The news came suddenly, unexpected and unforeseen. New York Mets outfielder Michael Cuddyer, a veteran of 15 seasons in the Major Leagues, surprised fans and analysts alike last week when he announced he was leaving the game forever as an active player. One year and $12.5 million remained on the contract Cuddyer walked away from.
A consummate professional throughout his career, Cuddyer was not a considered a traditional star. His contributions came at opportune times, and his ability to lead by example became the attribute he was best remembered for both on and off the field. A first round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins in 1997, Cuddyer reached the big leagues five years later and hit .385 for the Twins in the ALDS against the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s, facing the big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. The postseason series was the only one Cuddyer won with the Twins and his lone playoff series victory until joining the Mets for the 2015 season.
From there, Cuddyer became a mainstay in the Twin Cities, averaging 20 home runs and 80 RBI each season. His leadership paved the way for Justin Morneau to win his only career MVP award in 2006 and for Joe Mauer to become the first catcher to the win the batting title since Mickey Cochrane three years later. A move to the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field catapulted him into a temporary star, as he won a batting title of his own with the Colorado Rockies in 2013, hitting a career high .331 and making his second career All-Star team. Like a fine wine Cuddyer appeared to age well. He put together his most productive seasons after he turned 30, and was suddenly earning acclaim he never attained before. Even coming off a down year in his first season with the Mets, many wondered why Cuddyer abruptly decided to retire with his team on a cusp of once again competing for a championship.
Cuddyer cited injuries as the main reason after officially announcing his decision to retire last Friday. Since joining the Rockies for the 2012 season, injuries prevented Cuddyer from playing more than 130 games. In the last four seasons, Cuddyer had eight separate stints on the disabled list with injuries ranging from a strained oblique to knee inflammation. In a conference call with the New York media over the weekend, Cuddyer explained the efforts of preparing his body for the 162-game season and its cumulative toll.
“It wasn’t just the DL stints. It’s the aches and pains that every single player goes through over the course of 162 games. They started to get harder to get harder to come back from. They started to get tougher to rehab,” he said Saturday. “Mentally, that just wore down. I wouldn’t say that the core surgery sent me over the edge or anything like that, but it was just all of them took its toll.” (WDAM)
The 2015 season was a particularly trying one for Cuddyer, who signed a two-year, $21.5 million contract with the Mets last winter. Away from the favorable offensive conditions of Colorado, Cuddyer got off to a rocky start in Flushing, batting .253/.319/.363 through the middle of May. Cuddyer’s slow start and the lack of overall production throughout the lineup typically suggest that this was the classic tale of a player who was not emotionally equipped to play in New York, but rather, this was a case of a man whose efforts were giving way to the slow deterioration of his body.
Without time to wait for Cuddyer to rebound, the Mets, in desperate need of a solidifying their outfield, promoted talented prospect Michael Conforto from Double-A and traded for the dynamic Yoenis Cespedes. The moves were also necessitated by Cuddyer’s latest DL stint after injuring his knee. As the Mets’ fortunes instantly improved with the acquisition of Cespedes, Cuddyer’s role became gradually marginalized as insurance off the bench. Unlike most players who lose their starting role, Cuddyer accepted it with class and became a vital clubhouse leader during the Mets’ run to the National League pennant. His leadership abilities far exceeded his contributions on the field and were attributes that do not show up on a stats sheet.
As we learned in the film Moneyball, “We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but we’re all told.” Cuddyer’s body told him at age 36. After 15 seasons, the daily grind became more difficult for him, and though he did not win a World Series ring, Cuddyer accomplished nearly all of his professional goals, finishing his career with two All-Star appearances, a batting title, a Silver Slugger, and 1,522 hits. Despite seeing his career shortened by injury, Cuddyer was able to get the most out of his ability and pass on his experiences to younger players willing to follow his lead. His collective efforts allowed his teams to achieve lasting success and become a symbol for both class and professionalism.