Every baseball player knows that he will have to retire from the game he loves and the game that has given him financial security, and the hope is that he will get to dictate how he makes his exit.
Ideally, it will come after a long career that has culminated with a World Series championship — going out on top — though that scenario rarely unfolds, save for Denver Broncos quarterbacks.
Not even Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera got that in recent years. David Ortiz has a chance this season with Boston and Adrian Beltre has a chance in 2018, but so much has to go right for that to happen.
Only three baseball Hall of Famers have ever done it — Joe DiMaggio (1951), Johnny Mize (1953) and Eddie Mathews (1968). Pedro Martinez threw his last pitch in the 2009 World Series, alongside Cole Hamels in Philadelphia, and is one of seven Hall of Famers who finished their career in a World Series.
But that’s the dream, be it for a superstar, a solid contributor or the last man on the bench. The truth is that often a player doesn’t get the chance to go out on his terms, and instead they go through a six-month period similar to what David Murphy just experienced.
“It was frustrating,” Murphy said Friday. “At first I thought it was because I needed to wait for the dominoes to fall. The market was very slow, and nothing happened, nothing happened.
“I took it on a week-to-week basis thinking the phone is going to ring this week, the phone is going to ring this week, and it never did.”
No team wanted to give Murphy, 34, a former fan favorite with the Texas Rangers, a big league contract during the off-season, and the Los Angeles Angels didn’t want to pick up a $7 million club option even though he’d had a nice year in a reserve role.
.283 Murphy’s batting average in 361 at-bats in 2015
He wasn’t interested in continuing his career riding buses in the minor leagues.
“My dream my entire life is to be a major league baseball player,” Murphy said. “If I can’t live that dream, then there was no reason to play baseball anymore.”
As February approached, the best he could do was a minor-league deal with an invitation to Red Sox spring training and little guarantee that he would make the Opening Day roster.
He didn’t, and as Opening Day arrived he was sitting at home in Tarrant County robbed of the excitement that comes with a new season and faced with the sad reality that his career was finished.
“When I really sat down and thought about it, it was the first April I wasn’t playing baseball since I was 4 years old,” Murphy said. “I guess there were moments when I was a little depressed.”
And, slowly but surely, he became OK with the thought of retirement. He liked the idea of spending time with his four kids, ages 8, 7, 5 and 1, and he certainly doesn’t need the money.
His wife and kids have chased him around the past eight-plus seasons, so maybe it was time for him to chase them.
Including his first-round signing bonus in 2003, Murphy has made just north of $25 million.
“On the financial side of things, I have zero to complain about,” he said.
But the love for the game still burned and so did his desire to dictate when and how he retired. So on Friday, he was at a hotel in downtown Rochester, N.Y., home of the Minnesota Twins’ Triple A affiliate.
I’ve played this game long enough to know that I want to enjoy every day that I get to go to the ballpark for the rest of my career.
He was there on a minor-league deal that will pay him $1 million if he lands on the big-league roster, something he and his agent thought was a good possibility after they were called out of the blue by — at the time — the winless Twins.
“I felt like I needed to give it one last shot,” Murphy said.
Minnesota’s young outfielders weren’t clicking and still aren’t, and some of them aren’t getting regular at-bats to get in a groove. Murphy, meanwhile, knows how to stay sharp when playing time is scarce, and he’s a pro who knows what it takes to be a major-leaguer.
Now Murphy has a piece of leverage, in the form of a May 1 out clause. If he isn’t in the majors by then, he could very well be back home and retired.
At least it would be on his terms.
“I said, ‘If I never play a major league baseball game again, this is definitely not the way I wanted to go out,’ ” Murphy said. “It makes me realize how lucky the players are that get to end things on their own terms.”
But as much as he likes his chances and as strongly as he believes he can and will help the Twins, he knows there are no guarantees. He entered the weekend batting only .120 at Rochester, but his at-bats have gotten better and he’s finding his footing after going more than two weeks without facing live pitching.
Murphy, a man of deep faith, is leaving everything in God’s hands. If Murphy ends up back home, he’ll search his faith for answers. If Murphy joins the Twins and has a good season, he’s open to extending his career into 2017 and beyond.
“Who knows?” he said. “I just want to enjoy it.”
Murphy wasn’t the only established big-leaguer twiddling his thumbs over the off-season. The list includes two other former Rangers outfielders.
Jeff Francoeur had a long wait before signing a minor league deal with Atlanta and making the Braves’ roster. Alex Rios was coming off a season in which he was a regular for the World Series champs, but he’s out of work.
Maybe teams have gotten cheap suddenly, preferring the affordability of players in the organization and the roster flexibility that players with minor league options provide. Maybe they found flaws in the players in the free-agent pool.
Murphy, for instance, isn’t a young pup any longer, and though he can play both outfield corners, he can’t play in the infield when the trend is to find bench players who can do a bit of everything.
There is value in veteran players. Every year a young player is asked to come to the majors and be a bench player, something he has never done before. He struggles. The real struggle is why teams make the same mistake every season.
But they do, and this year Murphy was caught up in it. He has stared retirement in the face, and it’s not terrible. Murphy, though, wants to decided when he’s done, so he’s going to embrace what could be his final ride.
“I’ve played this game long enough to know that I want to enjoy every day that I get to go to the ballpark for the rest of my career,” he said. “I realistically thought that it could be over. I guess I’m to the point where I know that any day could be my last. I need to enjoy every day.”