Ending a professional baseball career depends on the circumstances that provoked it. You’d like to see every player go out the way that’s most comfortable for him, but you know without being told that it won’t always work like that.
We hardly begrudged men like Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and David Ortiz taking their bows all around the circuit, as happened when each announced the forthcoming season that would be their last. We also wondered whether it made the sting of retirement easier to bear while wondering just how far into self-congratulation those men might fall.
Now and then, even the absolute greats don’t get to pick their retirement or get even one moment to announce it before the sometimes bitter end. The Orioles almost literally tore the uniform off Jim Palmer’s back in the mid-1980s; Don Drysdale’s obliterated rotator cuff and constant knee issues tore it off him in August 1969. Steve Carlton tried to retire but couldn’t, and endured three more teams tearing the uniform off his back before he finally called it a Hall of Fame career.
Most tragically, Roy Campanella was left a quadriplegic in a winter 1957-58 automobile accident, and Roberto Clemente was killed in a 1972 airplane crash while on a humanitarian mission. Thurman Munson—it’s arguable whether he was really on the Hall of Fame track; his peak was short enough and his downslope had already begun—was killed in a 1979 plane crash: his own plane.
What of the not-quite-greats, the goods, the not-quite-goods? Their ends are no less painful for being no more public, never mind celebrated. Roger Maris, whose career might have ended in bitterness over the Yankees’ maltreatment of the injuries that sapped his once-formidable power, was luckier than most. He got to play two happy seasons in St. Louis, for a pair of World Series winners, before becoming a profitable south Florida Budweiser distributor.
Vince DiMaggio, on the other hand, got his props, kind of, almost four decades after he retired: Edward Kiersh, collecting stories in which he caught up to an eclectic assortment of pre-free agency Hall of Famers, not-quite Hall of Famers, goods, and scrubs, told their stories with remarkable insight, and called it Where Have You Gone, Vince DiMaggio—publishing it, without intending it that way, a short while before DiMaggio’s death.
Maybe, some time in the future, someone else will do such a book for the free agency era men. Maybe he or she will find a way to name it after Jeremy Guthrie, the suddenly retired pitcher who got the push the hardest way possible just this season.
Guthrie shone in spring training with the Nationals, a chance he got in the first place after going to Australia last winter but bumping into a Nats scout while attending the memorial service for his former Royals rotation mate, Yordano Ventura. He looked so good in spring the Nats promised him that, if he went to AAA Syracuse, he’d get the call to start the fifth game of the year, against the rebuilding Phillies.
It just so happened that the game fell on his 38th birthday. And it just so happened that Guthrie got the worst kind of birthday spanking imaginable. Slapped around won’t cover it. Guthrie was whipped, pureed, sliced, diced, ground, and minced—and then the Phillies got really abusive. About the only thing he wasn’t, in surrendering eight earned runs in two thirds of an innings work, was nuked.
A high school class valedictorian and a first-round draft pick in 2002, Guthrie became a serviceable major league pitcher who sometimes pitched in hard luck, sometimes didn’t pitch up to his ability, for a few none-too-great Orioles teams. With the Royals he had one great American League Championship Series start (against the Orioles, of all teams) and a great World Series start in 2014, yet earned a World Series ring in 2015 despite not appearing in any postseason games.
“Twelve batters faced. Six hits allowed. Four walks issued. Two outs recorded. Ten runs crossing the plate. Forty-seven pitches thrown,” writes NASN’s Mark Zuckerman, amidst a remarkable interview with the now-retired pitcher. “An uplifting story about a longtime veteran making it back to the big leagues for one last shot turning disastrous in the span of about 20 minutes.”
“That start has not been something easy for me to let go,” Guthrie told Zuckerman by phone from his Oregon home. “I wanted to end on a good note. I wanted to go out on my terms. Pitch well, prove to yourself and to anyone watching that you still have the ability to get major league hitters out.”
In two-thirds of a shattering inning the refreshing, revived feeling of invincibility Guthrie felt in spring training was shot to oblivion. “I’d go out there in those spring games, and I just felt like I could throw the ball where I wanted to, get it to move and get people out,” he said. “And then in 47 pitches in Philadelphia, I felt like I couldn’t get anybody out. And after that, I was realistic with myself enough to know that was the type of outing that could completely change what had transpired the prior six weeks.”
Before that game, Guthrie knew he’d be going back to Syracuse regardless, but the Nats promised he’d be brought back whenever they needed a spot starter. After that game, Guthrie almost didn’t need general manager Mike Rizzo to tell him the Nats couldn’t keep that promise anymore.
He went home to Oregon to wait out the three-day waiver clearance period. His family helped convince him to call the Nats and say he wasn’t going back to Syracuse but would ask for his release and, while he was at it, wouldn’t try to find another chance to pitch.
Without his family, this would have been even worse.
“My wife leans on this, and I think I’ve learned to lean on it as well<” Guthrie continued to Zuckerman. “Maybe the only way I could end up at home anytime soon with my family, where they need me, was for something like this to happen. That was maybe the hardest question I had to ask myself: ‘Why would I pitch well enough to make the team, just to have this happen?’ In my mind, I felt like there was a greater plan, pushing me and providing the opportunities that came to me.
“And then to have it suddenly go away and be taken away in that fashion, my wife said: ‘You know what, maybe if you just did OK in spring training and didn’t make the team, you would’ve wanted to keep pitching. Maybe if you pitched well in that game, you certainly would’ve kept pitching. But maybe you’re supposed to be home, and that’s probably what’s happening’.”
Guthrie since has pitched. To his local high school’s baseball team. Giving those kids a little special prep by giving them a chance to face a major league arm, what was left of it. He can say he was good enough to make it back to the majors for one last start. He’d love not to think that he’d been baseball’s equivalent of a terrorist attack victim in that start.
Zuckerman says Guthrie can’t say the R word just yet. But he doesn’t have to. He’ll regret the final outcome, “as long as I watch baseball,” but not how he got to pitch that game in the first place. ”I don’t think I’ll ever get past it,” Guthrie says of his Philadelphia birthday spanking, “but I think I will accept it for what it is and be grateful for the opportunity I was afforded.”
Unlike what you could say about Washington’s best-known business, nobody on the Nats was false with Guthrie, who’s never been less than honest with himself. Harsher retirements than his have begun with less honesty.