King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Roger Clemens stays put while Greg Maddux goes to the N.L. West race. Do great players "deserve" to finish their careers with contending teams?

Published August 2, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

Do all-time great players somehow "deserve" to finish their careers with good teams, toiling in pennant races? Is it somehow inappropriate for them to play their last games in half-empty ballparks, far from the excitement of October?

I'm wondering these things in the wake of one of the many rumored blockbuster trades that didn't happen Monday, the Houston Astros sending Roger Clemens to a contender, especially the Boston Red Sox but also possibly the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers. The Astros are five games and eight teams away from the nearest playoff spot.

Jayson Stark of wrote an interesting column about the non-deal, arguing that Astros owner Drayton McLane had failed to, as the headline put it, "do the right thing for Rocket."

Citing multiple sources who said a trade of Clemens had been discussed, Stark writes that all McLane had to do was order the trade because it was the right thing to do.

"The owner easily could have done for Clemens what the Cubs did Monday for Greg Maddux," Stark writes, referring to the trade that sent the other active 300-game winner from Chicago to the Los Angeles Dodgers. "There are times when certain people deserve to be rescued from their sinking cruise liners. This year, for those two living legends, was one of those times."

Stark commends McLane for his optimism in apparently thinking that the Astros aren't done, that they can rescue this apparently lost season the way they rescued the last two.

But if that optimism turns out to be unjustified, "the only 343-game winner of the division-play era might well finish his career in a half-empty ballpark in Pittsburgh in the last week of September, for a team with no more to play for than the home team. That scene just won't feel right."

Let's put aside the question of whether the Astros really are toast, and also the question of whether McLane owes Clemens any favors beyond the pro-rated $22 million salary he's giving him to pitch for half a season after spending the spring flirting with the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers.

Well, I guess you can see my answer to that last question is no.

And let's also put aside the idea that Clemens has already wound up his career in the spotlight of a pennant race and a postseason. Twice.

What I find fascinating is this idea that in some cosmic sense, transcendentally great players are somehow owed the chance to finish their careers in glamorous circumstances, rather than playing out the string on a losing team, in a half-empty ballpark in Pittsburgh, as Stark put it.

Sounds like the start of a country song, doesn't it? In a half-empty ballpark in Pittsburgh/Waitin' for a train ...

I digress.

I'm ready to say that a half-empty ballpark in Pittsburgh is a damn fine place for a great player to end his career.

You could make a pretty good argument that the people half-filling PNC Park in September are better baseball fans than the throngs crowding Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.

They're not there because the Pirates are a hot ticket or because PNC is a place to be seen. They're there for no other reason than a love of baseball -- a love the Pirates have spent the last decade and a half daring them to hang on to.

They have no chance of even sniffing pennant-race baseball in the near future unless they hit the highway, so why is it so wrong for them to be rewarded with the treat of an all-time great taking his last bows?

If nothing else, it might help the walk-up gate.

And what's so terrible for the player? Guys with more wins than Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux have ended their careers with dreary teams. There aren't many of them, but here they are:

Cy Young threw his last pitches for the 1911 Boston Rustlers, who went 44-107, wisely blamed that record on their name, and became the Braves the next year. Young didn't finish a season with a winning team after 1905.

Walter Johnson's last team, the 1927 Washington Senators, finished third, but 25 games behind the Yankees.

Grover Cleveland Alexander's last team was the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies, who went 52-102.

In Christy Mathewson's last full year, 1915, the New York Giants finished in last place. He started 1916 with the Giants, and they were better, but he let them trade him in July to the last-place Cincinnati Reds so he could become their manager. He pitched one game for Cincinnati, a Labor Day stunt opposite old rival Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown of the Chicago Cubs.

Warren Spahn spent about half of his last year, 1965, as a pitcher and coach with the New York Mets, who lost 112 games. They released him in late July and he signed with the Giants, who lost out to the Dodgers in a tight pennant race.

Those are the pitchers who played after the 19th century and won more than Clemens. One other modern pitcher has more wins than Maddux, Steve Carlton.

Starting in 1986, when he was 41, Lefty bounced from the Phillies, where he'd had his glory years, to the San Francisco Giants to the Chicago White Sox to the Cleveland Indians to the Minnesota Twins. He actually pitched for Minnesota's 1987 championship team, but not in the postseason. He was released at the end of April 1988 by the Twins, who were tied for last place at the time. They eventually finished second.

You can do the same thing with hitters. Henry Aaron got to finish up in Milwaukee, his original big-league city, but with a pair of lousy Brewers teams. Babe Ruth did nearly the same thing four decades earlier, spending his last two months with one of the worst teams ever, the 1935 Boston Braves, who went 38-115.

Ted Williams played his last two years on losing teams and his last 11 on teams that finished no higher than third. Honus Wagner's last Pirates team lost 103 games. Joe Morgan. Mike Schmidt. And so on.

Even in the era of free agency, when great players have had a lot of say in where they end their careers -- as Clemens has had -- transcendent players often end up toiling for losers. Next year's Hall of Famers, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., are notable for having spent long careers with one team, but they also both ended their careers with losing teams.

Neither asked to be freed from such bondage, though both could have.

Those who believe great players should end up with good teams might also want to be careful what they wish for.

If the Giants hadn't traded Willie Mays to the New York Mets in 1972, he might have finished out his career in San Francisco, out of the money, in a gentleman's third place. Instead he wound up, fat and 42, in the 1973 World Series, flopping on his belly as he lost a fly ball in the sun.

Do you remember the last few games of Aaron's career? Mays gave us an indelible final image, one that might make a half-empty ballpark in Pittsburgh seem like a pleasant place indeed.

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