It can be hard to stop doing something you love, especially when you’re really good at it. Add millions of dollars to the equation and it’s understandable why so many athletes stick around well past their prime. Some players have had a knack for going out on top, others slowly faded into oblivion, and then there are those who crashed and burned at the ends of their careers.
Knowing just when to leave can be especially hard for baseball players. Football and hockey players often have expiration dates. The human body can only take so much abuse before it’s clearly time to hang up the cleats or skates. The same is largely true for basketball players. Just look at what happened to Kobe when he decided to hang around for just a little too long.
Baseball just typically isn’t as hard on the body as other sports. That’s not to say it’s easy, but there’s a reason why a plump, 43-year-old, Bartolo Colon, is still playing in the MLB while a much younger, much more fit Kobe has already retired from the NBA. The longevity of baseball players is a blessing and a curse. It makes it easier for great players to stay, but harder for them to leave as well.
15. Carlton Fisk
Carlton Fisk had a very successful 24-year career. He is a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest catchers of all time. Despite that, what he’s probably best known for his one single at-bat during the 1975 World Series. It was the 12th inning in the sixth game against the Cincinnati Reds. Fisk was at the plate and hammered a game-winning home run ball off the left field foul pole at Fenway Park.
Fisk hung around the majors for 17 more years after that. He averaged over 100 games a season until his last two years when he played less than 100 games combined. In his final season, his batting average dropped to .189 in just 53 at-bats. For comparison, his best season was nearly two decades before that when he hit .331 in 263 at-bats. Fisk had a fabulous career, but it went about two years too long.
14. Gaylord Perry
Pitching is one of the hardest things to do consistently well in the major leagues, but Gaylord Perry managed to defy the odds. Over a 22-year career, stretching from 1962-1983, Perry managed to become the first pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award in both the American and National League. He had a knack for psyching batters out and had a reputation for doctoring the ball.
Over the length of his career, Perry won 314 games with an impressive 3,534 strikeouts to his name. However, his numbers fell pretty sharply towards the end of his career. During his brief stint with Seattle in his last season, he had only a .231 win percentage. That’s a stark contrast to the .778 percentage he had with the Padres in 1978. Perry struggled through the last four years of his career, but his 18 years of solid work before that keeps him from being further down on this list.
13. Greg Maddux
Greg Maddux played in the MLB for 23 years. The pitcher bounced from team to team from 1986-2008 with a career winning percentage of .610. That number is certainly dragged down a bit by both the very beginning and very end of his career. During his first two seasons in the league, he had an ERA well over 5.50 and a win percentage of just over .300.
By the time he entered his prime though, Maddux was nearly unstoppable. In 1995, he managed a .905 winning percentage with the Atlanta Braves. His ERA that season was a microscopic 1.63. He had an ERA under 2.00 just one other time during his career, but didn’t have an ERA above 4.00 until 2004 with the Chicago Cubs.
From there, it was a slow but steady roll downhill. The end of his career wasn’t bad per say, but by Maddux standards, it certainly wasn’t very good.
12. Honus Wagner
It’s hard to find fault with Honus Wagner. He’s likely the best all-around player to ever play baseball. “The Flying Dutchman” was as versatile as it gets, playing every position except catcher and making it all look easy. He wasn’t just great at defense, he was also a tremendous hitter with an unorthodox style. His coaches and peers claimed that he was a baseball genius and he’s regularly touted as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
That being said, his career would have been nearly flawless if it wasn’t for his last couple seasons. If Wagner would have called it quits just a few seasons before, he would have one of the most prestigious and unblemished records of all times.
One of his most impressive stats came in the 1907 season when he had 61 stolen bases. The year after that he notched another 53 stolen bases. Over the last four years of his career, he had only 61 stolen bases combined.
11. Jose Canseco
Jose Canseco’s numbers were like a roller coaster throughout his career. He was wildly unreliable from season to season and. in hindsight, it’s easy to blame his inconsistencies on steroid use. He was incredibly injury prone, but when he managed to play a whole season, his number were usually quite impressive. Although he started off with a bang, the end of Canseco’s career was rather drawn out and unremarkable.
