Kevin C. Cox
The athlete dies not once, but many times ... Well, except for those that actually die in the literal sense.
"Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner. And you know what I'll do to that!...You can kiss it goodbye." -- August Wilson, Fences.
Fences is a Pulitzer Prize winning play about an old Negro League player, Troy, who is obsessed with cheating death. But even as he plots and plans to stall the Grim Reaper, he acknowledges, "Ain't nothing wrong with talking about death. That's part of life. Everybody gonna die. You gonna die, I'm gonna die ... Hell, we all gonna die."
In baseball, death takes many forms, both literal and metaphorical. In 2012, Gary Carter lost his battle with brain cancer and Johnny Pesky finally ran out of his boundless energy. Pascual Perez was gunned down in his home for a few bucks, and Ryan Freel tragically shot himself.
On the smaller, metaphorical scale, every out is a little death, and so is every loss. Entire teams died in the sweltering heat of August, while the new Wild Card left several more on life support until the last weekend of the season. Still, this latter kind of death is inevitably followed by a rebirth, either with the next batter, the next game, or the next spring, as the cycle begins again.
There's only one death in the game of baseball that's truly permanent, and that's the last moments of a ballplayer's career. In that regard, we were lucky in 2012. Chipper Jones' baseball death was a long time coming, slow and drawn out as he went on a farewell tour of the National League. We had time to celebrate him and his "passing," and what a wake. At 40, Jones managed to put together one of the best over-the-hill seasons in baseball history, batting .287/.377/.455 (124 OPS+) while leading the Braves to the postseason as well as to their best regular season record since 2004. Ultimately, his baseball death was not a fastball on the outside corner, but a Dan Uggla groundout that left him stranded at third base. That death had a note of finality to it, representing the culmination of a journey.
Far more often, we don't know if a player's time is up until long after they're dead for the last time. Hideki Matsui popped out to shortstop to end a game on July 22nd, and while many probably suspected he was done, Godzilla only announced his retirement last week. Johnny Damon grounded out to the catcher to end an August 10th game, and that will surely be his last time on the field as a major leaguer. Darren Oliver died what looks to be his final death on October 2nd, picking off Ben Revere from first base in the eighth inning.
It probably never occurred to fans that these mundane endings were the last deaths of some damn good ballplayers, to say nothing about all the scrubs, quadruple-A guys, and roster filler who saw their last action last year. Hell, even younger players like Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Justin Morneau seem poised to go at any moment. As we go forward into 2013, let's resolve to treasure each at bat and pitch we get to see. Especially from these guys who are winding down their tremendous careers:
Mariano Rivera: The greatest closer in baseball history is going to be 43 and is coming off of a torn ACL. He's said he will retire after 2013, but if he's unable to execute with his cutter, the most effective pitch of all time, he might be done sooner than expected. Still, any save he gets over the 608 he's already compiled is a gift.
Raul Ibanez: Ibanez is the Jamie Moyer of hitters, never really getting a shot until he was over 30, but he's still racked up 244 homers and a 115 OPS+ since his twenties ended. Ibanez is getting a chance to finish where he started, in Seattle, where he had his best seasons. But will his reduced bat speed and the imposing pitcher's park make this his last go-around?
Andy Pettitte: Man, there were a lot of old Yankees last year. Pettitte may still have more than one year left in him, but he's 41 and coming off of a fractured tibia. Already a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, provided the BBWAA voters get the PED stick out of their collective posteriors, any value he can add is only going to buttress his case.
Todd Helton: "Mr. Rockie" (I refuse to call him the Todd-father) is 39, fighting a bad back, and is nowhere near any milestones except 2500 hits and 600 doubles. Provided he's healthy, he could probably get the first one, but what are the odds of even that happening?
This season could also provide our last chance to see former favorites like Scott Rolen, Kevin Millwood, Carl Pavano, Derek Lowe, Bartolo Colon, Placido Polanco, Miguel Tejada, Jason Isringhausen, LaTroy Hawkins and Carlos Lee. It's even within the realm of possibility that Derek Jeter could retire if he can't bounce back from his broken ankle. If we're really, really lucky, someone will hand Jim Thome a uniform and a bat and let him take a few cuts to add to his 612 homers. Hell, even watching Jimbo strike out is a joy, as the man never gets cheated, and anyway he's only 49 Ks behind Reggie Jackson's all-time record.
We can only hope that for all of the aforementioned players their final seasons will be more like Chipper's than Damon's or Matsui's. And while these guys are all likelier to see their careers wrap up, it's also true that labrums and tendons tear unexpectedly, and bones break when we're busy making other plans. Some guys just never make it back from the unexpected. Sometimes it's not even health that is at issue, but the players' skills themselves -- struggling players get released on a moment's notice, and not all of them get signed by another team.
So enjoy each little moment that baseball gives you, because it could be your last chance to say you saw Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, or Michael Young. Watch every game you can, focus on every detail, and love every minute. And most importantly, listen to every Dodger game you can, because Vinny won't be around forever either.