There’s that point in every Major League Baseball player’s career. The last pitch, the last swing, the last out. And then, retirement at a young age.
Add to that the inevitable “what next?” questions.
And before figuring out that next career step is first navigating the emotional toll of the career “stop.”
“The transition from playing the game to the end of your career happens quick,” said 37-year-old former big leaguer Chad Huffman, snapping his fingers for extra emphasis. “All of a sudden you’re trying to find a new place and figure out what your new passion is going to be.”
The transition can be unsettling.
“They’ve been focused on one thing – a career in baseball. Because they love it, and they invested totally in that,” Hall of Famer Dave Winfield said. “And when you finish, you haven’t really prepared for option B, the second chapter of life. And then you’re in the work world in your late 20s, 30s and you don’t have experience.”
Huffman made his big league debut in 2010 with the New York Yankees. After two years playing in Japan, he made it back to the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017. His career drew to a close after 21 game appearances in the Major Leagues.
Guys like Huffman were among the 70-some mix of recently retired MLB players who attended the two-day Career Development Summit in early December in Phoenix. About half of the players also brought their wives or girlfriends for the post-career planning.
Guys like Winfield were on hand to provide guidance. The event is jointly sponsored by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and the Players Association to provide resources for the players from networking to developing skills to health and wellness to financial planning.
Panelists included 35 former Major Leaguers and even two former NFL players, all of whom donated their time to give back to the “fraternity” of ballplayers, using a word expressed a lot throughout discussions and workshops devoted to various topics over the weekend.
Among the very first discussions – “The Mental Aspect of Transition” – was the one facing some young players in the room.
Former pitcher Dan Haren figured he was “completely content” when he retired at age 35 in 2015 after playing for eight teams over a 13-year Major League career, he explained. He spent the next year in full retirement mode, and admitted it was a hard time for him mentally.
“It was a difficult transition for me,” Haren said from the discussion panel. “I had only known one thing, and that was baseball.”
Haren found new life after his playing days. He’s now in his seventh year in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ run prevention department, which sees him charting analytics and game planning with pitchers and catchers.
In revealing discussions, panelists shared words like therapy, anxiety, feeling vulnerable, struggling, and having dark times. And for some, like J.P. Arencibia, who played for Toronto, Texas and Tampa Bay over six years and 380 Major League games, the mental grind took a toll even before retirement.
“I would love to go to the ballpark, and then I went from being that to the guy who was driving to the ballpark with a pit in my stomach,” Arencibia said. “From sitting on deck excited to drive in a run to sitting on deck with a ‘please God let the guy in front of me get it done.’”
Among the messages shared was to urge Major League players to open up and talk to one another about their struggles, particularly when it comes to finding a personal and professional purpose when retirement inevitably arrives.
“If we actually allow ourselves to think about it it’s like we’re somehow checking out or we’re not totally all-in, which is wrong,” said presenter Chris Capuano, who retired from pro baseball in 2018 after pitching for six different Major League teams over a 12-year career. He says the culture looks upon talking about retirement during playing days as “a dirty word.” “We try to reframe that every chance we get.”
Once players come to terms with the end of their playing career, there is – as was also emphasized throughout the weekend – opportunity, and plenty of it.
Those who wish to stay around the game have a number of options, from coaching to scouting to front office work to broadcasting. After taking a year off following his retirement Arencibia has found a new home in the game as a studio analyst for Bally Sports Florida while also calling games on Florida Marlins’ radio broadcasts.
The Career Development Summit also hosted panel discussions for those looking to find their way professionally away from baseball. Some ex-players gravitate toward real estate, entrepreneurship or financial services. There was a breakout session open to ex-players interested in a law enforcement career in a panel that included Dan Giese who, after three MLB seasons, found new life as an officer for the San Diego Harbor Police Department. He would later return to baseball as a scout with the Yankees, eventually rising to director of pro scouting.
The weekend showed that coaching opportunities are also within reach, even if it means starting at the bottom in the low minors all over again.
Yankees senior vice president and assistant GM Jean Afterman, another presenter, calls the 30 Major League teams “a very small village.”
“Every team wants to hire somebody who’s worked for another team,” Afterman, on the Yankees’ front office staff since 2001, told the room of young ex-players. “Once you’re in that village and you’re doing a job, you rarely find yourself outside the village. Because there’s always a job for you once you’re in.”
The young retired players spent much of the two days networking and scribbling down notes during the lively sessions. There was no shortage of guiding advice in any of the various hotel meeting rooms that hosted the summit.
“It’s more than just generalities – they’re given some specifics. Try this, invest in this, talk to this person, here’s a number,” Winfield said. “This is a good thing for the players. There’s a lot to be learned. I think that every guy that attends this will say it’s valuable.”