Column: Goat Ropings and Rodeos

On May 20, 2010, the Atlanta Braves overcame a 9-3 deficit in the ninth inning to beat the Cincinnati Reds 10-9, an incredible comeback capped by a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam by journeyman backup infielder Brooks Conrad.

Longtime Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson said of the comeback “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Sunday, eight years to the day after Conrad’s memorable hit, the 2018 edition of the Braves came back in similar fashion, using a six-run ninth inning to beat the Miami Marlins, by an identical score of 10-9.

This comeback was just as amazing as the one eight years earlier, if not more so; this one came without the benefit of a single extra-base hit, as the Braves methodically chopped away at the Marlins lead — down to their last strike 10 times — before finally winning on a bullet down the left-field line by Dansby Swanson.

Swanson’s turn as the hero was nearly as unlikely as Conrad’s — it was Swanson’s first hit since missing 15 games with a wrist injury.

After watching the Braves finish off the improbable victory on Sunday, I said to myself: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

(Ok, I’ve been to one rodeo, and haven’t been to a goat roping. But you get the point.)

But while the comeback was incredible, some of the comments made by the team afterward were perhaps even more telling about the makeup of this Braves team.

“I almost expect them to do it,” said manager Brian Snitker. “Down six in the bottom of the fifth, I felt good. I really did. I thought, ‘these guys have a lot of time to go to work here.’”

“It just shows the belief and pedigree in this team that we have this much belief in each other,” said Freddie Freeman. “It’s fun to be a part of. When you have everybody bought in to play like that, it’s truly amazing what can happen.”

After rebuilding seasons of 95, 93 and 90 losses the last three years, the Braves are back — they sit at 29-18, holding the best record in the National League and a 1 1/2 game lead in the NL East. Atlanta, the state of Georgia and the whole southeast (“Braves Country”) has a team to be excited about again.

I wasn’t around for the “worst-to-first” season of 1991, in which the Braves reached the World Series — their first since moving to Atlanta — after three straight last-place finishes in their division. I’ve always wondered how thrilling that experience must have been like for the Braves and their fans.

Perhaps this season is providing a taste of that — and hopefully, like 1991, the thrills will continue all the way into October.

Going back to those rodeos, the Braves are sitting on a bull named “First Place,” something very few expected when the season began eight weeks ago.

It’s still early — if the 162-game schedule is the fabled “eight-second ride,” we’re a little over two seconds in. Some say the Braves, as young as they are, are sure to fall off the bull before the eight seconds is up.

But given their knack for comebacks, their will and determination, and what appears from a distance to be a great team chemistry, I like their chances.

That bull is sure to try and throw the Braves off — every team goes through plenty of adversity over the course of 162 games that, if they’re not ready for it, can throw them — but I have a feeling that when the eight seconds is up, the Braves could very well be the last ones standing and advance into the goat roping known as the postseason.

And if it happens, I’ll be the first to say: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

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Column: Waiting on Acuña The Right Move for Braves

Ronald Acuña, the Atlanta Braves outfield prospect who is the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, has been the talk of Braves spring training since the beginning of camp, tearing up the Grapefruit League and showing why there’s so much hype around him.

But on Monday, new Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos reassigned Acuña to minor-league camp, meaning he will start the season in the minors at AAA Gwinnett — and it’s a good decision by the Braves front office.

Why is it the right move for the Braves to send to the minors a player who is playing as well as anyone this spring and has proven he is ready for the major leagues? Because given the current MLB rules regarding service time and arbitration, this will actually benefit the team long-term.

In the current collective bargaining rules between the MLB and the MLB Players Association, a full season of service time is 172 days, even though the MLB’s regular season is 186 days long. As a result, even if Acuña (or anyone else) plays in the majors for 171 days in 2018, it does not count as a full year of service time and the Braves will have an extra year of contractual control in his arbitration years.

If Acuña is not called up to the major leagues before April 13, he will be a free agent after the 2024 season; were he on the Opening Day roster, he would be a free agent after 2023.

