Rob Neyer is on vacation this week. Three guest columnists will fill in for him this week with columns on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
With Sept. 1 just around the corner, major-league teams will soon be allowed to expand their active roster to as many as 40 players. By and large, the additional spots will be filled by inexperienced players trying to catch their organization's eye and enhance their chances of making the big club next spring. Because of the zero-sum nature of roster management, as the youngsters try to jumpstart their careers over the last month of the season, many older players will be playing their final contests in the big leagues.
While veterans often talk of leaving the game "on their own terms," it seldom happens that way. One place it does seem to be playing out that way is in Seattle, where 40-year-old Edgar Martinez has plied his trade for 17 years.
Last November, when Martinez signed a one-year contract for 2003, he said this would, in all likelihood, be his last year. Despite showing no signs of tailing off this season, Martinez has said nothing to indicate he has changed his mind. Should that remain the case, Martinez's 2003 campaign would rank as one of the best final seasons ever.
To see how it stacks up, let's look at 10 of the top swan-song seasons in baseball history, using Equivalent Average (EqA) as the yardstick, with a 300 plate-appearance minimum.
EqA is a metric developed by the folks at Baseball Prospectus that weighs all offensive contributions and adjusts for context (ballpark, era, etc.) to produce a final number analogous to batting average. In simpler terms, an EqA of .300 means the hitter had a pretty darn good season. Players whose careers ended as a result of death, debilitating injury or suspension from the game are not included.
10. Darren Daulton, 1997: .263 BA/.378 OBP/.463 slugging, .295 EqA
By the early 1990s, Daulton had established himself as one of top catchers in the NL. However, nine operations had left his knees a mess and he was coming off a 1996 season in which he played but five games. In 1997, he surprised the Phillies by making the team as a reserve outfielder, but after 17 years in the organization was traded to the Marlins in late July, presumably to give him a shot at winning a championship. Florida wanted "Dutch" for his leadership, but by the end of the season his inspired play had made him the full-time first baseman. A few months after the Marlins won the World Series, Daulton retired in dream fashion, with a ring on his finger and a solid season under his belt.
9. Richie Ashburn, 1962: .306/.424/.393, .301 EqA
Purchased from the Cubs by the expansion Mets before their inaugural season, Ashburn appeared finished after posting a miserable 679 OPS in 1961. However, he overcame the disastrous team that surrounded him in the Polo Grounds to have his best season since 1958 and was named the Mets' MVP. One of the greatest defensive center fielders ever, his severely decreased range in the field and 120 losses were too much for Ashburn to bear, and he ended his playing days in favor of what turned into long career as a broadcaster.
8. Roy Cullenbine, 1947: .224/.401/.422, .302 EqA
A two-time All-Star, the well-traveled Cullenbine was in his second stint with Detroit, the team with which he broke into the big leagues. Feeling that he had lost a step in the outfield, the Tigers moved Cullenbine to first base in 1947 to replace the recently departed Hank Greenberg (more on him later). Though Cullenbine finished third in the league in on-base percentage and eighth in OPS, the Tigers couldn't see past his 111-point drop in batting average, and so they cut him loose in favor of rookie George Vico, who proceeded to play his way out of baseball within two years.
7. Reggie Smith, 1982: .284/.364/.470, .305 EqA
A very underrated player, Smith left Los Angeles and signed a free-agent contract with San Francisco for the 1982 season despite having fought with fans in the Candlestick Park stands only a few months earlier. At one time he had a great outfield throwing arm, but various injuries limited him to first base after 1980. Despite putting up numbers right in line with his career totals and helping Frank Robinson's squad to its best record in five years, Smith drew little interest on the open market after the season, possibly because of his resounding support for the 1981 players' strike. Instead, Smith was part of the first big wave of major leaguers to head to Japan, and he hit 45 home runs in two seasons there before finally hanging up his spikes.
6. Ferris Fain, 1955: .260/.455/.326, .308 EqA
Fain won back-to-back AL batting championships in 1951 and 1952 and was an on-base machine, failing to record at least a .400 OBP only once (.399 in 1954) in his nine-year career. However, drinking problems, a difficult personality and a complete disappearance of his doubles power caused him to leave baseball after 1955. While some players while away their retirements killing various fauna, Fain chose to take up gardening, and in the 1980s he was busted for cultivating several hundred marijuana plants near his home in northern California.
