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: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 2, Padres 1: Michael Taylor had a night. He made an incredible throw home to save a run, then doubled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

Here’s the throw:

Here’s the walk-off double:

Jeremy Hellickson held the Padres to one run but had to leave with one out in the sixth due to a blister. The Nats’ bullpen took it from there, fanning five over the final 3 2/3 innings. Opposing starter Eric Lauer was also solid, yielding a run in his six innings of work. Bryce Harper hit his 14th dinger of the year.

Braves 3, Phillies 1: The Braves hold onto their first-place lead over the Phillies, winning this nail-biter. Brandon McCarthy and Vince Velasquez matched up for a fourth time this season. McCarthy has won all four starts. He gave up a run on on four hits and two walks with five strikeouts. He owns a 2.08 ERA against the Phillies this season and a 6.53 ERA against everyone else. Velasquez struck out nine, but lasted only 4 1/3 innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on six hits and three walks. Ozzie Albies hit his 14th homer of the season and scored all three runs for the Braves. His power progression has been impressive, to say the least.

Indians 10, Cubs 1: Ugly loss for the Cubs. Starter Tyler Chatwood walked six and gave up four runs in 2 2/3 innings. Mike Montgomery, who relieved him, wasn’t any better, giving up six runs in 2 1/3 innings. Yonder Alonso racked up three hits and three RBI. Jose Ramirez hit a three-run home run. The top-third of the Indians’ lineup combined to go 5-for-11 with four walks and six runs scored. Trevor Bauer continued to deal, tossing six shutout frames with six strikeouts. His ERA stands at 2.35. Something, something, spin rate. The first-place Indians are back at .500 with a 23-23 record.

Blue Jays 5, Angels 3: The Blue Jays put up a five-spot in the first inning against Garrett Richards, proving to be all the offense they would need on the evening. The Angels helped them out with a wild pitch and a fielding error. Kendrys Morales capped off the frame with a two-run homer. J.A. Happ went seven innings, limiting the Angels to two runs on three hits and three walks with five strikeouts.

Reds 7, Pirates 2: Scooter Gennett put the Reds’ offense on his back, contributing an RBI double, a grand slam, and a sacrifice fly. You may recall Gennett hit four grand slams last year, becoming one of only a handful of players to accomplish the feat. He has five in the last calendar year. Matt Harvey limited the Pirates to just one run on three hits and two walks with five strikeouts over six innings. Jameson Taillon was on the hook for all six runs the Reds scored, going six innings with eight strikeouts.

Red Sox 4, Rays 2: It was mostly a bad night for the Rays, as starter Jake Faria and catcher Wilson Ramos both exited the game in the third inning with injuries. However, shortstop prospect Willy Adames crushed his first major league homer off of Chris Sale. Sale went 7 2/3 innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on four hits and two walks with nine strikeouts. He now holds a 2.17 ERA. Mookie Betts hit his major league-leading 16th homer of the season. Rafael Devers also went yard.

Marlins 5, Mets 1: Zack Wheeler pitched pretty well but the Mets just couldn’t swing the bats enough to support him. Wheeler struck out nine and gave up three runs (one earned) on seven hits with no walks over six innings. Caleb Smith was better, limiting the Mets to a lone run on three hits and two walks and eight strikeouts in 6 2/3 frames. Jose Bautista made his Mets debut, going 1-for-3 with a double.

Brewers 1, Diamondbacks 0: Another heart-breaker for the D-Backs. They have now lost six games in a row and 12 of their last 13. The Brewers’ lone run scored on a Domingo Santana sacrifice fly in the sixth inning. Jhoulys Chacin narrowly out-pitched Matt Koch and the Brewers’ bullpen took it from there. Matt Albers, Josh Hader, and Corey Knebel combined to hold the D-Backs scoreless for the final 12 outs. The first-place Brewers are 30-19. The Brewers might’ve scored more if not for Jarrod Dyson:

Rangers 6, Yankees 4: Jurickson Profar kicked things off for the Rangers with a three-run homer in the first inning. The Rangers scored two more in the second against Domingo German, who lasted 3 2/3 innings and was on the hook for all six runs in total. Cole Hamels held the Yankees to a pair of runs on four hits and two walks with seven strikeouts over seven innings. The two runs came on solo home runs from Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. Austin Romine added two more in the eighth with a two-run shot off of Jake Diekman.

White Sox 3, Orioles 2: May continues to go well for James Shields, who now owns a 3.27 ERA in five starts this month (but a 4.62 ERA overall). He gave up only two runs on five hits and two walks with five strikeouts over seven innings. Kevin Gausman blanked the Sox over 6 1/3 innings on nine hits and a walk while striking out 10. Mark Trumbo went 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles and an RBI. Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier combined to fork over three runs to the White Sox in the bottom of the eighth inning, saddling Gausman with a no-decision.

Twins 6, Tigers 0: Lance Lynn finally put together a good start for the Twins. He shut out the Tigers across 6 2/3 innings, yielding only five hits and a walk while striking out four. The effort lowered his ERA to 6.34. The Twins scored three runs in the fifth and seventh innings, providing more than enough run support. Brian Dozier knocked in three of those runs with a pair of doubles. Ehire Adrianza reached base three times and picked up a pair of RBI in the effort as well.

Astros 11, Giants 2: The Astros singled and doubled the Giants to death, pounding out 12 total hits, none of which went for more than two bases, and drew five walks. Gerrit Cole gave up two runs on four hits and three walks with eight striekouts in six innings. His ERA ballooned all the way up to 1.86. Each pitcher that entered the game for the Giants gave up at least one run. It wasn’t all bad for the Giants — at least Brandon Crawford got to homer off of brother-in-law Gerrit Cole.

Royals 5, Cardinals 1: The Royals got homers from Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez plus seven strong innings from Jason Hammel. Hammel gave up nine hits, walked none, and struck out six in the effort. On a lot of other nights, Luke Weaver would’ve had a W, but settled for the L with seven innings of three-run ball. He struck out eight. Yairo Munoz and Marcell Ozuna each collected three hits. Gordon and Alcides Escobar had three hits each for the Royals.

Mariners 3, Athletics 2 (10 innings): Guillermo Heredia broke a 2-2 tie in the top of the 10th with an RBI double. Edwin Diaz worked a perfect bottom half with a pair of strikeouts to close it out. Both starters — Trevor Cahill for the A’s and Mike Leake for the Mariners — pitched into the seventh inning and gave up two runs.

Dodgers 5, Rockies 3: Chris Taylor hit a go-ahead two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth and Yasiel Puig tacked on an insurance run with a solo homer. Ian Desmond went yard for the Rockies.