 days of the 2016 season after suffering a UCL injury, and opted for biometrics surgery to repair the ligament rather than undergoing a more intensive Tommy John procedure.

This is Richards’ seventh season with the Angels. He last pitched a full, healthy season in 2015, delivering a 3.65 ERA, 3.3 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 207 1/3 innings. He’s currently one of eight Angels pitchers serving time on the disabled list, including left-hander Andrew Heaney and right-handers Cam Bedrosian, Andrew Bailey, Vicente Campos, Huston Street, Mike Morin and Nick Tropeano.