There is a proper way to say goodbye. Manners are involved. Maturity is called for. Leaving is an art form that takes a lifetime to master. Even then, some of us still get it wrong.
The Baseball Life is a one filled with people coming and going. Tom Petty said the waiting is the hardest part. I’ve come to realize he’s wrong. It’s not the waiting, because that implies you’re getting somewhere that you really, really want to be. Once you’re there, you don’t want to leave. Ever. Yes, think the Major Leagues. What do you think is easier, the road to the big leagues or leaving them forever?
Desi Relaford recently told a great story HERE. Desi was hanging on, nearing the end of his career, when (now ex-) manager Clint Hurdle of the Colorado Rockies told him his time with the team was over. Clint put out his hand for Desi to shake. What did Desi do? He turned his back and left.
That’s not how you’re supposed to leave.
In a perfect world, Desi would have shook Hurdle’s hand, said thank you, and then left. But this isn’t a perfect world. It’s not easy to be told you’re not good enough at something you’ve worked on your entire life and allegedly been good enough at for people to pay you for years at the very thing you’re now being told you can’t do anymore. In a perfect world, Desi would not have had to shake Hurdle’s hand. He would have never had that meeting. Instead, he would’ve seen his name on the lineup card and prepared for the day’s game. For the next 10 years.
Zane Smith did not perfect the art of leaving. After winning his 100th game with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1996, he was released from the team. Zane didn’t disrespect anyone when told. Instead, Zane left angry. He was angry because he couldn’t understand why they were cutting him. He’d just pitched a shutout. He was a left-hander. If you’re a lefty, you’re supposed to be in baseball forever. You become part of the fabric of the game, just like the 7th Inning Stretch and Vin Scully. Zane wanted to vent. He wanted to scream at the decision makers and tell them they were wrong; they were making the wrong decision. Would it have made any difference? No, Zane says, probably not. But he would have felt a whole lot better. In his case, maybe he should have screamed a little bit. Maybe ranting would have helped. It wouldn’t have changed any minds, but he wouldn’t carry regret around for years either.
The art of leaving doesn’t just cover being cut from a team. Lou Gehrig left and probably left in the classiest, most memorable way ever. Reference his “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech and you’ll probably agree.
What Gehrig did wasn’t easy for a number of obvious reasons, but there’s still a nobility to how he officially ended his baseball career. Desi Relaford is the first to say he lacked that nobility when told he was no longer needed or wanted. But maybe that’s the difference. Lou Gehrig didn’t leave on his own terms, but he did realize he could no longer play at the level he was accustomed to. He was only going to get worse. A disease sped up what happens to every baseball player eventually. Gehrig had a maturity, a certain pride, that told him to leave before he became a mockery of his former self. Desi Relaford’s career ended when the phone didn’t ring. Both Gehrig & Desi Relaford still had a passion for the game. Lou Gehrig is the one who could admit to himself when it was all over.
Roger Clemens left multiple times and never did it the right way. Remember 2003? He was retiring a Yankee. He got standing ovations and was given a car. He changed his mind and came back to pitch in 2004. He did it again in 2005, 2006 and 2007. How did he eventually leave? This time there was no gift from the Yankees. There was no Roger Clemens day, unless you call testifying in front of Congress his final goodbye. Roger did a lot of right things in his career. Leaving wasn’t one of them.
Then there’s Mike Schmidt. Click HERE to see his retirement news conference. It’s easy to make fun of his tears. Compare his farewell to Lou Gehrig’s and you wonder what’s so bad? MVPs, a World Championship, fame and money. Go ahead, laugh and make fun of him. After you settle down, think of this: Even though he was retiring “on his own terms,” he really didn’t want to retire. When a ballplayer leaves “on his own terms,” that only means someone convinced him – his wife, friends, family, agent, teammates – that he can’t play baseball anymore. It is rare – incredibly rare – for a baseball player to leave the game with a smile and say, “Ehh, I wanted to be done with the whole thing.” If you crawled into Mike Schmidt’s brain that day, he would have told you if it was up to him, he would have played baseball for another 18 years.
We shouldn’t forget John Kruk. If there was ever a man who mastered the art of leaving, who left “on his own terms,” maybe it was Kruk. On July 30, 1995, Kruk hit a single. What did he do next? He took himself out of the game and never came back as a player. His career batting average was a perfect .300 and he hit exactly 100 home runs.
John Kruk and Lou Gehrig probably haven’t been compared too often as baseball players. But as baseball players who left the game, maybe the comparison is worthy. Kruk was one of the few who grew sick of the game. He got his last hit and left. Lou Gehrig didn’t cry as hard as Mike Schmidt, didn’t turn away when Babe Ruth reached out to embrace him, and didn’t scream at the team for accepting his resignation. Unlike Roger Clemens, Lou Gehrig only left once. In his one chance, he perfected the art of leaving.
* Special thanks to the Reverend David Harwood of the United Methodist Church in Wayne, NJ who used this title for a goodbye sermon to his congregation on May 31, 2009. I can only hope this little ditty is half as powerful as the words he spoke that day.
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