Despite the many accolades, he received during his 17-year career, Canseco is easily most remembered for his 2005 tell-all, Juiced. In the book, Canseco chronicled the rampant use of steroids in baseball, calling out several of the biggest names in the sport. In the over 10 years since the book came out, Canseco has edged his way into the spotlight a number of other times for various reasons, which has only solidified the fact that he has a knack for staying around much longer than he should.
10. Julio Franco
Most of the players on this list are amazing athletes who saw a steep drop in production over the last few years of their career. In that regard, Julio Franco is certainly an outlier. He had a few All-Star seasons towards the beginning of his career, but for the most part, he was decidedly average by MLB standards. He has a respectable career batting average of .298 with 1,194 RBIs and 173 homers over the course of his 23-year career.
His numbers dropped heavily in his last several seasons but that hasn’t stopped Franco. Though his MLB playing career ended nearly a decade ago, Franco now finds himself managing and playing in the Japanese leagues at age 57. His love for the game has kept him from retiring even after all these years. Logically speaking, he’s been playing the game for far too long, but really it’s hard to fault a guy who just can’t give up on the love of his life.
9. Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez was one of the most polarizing figures in modern baseball. There were plenty of reasons to love him in the beginning of his career and plenty of reasons to hate him by the time it was over. With a .312 batting average, 555 home runs, and 1,831 RBIs, Ramirez has a great stat line to for his career. Unfortunately, the majority of those numbers came early on and may or may not have been boosted by steroids.
Ramirez went from being a productive hero to an under performing villain over the course of his career. He played for 19 years, from 1993 until 2011, with the majority of his time spent with the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. If he would have called it quits after his 11th straight All-Star game like he should have, he would have had a significantly higher batting average and might have even been able to save his reputation.
8. Mickey Mantle
It might sound a little sacrilegious to say that Mantle hung around the league for too long, as he did make it to the All-Star game in nearly every season he played, including his last two years after all. That being said, his last few years saw a pretty steep drop in production. In his last four seasons, he had batting averages of .255, .288, .245, and .237. Prior to that, his batting averages were consistently in the .300s, with averages of .353 and .365 in 1956 and 1957.
Mantle was certainly still good over his last few seasons, but he wasn’t the same Superstar he was earlier in his career. His stellar speed and athleticism escaped him as his career drew to a close and it’s safe to say that, from a production standpoint, he should have retired three to four years earlier. When he finally did retire though, it was the fans that weren’t ready to see him leave.
7. Minnie Minoso
For many, Minnie Minoso isn’t a household name. The Cuban-born All-Star played most of his career with the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox. He was a three-time Gold Glover and 9-time All-Star. Minoso’s major league career started in 1949 at the age of 23. It ended 31 years later on October 5, 1980, just a month before Minoso’s 55th birthday.
Of course, Minoso only actually played for 17 of those 31 years. He retired from the White Sox three times, in 1964, 1976 and 1980. Minoso’s numbers began to falter drastically after the 1961 season and it’s safe to say that he probably should have retired then. On the other hand, he’s one of two players in history who have played in five different decades over the course of their careers.
When you look at it like that, he probably should have taken a couple of at-bats in 1990 just to make it six decades in a row.
6. Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan is one of the best pitchers the game has ever seen. He played for 27 years with a career ERA of just 3.19. With the Mets, Astros, Angels and Rangers, Ryan had a total of seven no-hitters, 324 wins, 5,714 strikeouts, and a series of mean hits to Robin Ventura’s face. In the 1980s, Ryan easily Broke Sandy Koufax’s record of four no-hitters as well as Walter Johnson’s strikeout record.
