When you don't need the money

Jared Wickerham

Aubrey Huff, he of the strange up-and-down career, didn't play last season. But it wasn't until last week that Huff officially retired, and SB Nation's Chris Cotillo had the exclusive story:

Huff entered last offseason with the intention of playing in 2013, but told Hank Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle in March that he was "pretty much retired" after not getting the contract he was looking for on the free agent market. The Diamondbacks expressed some interest in Huff as a bench player last winter, but no teams reached out in the middle of last season with interest.

"Arizona was interested in me for a bench job," Huff said. "I really was adamant about not doing that, and they ended up signing Eric Hinske. I always told myself that [I would retire] whenever I'm not an everyday player. I've won some World Series, what's the point of being on the bench anymore? I'm not going to go through all of the grind and flights and everything just to ride the pine and watch. It's just not what I want to do."

When free agency entered baseball and players started making REAL money in the late 1970s, it was popularly believed that a) the sport would be destroyed, and b) many players would just quit after making their first few millions. The game's still going strong, of course. And players didn't quit prematurely. Still, as the money kept getting bigger, people kept predicting that players wouldn't keep playing as long as they could.

In the early '90s, I scoffed at that latter prediction. Most players, even many of the greatest players, had played for as long as they were physically capable, some of them even going back to the minors if necessary. I thought that's just what being a baseball player meant.

But I was wrong. Or at least I wasn't as right as I expected.

It's all about the money. A lot of baseball players, the really good ones anyway, do reach a point at which, financially speaking, they don't need to play. If you've been earning (say) $8 million per season as an every-day player, do you really need to hang around as a bench player for just a million or so? If so, you've probably frittered away much of your earnings or you really, really love playing. Which a lot of guys do. But it's not an easy job, especially if you enjoy spending time with your family or eating a couple of steaks for breakfast every morning.

It seems that Aubrey Huff could have played last season, but in a reduced role. Some guys are okay with that, and some aren't. But it's not just players like Huff who've quit prematurely. Will Clark quit after a really good season, and so did Larry Walker. Billy Wagner hung 'em up after an outstanding season. Mike Mussina won 20 games in his last season. Andy Pettitte's quit twice. And of course Mariano Rivera just went out on top.

I haven't actually studied the issue, but it seems that quitting while you're still pretty good is happening more and more often. The predictions were right. They were just 20 or 30 years early.

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