Sunday, May 15, 2011

Decline & Fall: It Can Get Ugly

Jorge Posada isn't the first player
to face the ravages of age.
Watching great players age is not always pretty. As their skills erode and their stats slide, confidence drops and fans and the media debate what should be done. Should he be benched? Be moved in the batting order? Retire?

Such is the case with Jorge Posada, the latest in a line of great Yankees catchers (Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra and Thurman Munson among them). Posada has struggled mightily at the plate this year, with his average, below .170, the worst in baseball.

Posada is just the latest aging star to be forced to deal publicly with his decline. The decline of Willie Mays is perhaps the most talked about. I've written previously of how, for some reason, his stumbles as a player for the New York Mets overshadowed the fact the he drove in a key run in the World Series in his last season.

Babe Ruth's career ended on a similar note. The aging slugger was traded to the Boston Braves. By then he was overweight, said to be depressed and a shadow of the "Sultan of Swat." Ruth retired after going hitless on May 30, but he did have one great moment for the Braves: He hit three home runs against the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 25. That feat has managed to give even his decline had a bit of Ruthian swagger.

Of course, pitchers start to break down, too. And it might be even tougher for them to hang on. An aging hitter whose skills have slipped can still hit an occasional home run, sometimes even a game-winner. But a pitcher who fails to adapt to the loss of his fastball, can be hit around like batting practice.

Warren Spahn, the winningest left-hander of all time, is a case in point. Spahn, whose career was delayed by his service in World War II (he was wounded twice and decorated for his combat duty), didn't get his first big-league win till he was 25. Obviously, he made the most it by amassing 363 wins.

For Spahn, a spectacular run for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves came to a screeching halt. His ERA doubled from 2.60 in 1963 to 5.29 the next season. A move to the woeful Mets didn't help much. His earned run average recovered somewhat, but the losses piled up. His final games were pitched in San Francisco for the Giants, where he finished with three wins in seven decisions and an ERA of 3.39.

Like a lot of players, Spahn didn't want to quit. That's understandable. Athletes have short careers compared to most workers. They know that once they retire they'll never be able to play again. Why not hang on? None of these players should be defined by the struggles of their last seasons, but rather by the greatness they exhibited and the thrills they gave fans.


  1. Listening to differing accounts of why Jorge sat out yesterday (Girardi's, Cashman's, Posada's and, of course, Posada's wife Tweeter feed) all I can say is it smells like the corpse is rotting.

  2. Well, I think everything Jorge said was nonsense. And Cashman likes to bash Yankee stars.

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