Given the opportunity to keep a player of Acuña’s talent an additional year in the prime of his career, at only the expense of two weeks out of his rookie season, why wouldn’t the Braves keep him at Gwinnett for those two weeks? Put another way, 162 games of Acuña at age 26 is worth losing 12 games of his age-20 season.

This is especially true for a club in the Braves position. The Braves’ rebuild, which began after the 2014 season and has been rooted in building a stellar farm system, has them positioned for sustained success in the coming years, but they are still likely a year away from legitimately contending, barring a surprise 2018.

A .500 season is a fair goal this year; therefore, even if they lose a game in the first two weeks that they might have won with Acuña on the roster (which, by the way, there’s no way to definitively measure), that game will likely not cost them a division title or a spot in the postseason.

This concept is not new in MLB — the Cubs did this in 2015 with Kris Bryant, who was called up on April 17 and proceeded to win Rookie of the Year in 2015 and MVP in 2016.

Like Bryant three years ago, Acuña has had a terrific spring, hitting .432 with a .519 on-base percentage and a .727 slugging percentage, with four homers and 11 RBIs.

The strong spring is an extension of his strong 2017 season across three levels of the minors, where he actually improved statistically at each level, totaling a .325 average with a .896 OPS. Acuña was also the MVP of the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.

Among those who have seen him play, there is little doubt Acuña is a legitimate five-tool talent with the ability to become a major league star. And while it would be nice for Braves fans, and for the game in general, if he were on the Braves’ Opening Day roster, to me his special talent level and potential further solidify that this is the right move.

A small faction of Braves fans are frustrated at the team’s decision to keep their Acuña in the minors to start the season.

But if this works out like most think it will — if he is, in fact, able to live up to the hype — those same fans will be thanking management when Acuña is still in left field at SunTrust Park on Opening Day 2024 for the World Series favorite Atlanta Braves.

Column: MLB Free Agency Unusually Slow This Winter

Forget the hypothetical of “what would it be like to run an MLB team” — this year I’m actually going to do it. All I need is a couple hundred million dollars and the cooperation of MLB to allow me to start an expansion team less than two months before Opening Day.

With any luck, by the first week of November I’ll be lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy as a World Series champion.

How am I going to do this, you ask? I’ll simply sign a team of current free agents, and that team will be so deep and talented that they’ll win it all this fall.

***

Of course I’m kidding about starting a team, but the fact is, even just two weeks from Spring Training, the MLB free agent market has moved so slow this winter that there still remain enough quality free agents on the market that a hypothetical team of them could win the World Series.

If you’re skeptical, check out this potential roster:

Catchers: A.J. Ellis, Jonathan Lucroy
Infielders: Todd Frazier, J.J. Hardy, Eric Hosmer, Logan Morrison, Mike Moustakas, Brandon Phillips, Neil Walker
Outfielders: Jose Bautista, Carlos Gonzalez, Jon Jay, J.D. Martinez
Starting Pitchers: Jake Arrieta, Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb, Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn
Relief Pitchers: Jeanmar Gomez, Jason Grilli, Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, Koji Uehara, Tony Watson, Tom Wilhelmsen

Every position has an All-Star-caliber player on the board, with all except catcher also featuring incredible depth on a hypothetical team.

Having this many high-quality free agents available on Feb. 2 seems unprecedented (with the exception of the strike offseason of 1994-95), and due to the high volume of unsigned players, the MLB Players Association is considering running a Spring Training camp for these players to attend until they sign, and has even discussed a potential work stoppage in protest of the high number of unsigned players (more on that later).

Looking closely at the current MLB landscape, there are reasons for this offseason’s historically-slow market.

With the recent success of the Cubs and Astros, winning the last two World Series as the dividend of their massive rebuilding projects, more teams are following that model, going all-in on rebuilding — some would even call it tanking — trying to win later by building up the talent in their farm system at the expense of the current success of the major league club.