5. Hank Greenberg, 1947: .249/.408/.478, .310 EqA
After leading the American League in home runs and RBI in 1946, Greenberg felt he deserved a 50-percent raise, to $75,000. The Tigers disagreed and placed him on waivers, and Pittsburgh claimed him. Greenberg said he would rather retire than play for the woeful Pirates, but changed his mind when the ante reached $100,000 (it took another 11 years before another NL player, Stan Musial, made six figures), not to mention a racehorse and an agreement to pull the left-field fence at Forbes Field in 35 feet. Greenberg played well when healthy, but back problems cost him nearly 30 games. Greenberg never lacked self-confidence, so when faced with a huge pay cut, he probably figured he could make better coin elsewhere. Within three years he was the GM of the Cleveland Indians, and he later became a successful investment banker.
4. Mickey Mantle, 1968: .237/.385/.398, .317 EqA
Some might argue that injuries ended Mantle's career, so he shouldn't be on this list. However, after moving from the outfield to first base, he played in 144 games in both 1967 and 1968, his highest totals since 1961. What ended Mantle's career is that he, like most of the baseball world, couldn't come to grips with the magnitude of the pitchers' era in which he was playing. When Mantle hit lower than .250 for a second straight season, he thought he was washed up, even though the Yankees batted .214 as a team in 1968. Thanks to 106 walks, Mantle actually finished the season with the third-best OBP in the American League.
3. Brian Downing, 1992: .278/.407/.428, .318 EqA
One of the first big leaguers to include extensive weightlifting in his training regimen, Downing was primarily a catcher for his first eight years, then became a surprisingly capable outfielder. By the time he landed in Texas, his barrel-chested body was no longer suited to play defense. Though Downing was the best hitter on the team, the Rangers were in the midst of their first successful rebuilding program and decided a 42-year-old designated hitter wouldn't fit the bill. He retired as one of the players you would least expect to carve out a 20-year career in the majors.
2. Will Clark, 2000: .319/.418/.546, .324 EqA
With the late-1980s Giants, Clark was one of the most feared hitters in the NL. Fast forward a decade, and he was just another geriatric Peter Angelos Oriole searching for the fountain of youth. Then, on the eve of the 2000 trading deadline, he was shipped to St. Louis, who needed a first baseman because Mark McGwire was on the shelf with tendinitis in his knee. Dropped into the Cardinals' lineup, Clark did more than a fair imitation of Big Mac, hitting .345/.426/.655 over the final two months as one of the greatest stretch-drive pickups in history. Though there was clearly still gas left in the tank, after the season Clark went home for good to Louisiana, where he could pursue year-round his greatest loves: hunting and fishing.
1. Ted Williams, 1960: .316/.451/.645, .360 EqA
Was there ever any doubt? Much is made of the fact that Williams belted a home run in his last at-bat, but that round-tripper was merely an exclamation point on the greatest swan-song season in baseball history. The sight of Williams at the plate still caused opposing pitchers to quiver at the time of his retirement, but his body could no longer withstand the physical pounding, especially when he trotted out to left field. Had the designated hitter existed in 1961, there's little doubt Teddy Ballgame would have kept playing, as there was nothing he enjoyed more than hitting. Heck, when Williams was managing in Washington nearly a decade later, he probably still ranked as the best hitter on the Senators' bench.
So where will Martinez's final campaign rank if he calls it quits after this season? Assuming he maintains his current EqA of .339 through the end of the year, "Papi" would slot at No. 2, between the Splendid Splinter and Will the Thrill. While Bret Boone has been the team's most valuable player this season, no Mariner puts more runs on the board than Martinez.
On the other hand, there would be a certain symmetry to Martinez's career if this really is his final season. His major-league career got rolling a couple years later than it should have (due to the Mariners' strange infatuation with Jim Presley), and should Edgar retire over the winter to spend more time with his family, he will be leaving the game at least two years too soon.
Jeff Bower wrote for Baseball Prospectus before leaving to spend more time with his family (just like Edgar might). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.