Going out on Top?

Most of us, if we get to retire at all, won’t be retiring until we’re at least 65 years old. Retiring before the age of 40 is for stock market boomers, inherited wealth and lottery winners.

Not so the upper echelons of professional sports men and women.

Torii Hunter, 36-year-old star outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, said on Tuesday that he had contemplated retirement after his existing contract (5 years at $18m/year) expires after next season. He’s now added to that by saying that he’ll only keep on playing if his current team offers a contract extension – that he’s determined to finish his playing career with them one way or the other.

Now “retirement” in that sense doesn’t mean doing nothing for the rest of his life (or maybe it does…?), just the end of his first and most lucrative career. But it’s clearly on his mind. Thoughts of retirement were brought on by a rough first half to the season in which he hit .225, about 50 points below his career average. At age 36, a man with achy legs who relies on speed was naturally contemplating the horizon of his playing career and the horizon looked to be getting closer. Since June though he’s been hitting over .300 to pull himself well into respectability. But with a number of outfielders committed to the Angels beyond next season, and prospects coming through, Hunter is beginning to wonder whether he should carry on.

“Team Hunter”, as he describes his family, “don’t care” about baseball and want him to retire. It’s natural given that he’s a married man with three (teenage) sons – professional baseball players are essentially on the road from February through September (October if they have a good postseason run). If they make their home in the city of the team they play for, then they’ll see family them some more, but even in that scenario it’s no more than about a week at a time, and they’re out of the house from lunchtime through bedtime.

But when should Hunter retire?

Typically sports journalists who think purely in terms of their own subjective definition of sporting “legacy” debate these questions. They have a view of what a fully-utilised career opportunity looks like, and they bestow a moral imperative on it. For example, if they think a player’s skills are fading, we hear that person “should” retire for fear of “tarnishing their legacy”. Or they “should” carry on because they can perform at a high level for more years.

This is of course arrogant and delusional nonsense. Journalists’ first mistake here is thinking they have any input to any potentially moral angle on retirement. Players are (and you can quote me on this) human beings with lives of their own, who are not indentured to clubs, fans, owners, the media or anything or anyone else.

But there’s also the chronically over-used word and hyper-inflated concept of “legacy” that we should get rid of. Some sports journalists seem to think (and plenty of agents and players are buying into this) that how players are remembered once they’ve stopped playing should be a key driver in what they do while they’re playing. Never mind that even most Hall of Fame caliber players are very quickly almost completely forgotten by almost everybody, regardless of whether they retired “too early” or “too late”. Players seem scared of having their career average dip a few point because they played a couple of years after they ceased being able to catch up to a 94mph pitch on the inside corner. They fear people will think less of them if they are ever seen to be less than brilliant, and consider it within their power to “preserve” their legacy.

So they stop, or they carry on, or they reach for that almost-within-their-grasp statistical milestone, and forget that what they’re doing is playing a game for a living. They forget to enjoy it, they forget they have real lives that for most of them will be far more important to them once they stop playing, than their playing careers ever were. They miss the “now” as they reach for a sporting immortality that’s not theirs to grasp.

Torii Hunter “should” keep playing. His career “needs” a World Series title to add to those 9 Gold Glove awards. He “needs” to get to 2,000 hits to “preserve” his status as one of this generation’s greatest players.

But when it’s all said and done, maybe he just wants to go home…and you know what?

That’s a good thing.

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