In my sophomore year of college, as part of my Sport Studies minor, I took a Philosophy of Sport class. The professor made us swear an oath to not divulge the nuances of the class, but out of courtesy — he was my advisor and mentor, and remains a good friend — I asked his permission to violate that oath for this column. Anyway, one of the tenets of the class was “dying at the right time.”
Roberto Clemente literally died following a serviceable 1972 season — his final hit was the 3,000th of his career, and he hit .323. Who knows? Had he lived, he may have been compelled to retire at age 37. However, to die at the right time, in sport philosophy parlance, means to have the self-confidence, self-assurance, and self-recognition to say it’s time to retire and move to the next phase of your life.
Still, few athletes “die” appropriately, or at least, in the way we discussed in class. Mark Harris demonstrates the concept brilliantly in his Henry Wiggen series, tracing the ballplayer from a talented kid who rises to the Majors in “The Southpaw,” to the staff ace who comes to grip with his selfish behavior in “Bang The Drum Slowly,” to the 38-year-old veteran in “It Looked Like Forever” who has problems with his “prostrate” and his fastball, but rejuvenates his career as a closer only to see it ended by a line drive hitting him in the head.
The Harris books, written between 1953 and 1958, still hold up today. Although Wiggen is a fictional character, through him, Harris tapped into the athlete’s psyche like few writers have ever done. Wiggen is Roger Clemens (sans HGH), Pedro Martinez, Cal Ripken Jr., Dan Marino, Michael Jordan (the Washington Wizards era), Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice and every other professional athlete who extended his career beyond the point of his effectiveness. Few pros have been fortunate enough to go out on top. Jim Brown may be the best example. John Elway also comes to mind. Michael Jordan’s second retirement qualifies. Annika Sorenstam won three tournaments and accumulated more than $1 million in prize money this year, but decided during the summer to retire from competitive golf to focus on her other business interests. She played her final LPGA Tour event this weekend.
In baseball, there are fewer examples of dying at the right time. Ted Williams and Sandy Koufax come to mind. Babe Ruth hung on too long. So did Joe DiMaggio. Rickey Henderson played four seasons too many. Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine all extended their careers one or two seasons too long, like Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Warren Spahn before them. Shifting the spotlight locally, any Met fan with a conscience can see Pedro Martinez was likely done two years ago, and Mariano Rivera, despite his stellar 2008 season, is in danger of being considered a player who played a season or two more than he should have.
Until this season, I put Mussina in the “hanger-on” camp, too. I thought he was done after his 15-7 season in 2006. His fastball had lost some zip, he wasn’t a 200-inning lock anymore, and I didn’t think it was worth bringing him back for two years to be a right-handed Jamie Moyer. I was proven wrong. Mussina was easily the Yankees’ ace in ’08, and won 20 for the first time in his career. Rather than pitch for two or three more years to achieve 300 victories and all but assure a Hall of Fame induction, he decided to retreat to private life.
“I don’t have any regrets. This is the right time,” Mussina said on a conference call Thursday. “I don’t think there was ever a point where I looked around and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to change my mind.’ It was like the last year of high school. You know it’s going to end and you enjoy the ride.”
Many local writers attempted to put Mussina’s “timely death” into perspective over the past few days. Some danced around the issue, Mike Vaccaro, turned the retirement debate into an, “I’m 39, maybe it’s time to go,” argument. Others, like Mark Feinsand, included personal thoughts on covering Mussina in their analyses, but didn’t pull back for the panoramic view.
Several writers nailed the idea of dying at the right time, but did so only for a couple of sentences or paragraphs, not for an entire column.
Mike Mussina had a charmed season in 2008, and he knew it. Mussina’s stuff was diminished, but he had the guile to win more games than he ever had in a season. He was healthy — remarkably lucky to be so, he thought — and observers noticed him pitching down and in more effectively, changing speeds like a master.
Most pitchers would have wanted to come back for more. But Mussina’s head guides his heart, not the other way around. He was always able to put his success in perspective, to understand and savor the final moments of a fine career. It could never get any better, and Mussina knew it.
Mike Mussina walks away with his 20 wins and the satisfaction of knowing that when it came time to leave, nobody had to show him the door. He was smart enough to find it all on his own.
There are never absolutes when it comes to athletes retiring, no sure things, and there sure have been more than a few who changed their minds, maybe you have noticed. But when it came out Wednesday night that Mussina was retiring from baseball and retiring from the Yankees, you could not help thinking that he was doing it exactly right, after a big year that nobody thought he had in him, maybe not even himself.
Buster Olney, albeit with a slightly different angle:
Mussina’s logic in retiring now is that he really felt like that if he was going to continue playing, it was going to be because he would pursue 300 victories — and with 270 wins, he felt that realistically, he probably would have to pitch three seasons to get those last 30 victories. And he did not want to pitch three more seasons, not at a time when his youngest children are beginning to play youth sports and he can coach them.
Kepner hit it exactly: in order to die at the right time, the head has to guide the heart, not the other way around. I applaud Mike Mussina for having the sense to recognize that this was the best it would get, and for walking away proudly. That he admitted to making the decision in January makes his season even more remarkable, but not surprising. Free of the pressure of worrying about a next season, he lost himself in a mindset that was closer to “play” than “work.” That enabled him to put together the winningest season of his career.
Until next week …