Up until 1992, Ryan had a near flawless major leagues resume. He consistently had one of the lowest ERAs in the league with multiple MVPs and, except for his first and last seasons, Ryan never had an ERA of over 4.00. If he would have called it quits just two years earlier, Ryan would have an even more unblemished stat sheet while still holding all of the records he broke over the course of his career. However, his iconic fight with Ventura did come in his last season in the league, so perhaps we should be grateful that he played as long as he did.
5. Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson had a long and illustrious career, but in his pursuit of 300 wins, he hung around for just a little bit too long. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to hear that Johnson came out of the gate blazing. In 1988, he started off his career by going undefeated in his first season. He struggled a bit over the next few years, but by the time 1993 came around, he was in full swing.
In 1995, 1996, and 1997, Johnson had win percentages of .900, 1.000, and .833. His signature fastball helped him to 4,875 career strikeouts, but, by the time his career was coming to an end, it had lost some of its luster.
Johnson was determined to get to 300 wins and he finally did in 2009 with the San Francisco Giants. During the last four years of his career though, Johnson’s ERA skyrocketed and his overall stats suffered. He was undoubtedly a great pitcher, but his wins record was certainly helped by the fact that he routinely found himself on very good teams.
4. Roger Clemens
Most of the players that are on this list are here because they faltered considerably towards the end of their career, but that isn’t entirely the case for Clemens. Clemens pitched 23 years of great baseball and one year of okay baseball. His last season wasn’t quite up to par compared to the rest of his career, but it was still pretty good by normal standards. The reason he is on this list is almost entirely because of the steroid accusations that surround him.
It wasn’t until the latter half of his career that Clemens supposedly began to take steroids. Although some of his best seasons came around the time that he was reportedly taking steroids, he still had some great seasons before that time. If he would have retired earlier instead of taking performance enhancers, he could have saved his reputation and avoided being constantly brought up in the steroid debates.
3. Rickey Henderson
Rickey Henderson was really good for the first 12 or 13 years of his career. He was a perennial All-Star with a serious knack for stealing bases. If he would have retired after his thirteenth, fourteenth or even fifteenth seasons, no one could have blamed him. The problem is that Henderson played for a total of 25 years, at least ten too many. At a certain point, it became clear that he was playing for the love of the game, nothing more. Holding out for so long had a clear negative impact on his legacy, overshadowing the triumphs he experience in the beginning of his career.
He went from being a terrific all-around player to less than mediocre in just about every aspect of the game. His stolen base numbers dropped steadily year by year, he was consistently injured and rarely played entire seasons, and his batting average consistently hovered in the low .200s. Henderson just couldn’t leave the game, even long after it had left him.
2. Willie Mays
Willie Mays had one of the greatest careers in MLB history. He’s was an icon and an inspiration for millions. In that regard, fans would have loved to see him play for another ten years. As a player though, he probably should have retired four years earlier.
Mays played for 22 years, 20 of which were incredible. He was great in just about every aspect of the game. From hitting, to stealing bases, to defense, Mays just couldn’t be stopped. In his final two seasons though, Mays struggled mightily. He was an All-Star each year, but it was more ceremonial than practical. In many ways, Kobe Bryant is the modern equivalent of Willie Mays. Years of physically masterful play took a toll on Mays’ body and, in the end, he mentally gritted his way through his last two seasons even though his body was clearly ready to call it quits.
1. Steve Carlton
Steve Carlton’s legacy is hurt by how long he stayed in the league. For most of the truly great players on this list, sticking around a few years too many did little too harm their overall legacies. For Carlton though, that just isn’t the case.
Carlton had 20 years of excellent pitching under his belt at the end of the 1984 season and, in retrospect, that’s exactly when he should have retired. Instead, Carlton trudged through four more years of truly bad baseball. He bounced around from team to team, struggling to get wins while hitters had a field day against him. Those final years where disastrous for his stat sheet as his ERA went through the roof while his wins percentage fell through the floor.
Carlton made it into the Hall of Fame in 1994, but those last four seasons have managed to cast a disproportionately large shadow over his otherwise illustrious career.
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