Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 17, 2016

Far From The Spotlight, Exits Are Less Grand

Sports fans said goodbye to Kobe Bryant last week. In February they bade farewell to Peyton Manning. Two autumns ago Derek Jeter took his final bow on the grand stage of sports. Last week the Boston Red Sox opened their home season, which will be an 81-game tribute to designated hitter David Ortiz, who has announced that this will be his final campaign. When the Red Sox travel to other ballparks across the land opposing teams will offer their own acclaim about the career of the Boston slugger.

We’ve seen these farewell tours and final games of leading sports stars closing out long and distinguished careers many times before, and we will certainly see them again. Bryant and Jeter each rose to the moment in their own familiar fashion. Wednesday night Bryant, the third leading scorer in NBA history, dropped sixty points on the Utah Jazz in front of an adoring crowd at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, including fifteen straight in the closing minutes to lead the Lakers to a comeback victory. In doing so he became the only player this season to reach that point total.

The Yankees had Jeter’s last game at the Stadium in September 2014 won, until closer David Robertson gave up three runs in the top of the 9th, allowing the visiting Orioles to knot the score at 5-5. Yankee fans everywhere will forever regard it as the best blown save in the team’s storied history. Everyone in the stands knew the player long known as Captain Clutch was due up third in the bottom of the 9th, and when the leadoff hitter singled and a pinch runner advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt, the stage was set. Jeter put his trademark inside out swing on the first pitch from Baltimore’s Evan Meek, lining a game-winning single to right that set off pandemonium in the Bronx.

Manning’s final game had no similar moment or statistic reflecting his individual greatness. Hobbled by age and injuries, the great quarterback’s final season was less than memorable, as were Bryant’s and Jeter’s. But with Denver’s stifling defense a caretaker role at quarterback was enough for the Bronco’s offense. A line of 13 for 23 for 141 yards and 1 interception is unremarkable, except when it belongs to a quarterback earning a second career Super Bowl title.

Whether Boston’s Big Papi goes out with a bang or a whimper, in the regular season or the World Series, can only be told after the longest season unfolds. Much will transpire before Ortiz stands under the klieg lights for the final time; but his place in the hearts of Red Sox fans is secure. Regarded as a disappointment with the Twins, he was let go in 2002 after six indifferent seasons, some spent bouncing back and forth between the big league club and AAA. But shortly after his arrival at Fenway Park Ortiz established himself in the middle of the order, and three championships later he is and will always be a hero in New England.

These are the familiar tales, the stories we know and long remember. But in sports there is another kind of farewell, one accompanied by neither gifts nor glory. As memorable as are the long careers of Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz; it is worth recalling that there have been other stars whose light burned just as brightly but more briefly. In astronomical terms, not so much stars as comets, streaking across the skies to the wonderment of us all; only to burn out and fade away. These are the careers that end not with accolades and promises of induction into Halls of Fame, but rather with a slow unraveling and sad regret over what might have been.

Sometimes early talent is an unsustainable illusion; like the rookie pitcher who mows teams down his first time through the league, until wily veteran batters figure him out. More often though the career killer is injury.

Kerry Wood was a rising star with the Chicago Cubs in 2003. In 1998, in just his fifth career start, he struck out twenty Houston batters while allowing just two base runners in a one-hit shutout at Wrigley Field. He had overcome a season lost to Tommy John surgery and seemed primed to lead the Cubs to their long-awaited promised land of the World Series when he was joined by Mark Prior. Prior went 18-6 that season and Wood led the league with 266 strikeouts. But both were pushed to the limit. Wood threw more than 200 innings for the second year in a row, a significant increase over any prior workload. Prior worked 211, nearly double his previous high. Chicago lost in the NLCS, and while both continued to pitch for years neither was ever the same.

More recently NFL fans were enthralled by Robert Griffin III’s dynamism during his rookie season in 2012. RG3 was hailed as the archetype of an entirely new style of professional quarterback. But that season ended with him writhing in pain on the turf at FedEx Field. Four years later, after a year in which he didn’t take a single regular season snap, Griffin has signed with Cleveland, a veritable black hole for quarterbacks in recent years. Only time will tell if the one-time future of the NFL will ever again be an effective starter, much less the change agent that once seemed to be his certain role.

Which brings us to Tim Lincecum. Like Bryant and Jeter, the 31-year old right hander has played his entire professional career for just one team, the San Francisco Giants. From 2008 to 2010 he led the National League in strikeouts. In the first of those years he was the leader in winning percentage; in the second he threw more complete games than any other pitcher. He did what no pitcher in either league had ever done before by winning the NL Cy Young Award in each of his first two full seasons. Like DiMaggio’s hitting streak it is a record likely to stand for generations. In 2010 he won Games 1 and 5 of the World Series as the Giants captured their first title since moving from Manhattan more than half a century earlier.

That all his power came from a body generously listed as 5’ 11” and 170 pounds earned Lincecum the nickname “The Freak.” Perhaps his performance was not so much freakish as simply unsustainable. Since 2010 Lincecum has a sub-.500 record with an ERA of 4.17. There have been flashes of the early brilliance, but also many mediocre outings along with demotions to the bullpen.

Now a new season is underway, and Lincecum is no longer a Giant. After undergoing hip surgery during the offseason, he is a free agent hoping to find a home. But a pitching showcase at which he would show his stuff to representatives from as many as twenty teams that was originally scheduled for January was postponed a month. Then the February date was move to March. Now it is April, and word is that Lincecum is working out privately, the showcase schedule unknown.

The longest season has barely begun, and before it winds to a conclusion perhaps Tim Lincecum will again be on the mound of a major league ballpark. Fans who cheered The Freak’s awesome performances not so long ago certainly hope so. But even if that should come to pass, the likely reality is that those days are beyond reclamation. For Lincecum like other one-time stars, whatever remains of his career is more likely to be about wistful memories of the past than the wondrous glory of the present.

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