How do you know when you’re done? That’s the question.
I was never much of a ballplayer, but after not playing for seventeen years, at age thirty four I re-habbed my torn rotator cuff, got in shape and started playing in some pretty competitive over-30 baseball leagues. Almost every team had a few guys who played division one in college, a few teams had guys who had played minor league ball, and there was even the occasional cup of coffee major league straggler. I did okay against these guys, made the league all-star team three or four times and won more games than I lost for teams that usually lost more than they won
I’ll never forget my first game back, a doubleheader, actually. I thought I was in pretty good shape. I was running about thirty miles a week, spending several hours lifting weights in the gym, and had participated in regular practice for about a month. We played a doubleheader. I pitched a complete game, went something like 5-9 at the plate and walked a couple times, a good day.
And the next morning I could not get out of a chair without pushing myself up with my arms. Or go down the steps more than one at a time.
Fans, sports writers and even the athletes themselves drastically underestimate the physical demands of playing. Fans and sportswriters do so because most of them haven’t really played since they were kids, when baseball was easy, and they have no conception what it is like to play even three or four games a week (which I did when playing in two over-thirty leagues) much less every day, as they do for long stretches in the major leagues, an incredibly grueling schedule. Players themselves even underestimate the physical demands because when you are in the midst of a career, or even a season, it’s hard to see what slips away from one season to another, or even day by day.
Here’s an example. After playing for several years I went out one spring to discover that I could no longer sprint, at least not every fast. Before, I’d always been able to steal bases, take the extra base, and had never grounded into a double play. All of a sudden - gone. Same weight, same workout, but the gear was gone. After being thrown out a half dozen times in our first couple games, I learned to go station-to-station.
After that, a little went every year. I couldn’t stay out late and play the next day without paying the price. If I skipped a pre-hab day at the gym, (building my arm back up between starts by a controlled lifting program) my arm felt it. One year I couldn’t pull the ball anymore. Then I lost most of my power. I went from a guy who threw hard and hit third or fourth to a junkballer who slapped the ball the opposite way. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I could do about it, and I tried everything. Then the reflexes went, and soon after I got hit in the head by an 85 mph pitch I never saw, and essentially got folded in half by a wicked comebacker that hit me in the side and left a grape-purple bruise the size of a dinner plate, I stopped playing. I was forty-four.
Leaving aside rumors about his age, PED use, and off field activities, all of which might make Ortiz’s decline more pronounced, I think we’re seeing the inexorable and effect of age, what Kerouac called “the forlorn rags of growing old.” There have always been players, particularly power hitter, who seem to lose it fast, often in their early to mid-thirties, guys like Bob Allison and Rocky Colavito, who were both basically done at age 33, and Ortiz’s identical twin, Mo Vaughan. Add an injury or two and the decline can be even more pronounced and instantaneous, particularly if some PED enhancement gets taken away at the same time.
Add it all up, and I think he’s finished. Short of releasing him, over the remainder of his contract the best the Red Sox can hope for, I think, is to platoon Ortiz or use him as a pinch hitter, spotting him against certain pitchers in certain ballparks, and hope that he can be reasonably productive in limited duty.
Because here’s the thing - even when I was in my quick decline, there were those times that the guy on the mound (or when I was pitching, the batter) was battling the same thing I was.
In those situations, I still had a chance. For a moment, I was who I used to be.