Because of this, more teams than ever are uninterested in spending the millions of dollars it takes to sign free agents. Outspoken agent Scott Boras pointed this out to The Athletic a week ago, saying “We have to get rid of the noncompetitive cancer… that is destructive to our sport because it has removed one-third of the competition.”

Those comments are quite stern, and should be taken with at least a moderate grain of salt since Boras is always brash, and here is venting frustration that his players are not yet signed. But he may have actually been under-selling the number of teams opting not to compete in the free agent market — according to Jayson Stark, 13 of the 30 MLB teams have not signed a position player to a major-league contract this offseason.

Another factor, and one less discussed than the number of teams rebuilding, is the absolutely loaded free agent class coming next winter (Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson,  Manny Machado, Charlie Blackmon, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are just the headliners, with many others also set to be free agents).

With a historically-good group set to be free agents next winter, it is entirely possible that teams are consciously not spending money now to keep funds available to offer big contracts to major players this time next year.

Unfortunately, these factors have combined to negatively impact the current free agents listed in the hypothetical team above and others, as it is February and they still don’t know where they will play in the 2018 season and beyond.

The possibility of a work stoppage by the MLBPA has reportedly been discussed, although it’s unknown how realistic that possibility actually is. Such a move would certainly not be popular among fans (See: 1994 MLB strike), but certainly is not unprecedented — remember, the first time MLB and the MLBPA went through a round of collective bargaining negotiations without a work stoppage was not until 2002.

So maybe that expansion team full of current free agents isn’t such a bad idea. If it prevents a work stoppage, and thus a black eye on baseball, it may be priceless.

Column: A True Fall Classic

The World Series is nicknamed “The Fall Classic,” but let’s be honest–it doesn’t always live up to that “classic” billing. Many Series over the years have ended in four or five games, with few enduring moments.

But this year, as the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers prepare for a winner-take-all Game 7 tonight (8:20 p.m. ET, FOX), the World Series has lived up to the “Fall Classic” label, unfolding as one of the greatest World Series ever played. And just think, there’s a game still to be played, and it’s a Game 7–baseball at its best.

From the time the matchup was set, the 113th World Series was destined for greatness, with two exceptional teams meeting for baseball’s greatest prize–the Astros and Dodgers are the first set of 100-plus-win teams to meet in the World Series since 1970.

Yet as good as this Series looked on paper, it has been even better on the field. With each team playing at an incredibly high level, each game has been close (even the 6-2 Dodgers win in Game 4 was 1-1 entering the ninth), intense and entertaining. The Series has had everything, with pitcher’s duels in Games 1 and 6, an all-out offensive slugfest in the Game 5 instant classic, and a Game 2 that had both extremes in the same game.

A great week of baseball will now conclude with the 38th winner-take-all game in World Series history, as the Astros and Dodgers become the first 100-win teams to meet in a Game 7 since Herbert Hoover was president in 1931.

Tonight’s game marks the first time back-to-back World Series have reached a Game 7 since 2001 and 2002. But while last year’s epic Game 7 between the Cubs and Indians will be a tough act to follow, if there’s a World Series that can produce a comparable classic, it’s this one. It has, after all, already produced six phenomenal contests.

So as the Astros and Dodgers play the final baseball game of the year tonight, bringing this breathtaking World Series to a decisive climax, savor it. We’re watching the determining game of a true “Fall Classic.”

 

 

113th World Series

Game 1
Los Angeles 3, Houston 1
W: Kershaw, L: Keuchel, S: Jansen
Dodgers lead Series 1-0

Game 2
Houston 7, Los Angeles 6, 11 innings
W: Devenski, L: McCarthy
Series tied 1-1

Game 3
Houston 5, Los Angeles 3
W: McCullers, L: Darvish, S: Peacock
Astros lead Series 2-1

Game 4
Los Angeles 6, Houston 2
W: Watson, L: Giles
Series tied 2-2

Game 5
Houston 13, Los Angeles 12, 10 innings
W: Musgrove, L: Jansen
Astros lead 3-2

Game 6
Los Angeles 3, Houston 1
W: Watson (2), L: Verlander, S: Jansen (2)
Series tied 3-3

Game 7
Houston at Los Angeles
Tonight, 8:20 p.m. ET, FOX

 

Trends of a World Series Champion, Volume III

For the last two Octobers, I’ve looked at the trends of past World Series champions, and how each team in that year’s MLB postseason field compared to the trends that a typical World Series-winning team fits.

