Will Jeter follow Larkin's path to retirement?
Hall of Fame shortstop overcame injuries to put together strong final season
Derek Jeter is encountering the demons of aches, pains, age and uncertainty. Which begs the eternal question for professional athletes of fame: Should you retire to keep from tarnishing your legacy in these situations, or should you seek that final hurrah? It's just another reminder that the Major League farewell of Ted Williams was the stuff of fairy tales.
You know the story. Not only did The Splendid Splinter homer in his final at-bat with the Red Sox in 1960, he spent that 19th and final season hitting .316 with 29 home runs before retiring at 42.
Barry Larkin wasn't quite Williams at the end, but he was in the vicinity when it comes to the big picture. That is to say Larkin didn't embarrass himself while closing his 19 seasons with the Reds in 2004. He finished that year hitting just six points shy of his career batting average of .295, and that was significant for a couple of reasons: After years of injuries, he showed what a healthy Larkin still could do, but he also showed that he preferred to leave the game more like Williams than just about anybody else you can name in baseball history.
Babe Ruth ended as a sideshow instead of a slugger. Willie Mays stumbled around the same center-field position that he once dominated with grace. Greg Maddux's unhittable pitches suddenly became hittable.
Larkin basically was Larkin at the end, and I mention this Hall of Fame shortstop, because he resembles the one in the Bronx, whose jersey features a "2" as well as a question mark. While Larkin spent a lifetime with the Reds, Jeter is in his 19th Major League season, and they've all been with the Yankees. Plus, if Jeter returns next year to the Yanks or elsewhere, he'll be 40, which was the same age as Larkin during his final season.
This isn't to say Jeter will retire after next season. He could play several more years. Then again, he could have already played his last game. Earlier this week, courtesy of complications resulting from the broken left ankle he suffered during the 2012 American League Championship Series, Jeter landed on the disabled list for the third and final time this season. He appeared in just 17 games, and it wasn't pretty. He hit .190 with one home run and seven RBIs. In contrast, the 2012 Jeter led the Major Leagues with 216 hits while batting .316.
Now, Jeter has to make a decision.
According to Larkin, that decision will involve two parts, and they both are huge.
"I haven't talked to [Jeter] about what he's thinking, but I know that anyone in baseball who has been a great player -- or any player, for that matter -- who has the ability to walk away from the game at any point, I think kind of goes through that process of the physical and the mental part of the game," said Larkin, taking a break from his ESPN duties these days to reflect on his final Major League season.
I mean, Larkin was a guy whose body was healing after all of those years of injuries, and he was showing flashes of his previous baseball life: three Gold Gloves, 12 All-Star Game trips, a National League MVP Award, nine Silver Slugger Awards.
That guy retire? Yes. And it goes back to the mental. The Reds were playing a day game at Great American Ball Park during that spring of 2004, and Larkin's eyes wandered from the field at shortstop during the latter innings to a clock along one of the upper decks. He began to daydream. That never happened before in the previous 2,100-something games Larkin played in the Major Leagues.
"I remember looking up at the clock and seeing that it was 3:30 or 4 o'clock, and I said to myself, 'I wonder if my kids are home from school right now?'" Larkin said. "For me, it was enough for me to say to myself, 'Wow. Wait a minute. Why is that happening?' And those things kept happening after that during the season. So I was pretty sure I was going to be done. But I had a pretty decent season that last year, and that was the only reason I thought, 'Hmmm. Maybe I'm not completely done.'"
Larkin decided to move on, though. He had those two daughters and a son to raise without contemplating their whereabouts between fielding ground balls, and he also wished to spend more time with his wife. Plus, after Larkin's retirement, the Nationals recognized he was gifted enough to become a special assistant to the general manager. Later, he gravitated to his current job as a television analyst.
The point is, if you follow Larkin's blueprint, Jeter will retire if he has something of significance to do. That, along with this: If he can resist the inevitable pulls to return.
"The winter after I retired, I got a call from Tony La Russa [who managed the Cardinals at the time], and he said, 'Wouldn't you like to hit in between Albert Pujols and Scotty Rolen, or in front of them?'" Larkin said, chuckling. "I sat there and thought about that for a while, and I told him, 'Tony, can I get back to you?' and he said, 'Absolutely.'"
Larkin eventually said no.
Soon afterward, Larkin headed to begin his new baseball life under Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who once held that position for the Reds. Bowden tried to entice Larkin out of retirement, and the Sigmund Freud of a GM even placed a team jersey in the Nats' clubhouse during Spring Training with Larkin's name and his No. 11.
"I sat there for at least a half an hour looking at that jersey," Larkin said. "I eventually went out on the field with my son, and I had the Washington Nationals logo stuff on, but I didn't put the jersey on. I could not put the jersey on. That told me something as well."
It told Larkin to stay retired. What such a moment would tell Jeter, well, I'm guessing not even he knows.