Last November David Ortiz announced that he was going to retire following the 2016 season. This year Ortiz is playing better than he ever has. Indeed, he’s on a pace for what may be perhaps his best season as a major leaguer. At age 40, his 20th year in the bigs. Clearly that has to have him reconsidering his decision, right?
Well, no. He has given no indication whatsoever that he plans to reconsider his decision to retire. Just five days ago he today Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, in the clearest possible of terms, that he still plans to retire. He placed the odds at 100%. He has said much the same thing to everyone who has asked him that question and they have asked him an awful lot. Despite this — especially after days like he had yesterday, falling a triple short of the cycle and powering the Red Sox to victory — columns are written and TV and radio spots are recorded saying that Ortiz should not retire because he is still performing at the highest possible level. Go Google “Ortiz reconsider retirement” and your browser will blow up.
This is all understandable. Athletes rarely if ever go out on top or on their own terms. They usually have to be forced out, gently or otherwise, when their skills diminish, and when an athlete whose skills have not apparently diminished says he’s leaving it really doesn’t compute. Less objectively, fans (and reporters, when they’re being honest) love to watch great athletes play and are sad when they leave. David Ortiz has meant a lot to Boston for many, many years and saying goodbye would be hard enough under normal circumstances. When you have the abnormal circumstance of such a figure continuing to excel yet still calling it quits, it creates something close to an emotional crisis in the fan base and the sporting press.
There is one set of expectations and desires missing from all of this chatter, however: David Ortiz’s expectations and desires. Indeed, they’re being pretty clearly ignored in all of this.
When Ortiz announced his retirement, it wasn’t because he was unable to perform at a high level anymore. Indeed, he had just come off a season in which he hit 37 home runs, drove in over 100 and posted an OPS+ of 140, which is the exact same OPS+ he has for his entire career. In the video he released announcing his retirement last November he was pretty clear that performance wasn’t the reason, in fact. He said he just wanted to do other things with his life. “Life is based on different chapters,” he said, “and I think I’m ready to experience the next one in my life.”
In light of that, Ortiz’s excellent performance this year provides no logical basis whatsoever for questions about him reconsidering. Him hanging it up was about the grind and his health which he told Passan five days ago is still a huge issue for him. Him hanging it up was about desires to do new things beyond baseball. In light of that, when a reporter asks him if his eye-popping stat line is changing his mind about retirement, the reporter is necessarily admitting that he either did not listen to Ortiz’s reasons for retiring or he did not believe him when he said what his reasons were.
I appreciate that Ortiz’s desire to leave because he doesn’t want to play anymore is a bit different than other athletes’ leaving because they simply can’t play anymore. I appreciate that many players, especially great ones like Michael Jordan and Brett Favre have reversed themselves following retirement many times and that, maybe, someone like a David Ortiz may too. Minds change sometimes. David Ortiz’s mind may change too. It’s only May.
But when I read all of this speculation and wishing about David Ortiz I can’t help but see it as fans and the media, once again, refusing to see athletes as human beings with agency. I can’t help but see it as just the latest instance of them believing that athletes owe them far more than entertainment but, rather, something of themselves beyond that. That David Ortiz’s decision and his desires are secondary because we want even more from him than the 20 years he has given us. That we think of athletes as mere characters in a drama for our own amusement and fulfillment and that we write scripts for them — sometimes literally — to follow. When they don’t stick to that script, we kind of freak out and demand to know why they aren’t doing exactly what we expect of them.
Maybe David Ortiz well go back on-script, as it were. Maybe he’ll reconsider his decision and decide to give more to us. But if he does, it’ll be his decision and, in reality, it will be because he sees something more in it for himself, not because we’re owed anything more. Also, like his retirement announcement, he’ll probably tell us if he makes such a decision so maybe we don’t have to pester him about it constantly.
Until then, maybe we should allow him to enjoy what is currently still his swan song. And maybe we can begin to try to accept that it is his swan song ourselves. If we do, maybe we’ll get to enjoy something rare and unusual: the sight of an athlete going out, unambiguously, on top.