The toughest time for a pro athlete is when he has to leave the game. In rare cases, a player can go out on top. In the NFL, you have Jerome Bettis and John Elway, who played their final games on the winning team in the Super Bowl. They went out on their own terms, and winning a championship to boot, capping their careers. There are certain players, like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera who suffer an injury in what may have been the last season of their careers, but decide to give it one more season to end their last season on the field, rather than on the bench. Many players on their way out want to hit a certain milestone, 3000 hits for example (Wade Boggs) or 300 career wins (Randy Johnson), but even if they don’t, they call it a career.
Sometimes a player can point to an injury as the end of their career. Doctors tell them they simply can’t play anymore and no amount of rehab is going to help them return to the field. News broke that former closer Joel Hanrahan is going under the knife for his second Tommy John ligament replacement surgery since his last major league game. Unless Hanrahan just wants to do it so he can play ball with his kids, he is eyeing a return to the mound perhaps for the 2016 season. By that time, Hanrahan will be 34 years old. He has had success in the majors, saving 100 games in his career in seven years in the majors, earning $14 million. Only a remarkable resurgence, will enable him to garner one of those huge contracts again. Certainly, this will be his last chance in the majors.
When a player was once in the majors, when they join an unaffiliated independent league just so they can stay in the pros, it might be time to consider retirement. While he is not the first player to go to the independent leagues after playing in the majors (Scott Kazmir made a remarkable return to prominence from the independent leagues in 2013.), a player like Brandon Snyder, who was a first round draft choice in 2005, must be considering whether this could be his last stop. Snyder is now 28 years old. He can only be considered as a journeyman at this point, since he did not reach the majors last season with the Red Sox, though he did in 2013.
Typically, once a player hits 30, he usually starts to think about doing some thing else besides playing baseball, but sometimes a long-time minor league veteran continues to play in the minors despite his advanced age. Mike Hessman has been toiling away in the minors since 1996, crushing 417 minor league homers at that time, spending the last six seasons at AAA Toledo of the Detroit Tigers minor league system. He does not appear to be slowing down, hitting 28 homers last season in 116 games despite a cancerous growth he had removed from his nose. Though he turned 37 today, he still has a shot to return to the majors (where he has spent a little over a year, hitting 14 homers in 109 career games) for the first time since 2010, if superstar Miguel Cabrera is not ready for Opening Day. In the case of the veteran minor leaguer, they can often turn their extensive playing career there into a job for that organization, which is what Hessman might do when he decides to hang up his spikes.
Whichever category the player falls into, if he is not at peace with it, sometimes a player will still make it clear that they have a desire to continue playing. Bernie Williams was a cornerstone of the Yankee dynasty that won four World Series from 1996-2000, and were in two more that they lost. In 2007, he wanted to return to the Yankees as a bench player, but they would not guarantee a roster spot, so he declined the offer. When there is a once-great player whose skills have obviously declined, the departure will often be a painful one. Williams is a case where he chose not to stop playing rather than take an offer with another team.
If a player can go out on his own terms, he should consider himself lucky as that is often not the case. Knowing that their time is up is a decision that they often don’t want to face. Often others will do it for them, which can leave bitter feelings with the player, but in the end it was probably a good idea so the player doesn’t tarnish his legacy by embarrassing himself.