(2015: Trends of a World Series Champion)
(2016: Trends of a World Series Champion, Revisited)

As we enter the 2017 postseason, starting with the AL Wild Card game tonight, let’s look at the 10 teams in this year’s postseason and how they stack up to the trends of a World Series champion.

 

Trend:  Team batting average of .250 or better
Within the trend:  Astros (.282), Rockies (.273), Nationals (.266), Indians (.263), Yankees (.262), Twins (.260), Red Sox (.258), Cubs (.255), Diamondbacks (.254)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (.249)

Trend:  Number of offensive starters hitting .290 or better (min. 50 games)
Within the trend:  Astros (5), Rockies (5), Nationals (4), Indians (3), Diamondbacks (3), Dodgers (2), Cubs (2), Red Sox (2), Twins (2)
Outside the trend:  Yankees (1)

Trend:  Team ERA of 4.00 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (3.30), Dodgers (3.38), Diamondbacks (3.66), Red Sox (3.70), Yankees (3.72), Nationals (3.88), Cubs (3.95)
Outside the trend:  Astros (4.12), Rockies (4.51), Twins (4.57)

Trend:  Starting rotation ERA of 4.25 or better
Within the trend:  Dodgers (3.39), Indians (3.52), Diamondbacks (3.61), Nationals (3.63), Yankees (3.98), Astros (4.03), Cubs (4.05), Red Sox (4.06)
Outside the trend:  Rockies (4.59), Twins (4.73)

Trend:  Bullpen ERA of 3.92 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (2.89), Red Sox (3.15), Dodgers (3.38), Yankees (3.44), Diamondbacks (3.78), Cubs (3.80)
Outside the trend:  Astros (4.27), Rockies (4.40), Twins (4.40), Nationals (4.41)

Trend:  Home winning percentage of .550 or better
Within the trend:  Dodgers (.704), Diamondbacks (.642), Yankees (.630), Indians (.605), Astros (.593), Cubs (.593), Red Sox (.593), Nationals (.580), Rockies (.568)
Outside the trend:  Twins (.506)

Trend:  Away winning percentage of .520 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (.654), Astros (.654), Nationals (.617), Dodgers (.580), Red Sox (.556), Cubs (.543), Twins (.543)
Outside the trend:  Diamondbacks (.506), Rockies (.506), Twins (.494)

Trend:  Win percentage after Sept. 1 of .500 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (.867), Astros (.724), Yankees (.690), Cubs (.655), Red Sox (.607), Diamondbacks (.607), Nationals (.552), Rockies (.517), Twins (.517)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (.433)

Trend:  Win percentage in one-run games
Within the trend:  Cubs (.605), Rockies (.600), Astros (.594), Nationals (.588), Indians (.571), Dodgers (.568), Diamondbacks (.558), Red Sox (.537)
Outside the trend:  Twins (.455), Yankees (.409)

Trend:  Baseball-Reference.com Simple Rating System of 0.2 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (1.5), Yankees (1.3), Astros (1.2), Dodgers (0.9), Red Sox (0.8), Diamondbacks (0.8), Nationals (0.6), Cubs (0.6), Rockies (0.3), Twins (0.2)
Outside the trend:  none

 

Here are how many trends of a World Series champion each playoff team fit:

Indians 10
Cubs 10
Red Sox 10
Nationals 9
Diamondbacks 9
Dodgers 8
Astros 8
Yankees 7
Rockies 6
Twins 5

By this analysis, the Indians, Cubs and Red Sox would be World Series co-favorites, and each certainly have a very strong team with a great chance at hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy.

