Derek Jeter Getty

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.

Tony Clark is not happy so many players remain unsigned

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JAN. 18-19 - This Jan. 15, 2014 photo showing new baseball union head Tony Clark during an interview at the organization's headquarters, in New York. Clark has big shoes to fill _ and not just as Michael Weiner's replacement as head of the baseball players' union. Moving from Arizona to New Jersey, the former big league All-Star also needed to find size 15 snowshoes.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
AP Photo/Richard Drew
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We’re almost halfway through February. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training soon. And yet, there are more than a handful of solid free agents that remain unsigned. Among them: Yovani Gallardo, Ian Desmond, and Dexter Fowler. All three have draft pick compensation tied to them, as each rejected a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from his respective former team. That, undoubtedly, is a reason why they haven’t inked a contract yet.

MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark is unhappy about this reality and expects to discuss potential changes when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated. The current CBA expires after the 2016 season. Per the Associated Press, Clark said last week, “I think it’s disappointing when there are as many talented players still without a home. I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to be in a world where very talented players are at home for whatever reason they are there. It will likely be a part of the conversation in bargaining.”

Clark also mentioned, among other things, the possibility of a draft lottery, which would take away the incentive for teams to “tank”, or lose on purpose. The Astros and Phillies have notably done this in recent years, finishing with baseball’s worst record and thus netting the #1 overall draft pick.

These are, however, simply two items of many that will be discussed during the upcoming offseason. It will be interesting to see what solutions are eventually put in place.

Michael Pineda hopes to reach 200-inning mark for first time

New York Yankees' Michael Pineda delivers a pitch during the third inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
AP Photo/Adam Hunger
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It was reported on Friday that Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka isn’t sure if he’ll be ready for Opening Day as he makes his way back from arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow. His health will be crucial to the Yankees’ chances this season, but the same goes for rotation-mate Michael Pineda, who hopes that this is the year he’ll be able to take on the workload of a frontline starter.

Pineda was on pace for a career-high in innings last season, but he landed on the disabled list in late July with a right flexor forearm muscle strain and missed a month. He struggled upon his return and ended up with 160 2/3 innings, so he fell short of his career-high of 171 innings as a rookie with the Mariners way back in 2011. Now going into his age-27 season, Pineda told Bryan Hoch of MLB.com that his goal for 2016 is to reach 200 innings for the first time in his career.

“For me, this year, I’m coming here early to be strong and working hard to pitch 200 innings this year,” Pineda said at the club’s Minor League complex. “I want to throw 200 innings this year. This is my goal, and help my team.”

Pineda had a mediocre 4.37 ERA (90 ERA+) last season despite impressive peripherals with 8.7 K/9 and 1.2 BB/9. Among pitchers with at least 160 innings pitched, only Bartolo Colon of the Mets had a lower walk percentage. Pineda managed to increase his ground ball rate to 48.2 percent and also saw an uptick in velocity from 2014, so there’s reason to believe in improvement if he can stay healthy.

Brewers GM: Acquiring Jacob Nottingham doesn’t change Jonathan Lucroy’s status

Jonathan Lucroy
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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The Brewers acquired prospects Jake Nottingham and Bubba Derby from the Athletics on Friday in exchange for slugging outfielder Khris Davis. The hope is that Nottingham will develop into the Brewers’ catcher of the future, so you could say that the club is planning for life after Jonathan Lucroy. However, Brewers general manager David Stearns said today that the trade doesn’t change Lucroy’s immediate status.

The Brewers are in rebuild-mode and Lucroy is an excellent trade chip if healthy, as his contract includes a $5.25 million club option for 2017. It’s likely just a matter of time before he’s shipped elsewhere, but yesterday’s trade shouldn’t change the timeline for a potential deal. Nottingham doesn’t turn 21 until April and has yet to play in Double-A, so he’s still a ways off from the majors. The Brewers can afford to wait on the right offer for Lucroy, whether it’s in spring training or at the trade deadline or perhaps later.

Checking in at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Nottingham batted .316/.372/.505 with 17 home runs over 109 games last season between Class A and High-A. He was traded from the Astros to the Athletics as part of the Scott Kazmir deal last July. It’s worth noting that Stearns was the assistant GM for Houston when Nottingham was drafted in the sixth round back in 2013, so he’s clearly a fan.

Joe Panik says he’s “100 percent” recovered from back injury

San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik follows through on a single off Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Scott Oberg in the eighth inning of Game 1 of a baseball doubleheader Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Denver. The Giants won 10-8. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Giants second baseman Joe Panik missed nearly all of August and September last season due to a nagging back injury, but he told Alex Pavlovic of CSNBayArea.com on Friday that he’s feeling “100 percent.”

Panik, who earned his first All-Star selection last season, originally landed on the disabled list in early August due to what was described as lower back inflammation. He made his return in September, but appeared in just three games before being shut down. The good news is that he was cleared by doctors in mid-December and considers himself “back to normal.”

“It was right around the time of all the signings,” he said, smiling. “I was able to fly under the radar. I got tested and everything had healed up. I got cleared and was able to have my full offseason workouts. I’m good to go. I’m happy to be feeling good and going back out on the field to show that I’m healthy. My swing feels strong.”

Panik altered his offseason workout routine and plans to spend less time in his spikes in the early part of spring training. The hope is that these changes will prevent future issues.

After a strong showing as a rookie in 2014, the 25-year-old Panik proved to be one of the best second baseman in the majors last season by batting .312/.378/.455 with eight home runs and 37 RBI over 100 games while playing solid defense.