Appreciating 4 all-time legends as they play their (potential) final games

September 29th, 2023

There isn’t much about your life, or really the world, that’s the same as it was 20 years ago. There was basically no social media 20 years ago, no iPhone, no AI. Your friends have all gotten older; your children have grown up, or maybe, 20 years ago, they didn’t exist at all (maybe you didn’t exist yet either). The world keeps turning on us, and it can be difficult to hold on to much of anything as it spins wildly by. It’s tough to find constants.

Which is one of the many reasons we watch baseball. Every year, they play baseball, and while we grow older, the game just keeps going on and moving forward. Every year brings new stars, new rookies, new plotlines … new characters to keep track of. And once we are introduced to one of these characters -- these players -- they are part of our lives, every year, sometimes for decades. You’ll root for them on your favorite team, you’ll draft them onto your fantasy squad, you’ll track trade rumors about them, you’ll fill their names out in the Immaculate Grid, you’ll track their career numbers. They are just part of who we are. And like everything that’s a part of who we are, someday, we have to say goodbye.

In addition to everything else going on in baseball this final weekend, we are going to have an opportunity to say goodbye to four icons of the sport, four players who have not only excelled at this wonderful sport, but illuminated our understanding of it. You’ve known their names and their games longer than you’ve known many people in your life. And this weekend, they will (or could) don a uniform for the last time.

Here's a brief appreciation of four baseball icons who could be playing their final games this weekend, two whom have officially announced this is it and two who may well be saying goodbye as well.

He was originally a shortstop, if you can believe that, but once the Marlins (specifically then-Marlins coach Ozzie Guillen) got a good look at him and what he could do -- and what he might become -- he was a third baseman right quick. He showed up, amazingly, as a 19-year-old on a Marlins team that already had Mike Lowell at third, so he was a left fielder when he made his big league debut at Pro Player Stadium on June 20, 2003. He made a big splash: He hit a walk-off homer off Al Levine to beat the Devil Rays.

That was his first homer of 511 in his career; it was actually his first hit of 3,168. Cabrera would go on to win two MVPs, four batting titles and the Triple Crown. He’d also win the World Series that year … the only time he would. He has been a pure hitter in the truest sense of the term for 21 seasons, most of which were in Detroit, where he would become a pillar for a franchise not short on them. And don’t forget what he has done for Venezuela as a baseball nation, with his career coming full circle with his appearance for them in the World Baseball Classic this spring. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and someone we’re all going to be talking about for the rest of our lives.

Cardinals fans were actually worried about Wainwright when their team traded J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero for him, Ray King and Jason Marquis in December 2003. Wainwright was a highly regarded prospect, but there had to be something wrong with him if the Braves -- a franchise that knew pitching in its bones -- were willing to part with him.

There was, uh, nothing wrong with him. Wainwright’s signature curveball, his Uncle Charlie, was with him from the beginning, and it’s what got him to the Majors so fast. He was in St. Louis in 2006, but as a reliever, arriving just in time for a team desperate for a closer after Jason Isringhausen went down for the year with hip surgery. Wainwright ended up throwing two of the most famous pitches in franchise history: The strikeout of Carlos Beltran in Game 7 of the NLCS and the strikeout of Brandon Inge to win the 2006 World Series. They were both curveballs.

But Wainwright was always going to be a starter, and his rise coincided with the rise of Yadier Molina, his batterymate and close friend with whom he’d eventually make an MLB-record 328 starts as a battery. Wainwright never quite won a Cy Young, finishing in the top three in voting three times. He also won two World Series and, quite memorably, 200 games … something he might be the last pitcher to do for a long time. He has already announced he has thrown his last pitch, in the game against the Brewers when he earned that 200th win. But, depending on whether or not the Reds are still in the playoff chase, he is hoping to fit in at least one more at-bat: He is, after all, a former Silver Slugger winner.

To be clear: Zack Greinke has not announced his retirement. But there are plenty of rumors, particularly after he left the game and asked for the baseball on Tuesday, perhaps thinking he had earned the 225th win of his terrific career. (The Royals bullpen had other plans.) With the injury issues he has had this year, not to mention the highest ERA of his career, that start could very well be the last of his career.

And what a career it has been! Greinke has always been a quixotic character -- this story from The Athletic about old teammates telling hilarious, fascinating Greinke stories is a must-read -- but that oddness, and his quirky personality, have sort of distracted from just how incredible Greinke was. He won a Cy Young with the Royals way back in 2009, but his best seasons may have been with the Dodgers, including a year he went 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA. He was never a big strikeout pitcher, though more of one than Greg Maddux (with whom he shared some similarities), and he was remarkably consistent and healthy: His 540 starts since his debut in 2004 are the most by far of anyone during that time; only Justin Verlander is within 75 of him. Somehow, despite playing in the postseason for four different teams, including the Dodgers and Astros during some of their best seasons, he never won a World Series. But Greinke always felt a little bit removed, even floating above baseball -- a personality like no other, like he was someone beamed here to play baseball and will now be beamed back to his home planet.

Like Greinke, Votto has not announced his retirement, and there is a decent chance he plays again next year. But just in case …

Votto used to be baseball’s most anonymous superstar. I know that’s impossible to believe now that he has become a social media savant, but I swear it’s true. Votto for a while was a flashpoint in the debate about analytics, mostly because so much of his value was tied up in his batting eye and ability to take a walk; there were actual broadcaster debates sometimes about whether or not he was swinging often enough at terrible pitches with runners on base. Votto ended up outlasting all the doubters, partly by being ahead of his time; it just took us all a while to catch up with him.

He led the National League in on-base percentage a whopping seven times, and has reached base safely more times in his career than Vladimir Guerrero Sr., a one-time peer and recent Hall of Fame inductee. Votto could also hit for power, including smacking 36 homers just two years ago. He was somewhat lost in Cincinnati, a team that didn’t have much success during his career there, but that’s hardly his fault; he has only made four postseason series in Cincy (though that could change this year), and has yet to win one.

Votto has a club option for 2024 worth $20 million that most likely will not be picked up, though there is a chance he re-signs with Cincy (or perhaps elsewhere) on a more modest deal. Regardless, the 10-year, $225 million contract he signed with the Reds back in 2012 should be remembered as a mutually beneficial pact for the Reds and Votto. He has evolved into a huge personality, and his status as the friendliest, most likable, funniest player in baseball is well-deserved, as is his place as a Cincinnati icon. This is also a guy who is going to have a terrific Hall of Fame case. Whenever he decides to make it.