This morning the news broke that Tom Brady would not be returning to the New England Patriots. I don’t know where he’s going and don’t really care because football is not my thing — someone said Tampa Bay? — but I am always fascinated when a franchise legend changes teams late in his career. If, for no other reason, than for the jarring photos of the guy in the strange uniform.
Given that the only possible baseball news we’ll get today will, in all likelihood, be bad, let’s take a little walk down memory lane and remember some superstars who finished their careers in duds that did not, by any stretch of the imagination, conform to our historic memory of them. (all photos via Getty Images)
Let’s start big:
Ruth started his big league career in Boston with the Red Sox and, obviously, became the biggest celebrity in America as a Yankee. But after the 1934 season it was clear his days as a star were over. Yankees owner Jacob Rupert wanted to trade him, but per his contract, Ruth had to agree to the deal. Ruth wanted to manage, so that agreement would only come if he was sent someplace where that was a possibility.
Boston Braves owner Emil Fuchs offered to name Ruth vice president of the team and called him “assistant manager” to manager Bill McKechnie. He offered Ruth profit sharing too and said he’d be McKechnie’s successor. It all turned out to be a lie, however — Fuchs actually asked Ruth to invest money in the Braves rather than take profits straight up and had no intention of letting him manage — so Ruth decided to retire. Fuchs got him to agree to one last road trip as a farewell. Ruth hit his final three home runs in a game against the Pirates on May 25. He’d play five more games, ending his career on May 30, 1935. He went 0-for-1 with a groundout against the Phillies.
Almost as big:
This is a cheat as DiMaggio was an executive and coach, not a player, for the 1968 Oakland Athletics, but it’s still pretty jarring. Fun fact: DiMaggio didn’t really have his heart in coaching but he took the gig because he was a couple years short of uniformed service time to qualify for baseball’s maximum pension at the time. Not that the pitchman for Mr. Coffee really needed the cash.
Mays’ time back in New York, this time with the Mets, is often mischaracterized, and unfairly at that. Indeed, almost every time you hear it brought up, it’s couched in terms of Mays “stumbling around in the outfield” or “falling down in the outfield.” It’s become a go-to reference for anyone describing a past-his-prime player hanging on.
But it’s also a load of crap. For one thing he played two seasons with the Mets and in the first one, 1972, he was actually pretty good, at least for an old player. He did the classic thing in which his batting average and power were sapped but he got on-base at a high clip because his eye was still amazing (See, Henderson, Rickey, who did that for years himself). He was far more of a liability as a part-time player in the Mets’ pennant-winning 1973 campaign. The “stumbling” thing sprung from exactly one play in the 1973 World Series in which he misjudged a ball and fell, but it was on a day when the outfielders for both teams were having trouble in the outfield due to the hazy sky.
Subjects of history don’t get to write their own stories most of the time so, fine, whatever, Mays gets slapped with that, but make no mistake, it is a slap.
As was the case with Ruth and Mays, Aaron ended his tenure with a different team in the city where he first gained his fame, Milwaukee. Having broken Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, the Braves and Aaron parted ways, allowing the Hammer to become a Brewer. It made some sense too, as the Brewers, then an AL team, had the DH slot available. Aaron was a below-average full time hitter in 1975 and a basically league average hitter in part time action in 1976 before retiring and spending the next 40-years and counting as a Braves executive back in Atlanta.
This is also a cheat, as Rose did not end his career in Montreal. He did spend 95 games with the Expos after signing with them as a free agent before the 1984 season and he’d collect his 4,000th career hit early that year in an Expos uniform. The Reds would trade for him later that summer and make him their player-manager, with the clear intention of having him break Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record in the uniform in which he gained his fame.
Mad Stray Dog:
Greg Maddux actually had two stints in Los Angeles. The first came as a rental arm for the 2006 playoff push, during which he posted an excellent 137 ERA+ in 12 starts. And during which, by the way, he pitched the game that mattered to me most in my entire lifetime, and which I wrote about at length here.
That would be the last time he was truly effective, however. He’d pitch in sub-par fasion for the Padres in 2007 — also random — and part of 2008, and tossed seven more below average games for the Dodgers to close out the 2008 season and his career.
During the prime of his career Mike Piazza was traded by the Dodgers to the Florida Marlins, playing there for only five games before being traded to the Mets. It was one of the weirder, shorter tenures of any Hall of Famer anywhere, really. So weird, though, that people still talk about it a lot, making it less obscure than some of these other ones. Like, if you had asked me before today what team Piazza ended his career with, there’s a non-trivial chance that I would’ve forgotten about his 2007 season with Oakland. I might’ve mentioned his 2006 season with the Padres, actually. It sticks in my mind more. Man, a lot of dudes end things with the Padres. Maybe it’s the nice weather? Senior citizens love it.
I should probably also include Frank Thomas as an Oakland Athletic here too, but part of me doesn’t want to because he always seemed destined to end his career as a DH there. I think I felt it in my bones going back to the early 2000s.
The Giant Unit:
Randy Johnson pitched twenty-two games with the Giants in his final campaign in 2009, five of which came in relief, which is something he hadn’t done for several years before that. They were 22 pretty forgettable games. Well, 21 forgettable games: on June 4, 2009 he got his 300th career win. Which, frankly, was probably the only reason he signed with the Giants to begin with.
Smoltz gets a twofer:
John Smoltz pitched for the Braves for 20 years. In his 21st year, 2009, he pitched for both Boston and St. Louis. In his 15 total games that year he sported an ERA+ of 69, which was not very nice. Probably should’ve kept it at an even 20 seasons.
Anyway, we got past all of this. Patriots fans, you’ll get past Tom Brady flinging touchdown passes in another team’s uniform as well. Indeed, you’ll probably forget it ever happened.