Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 19, 2014

To Athletes, Who All Die Young

It has been a rough couple of weeks for the Great Game, a time when fans have faced an eerie reminder of the old superstition about death coming in threes. First there was Don Zimmer, passing at age 83 after a lifetime in the game. Then in quick succession came news of the too-soon deaths of Bob Welch and Tony Gwynn. Right hander Welch won 211 games for the Dodgers and A’s in a lengthy major league career. His 27 wins in 1990 have not been matched in the near quarter-century since. Gwynn, or Mister Padre as he came to be known, spent his entire twenty season career in San Diego. One of the finest pure hitters of all time, Gwynn won 8 National League batting titles while compiling a .338 lifetime batting average. When the players strike cut short the 1994 season in mid-August, Gwynn’s average was just .006 short of the magical .400 mark. Now Welch is gone at age 57 of an apparent heart attack, and Gwynn is dead at 54, a victim of cancer and the lamentable allegiance of too many ballplayers to chewing tobacco.

Each of these passings has been noted in the media and in the blogosphere. I wrote about Zimmer in this space two weeks ago, and my friend Bill Miller posted an excellent appreciation of Welch’s career here. Perhaps it was the reflective mood brought on by this spate of somber news that made me pay particular notice to two relatively small stories in this week’s sports pages. The old saw is that athletes all die twice, the second time being the end which all mortals face; but the first death, for all those who have stood on the field of play and basked in the adulation of thousands of fans, comes when the cheering stops.

On Tuesday the Boston Red Sox announced that they had designated outfielder Grady Sizemore for assignment. Within baseball’s collective bargaining agreement the term known by the shorthand DFA has a very specific meaning. A player designated is immediately off his team’s 40-man roster. Within 10 days he must be returned to that roster, traded, placed on waivers, or released. While on occasion a player designated for assignment may wind up involved in one of the first three transactions within the 10 day window, fans of the Great Game know full well that a DFA is almost always the prelude to releasing a player, permanently ending his time with the team.

Boston’s decision to designate Sizemore was a one-day story in New England, probably less than that in other parts of the country. Thursday brought an even smaller bit of news, an announcement by the Texas Rangers that they had released right-handed pitcher Daniel Bard from the minor league contract he had signed with the club last January, as he sought to come back from off-season shoulder surgery.

Sizemore is just 31, and Bard is even younger at 28. It is too soon and would be unfair to both to assert that their time in the game is over. But as both now seek employment each is clearly at a critical junction point in his career. As they and their agents wait and hope for an offer from some new club, they can’t possibly avoid contemplating the dread possibility that their final game in a big league uniform lies not in the future, but in the past. In that they are like hundreds of athletes in all of our major sports every year, two case studies in how quickly the roar of the fans can turn into the lingering silence of a phone that will not ring.

Sizemore was a three-time All-Star and a two-time Gold Glove Award winner while patrolling center field for Cleveland from 2004 through 2011. In 2005, his first full season in the majors, Sizemore joined Roberto Alomar as the only players in the long history of the Cleveland franchise to post at least 20 doubles, 20 homers, 20 stolen bases and 10 triples in a year. That led to a 6-year contract worth almost $4 million a year at season’s end, and Sizemore did his best to earn his new salary. In 2007 he hit four home runs in his first six games. A year later he reached the 20 homer, 20 steals plateau before the 4th of July, becoming the only American League player to record that double for the fourth consecutive year. Later that season he joined the 30-30 club.

But that year he also missed a few days with a sprained ankle, a small injury that was a precursor to his future. In 2009 he pulled out of the World Baseball Classic with an injury, and later that year underwent elbow surgery. The next season he was back under the knife after just 33 games for surgery on his left knee. By the time he signed with the Red Sox last winter, Sizemore had not played a major league game in more than two seasons. For Boston an incentive-laden contract was a low risk chance on a once-great player trying to make a comeback from a slew of injuries. With a home run on Opening Day, it looked for a moment like it might even pay off for all involved. But by the time of his release that first game dinger had been matched by just one other, and Sizemore was hitting just .216. Even that number is deceptive thanks to a hot start. Since April 15th his triple slash line was .187/.263/.267. In the end the Red Sox, trying desperately to climb out of a sub-.500 hole, really had no choice but to look elsewhere.

By chance Bard’s story also runs through Boston. The Red Sox drafted Bard, then at the University of North Carolina, in the first round of the 2006 draft. After performing poorly as a starter in the minors, he was converted to a reliever and began to blossom. While working his way through Boston’s farm system in 2008 he had a 1.51 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings. By May of the following year he was wearing a big league uniform, eventually becoming the setup man in front of closer Jonathan Papelbon. In that role in 2010 his ERA was a masterful 1.93 and his WHIP a magical 1.00. The next year he recorded 25 straight scoreless appearances from late May through the end of July.

Then, suddenly and inexplicably, Daniel Bard forgot how to pitch. Or so it seemed as he went 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA as the Red Sox collapsed that September. Turned back into a starter in 2012, he was no better, going 5-6 and walking or hitting 45 batters while striking out just 34. In his final start before being sent down Bard lasted just 1 2/3 innings against Toronto, surrendering 5 runs while walking 6 and hitting 2 batters.

From the Red Sox minors Bard drifted briefly to the Cubs, then on to Texas. For the Rangers’ Class A Hickory team, the once-dominant reliever faced 18 batters in four games. He recorded just two outs while allowing 13 runs, walking 9 and hitting 7. His ERA, if it can be called that, was 175.50.

We fans can’t really imagine what it is like, to stand on the brown dirt mound or the green grass outfield, or to dig into the batter’s box as the stadium echoes with the chant of one’s name. Having been there, who would ever want to let it go? Surely anyone who once possessed the skill to be there for even a single game, much less a player with the ability that Sizemore and Bard once had, would do everything in their power to be there again.

Yet the only certainty is that the arc of every career is finite. Perhaps games remain for Sizemore or Bard. Or perhaps they must now contend, like so many others every year in every sport, with the hard first death of an athlete. A sad story told not in some grand obituary, but in the tiny agate type listing a day’s transactions, hidden in the back of the sports section of a forgotten newspaper, left on an empty park bench, its pages fluttering ever so slightly in a soft and silent wind.

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Responses

  1. As always, this is some very fine writing, my friend. Nicely done,
    Bill


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