But only eight of the 22 World Series winners in the Wild Card era (since 1995) have fit all 10 criteria, so those who have missed in a category or two still have a great statistical shot at winning the World Series.

18 of the last 22 champions have fit eight or more criteria, and 21 of those 22 have fit at least seven (the 2006 Cardinals, with just three, are the huge outlier.)

More recently, the 10 champions since that 2006 Cardinals team have all fit eight or more criteria, and four of the last seven have fit all 10.

That said, seven of the 10 playoff teams, including all six that have already advanced to the League Division Series, fit eight or more criteria and fit the trend to win the World Series.

Though the shoe fits some better than others, the race is absolutely wide open as the playoffs begin.

 

 

Using these trends (and homefield to break ties where applicable), here is how the playoffs would play out–with the very World Series matchup and outcome I predicted in March:

AL Wild Card: Yankees def. Twins
NL Wild Card: Diamondbacks def. Rockies
AL Division Series: Indians def. Yankees, Red Sox def. Astros
NL Division Series: Diamondbacks def. Dodgers, Cubs def. Nationals
AL Championship Series: Indians def. Red Sox
NL Championship Series: Cubs def. Diamondbacks
World Series: Indians def. Cubs

MLB Trade Deadline: Dodgers Move Late, Get Darvish

When the MLB non-waiver trade deadline passed at 4 p.m. eastern time on Monday, it appeared the Yankees’ acquisition of Sonny Gray was the biggest trade on a fairly quiet deadline.

Then the best team in baseball stunned everyone.

Darvish to the Dodgers

After it appeared the Rangers had decided in the end not to trade pitcher Yu Darvish, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal broke the news at 4:12 p.m. that the Los Angeles Dodgers had, in fact, acquired the Japanese right-handed starter.  (Deals have to be done by the 4 p.m. deadline, but that doesn’t always mean they are reported in the media before 4 p.m., though most are.)

Dodgers acquisition Yu Darvish (Matthew Straubmuller/Flickr)

Darvish, a 30-year old four-time All-Star who has pitched to a 4.01 ERA with 148 strikeouts in 137 innings this season, will join the Dodgers for the rest of the season before becoming a free agent.

The move gives the Dodgers, who boast an MLB-best 74-31 record and a 14-game lead in the NL West, further rotation depth for the postseason, and helps for the immediate future as Clayton Kershaw sits with a back injury.

Darvish wasn’t cheap, but the Dodgers were able to avoid trading their top two prospects–considered untouchable–instead sending the Rangers 2B/OF Willie Calhoun, RHP A.J. Alexy and IF Brendon Davis.  All were among the Dodgers top 27 prospects, according to MLB.com, with Calhoun ranking as the fourth-best prospect in the Dodgers minor-league system, and the 69th-best in all of baseball.

Darvish wasn’t the only addition to the Dodgers pitching staff, as the team added two left-handed relievers in Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani.  Both add to an already deep bullpen, and will help in setting up closer Kenley Jansen.

Watson, an impending free agent, was acquired from the Pirates, who receive IF Oneil Cruz, the Dodgers’ 21st-ranked prospect, and RHP Angel German.  Cingrani, signed through 2019, was acquired from the Reds for OF Scott Van Slyke (son of Andy) and C Hendrik Clementina.

All three moves by the Dodgers appeared to happen in the final hour before the deadline, as the team is clearly “going for it.”  The additions make the Dodgers, who are already clearly the best team in baseball, the overwhelming World Series favorites as they try to win their first championship since 1988.

Gray to the Yankees

Yankees acquisition Sonny Gray (Dinur/Flickr)

Before the Dodgers acquisition of Darvish, the biggest move of the day was made by the Yankees, who acquired right-handed starting pitcher Sonny Gray from the Athletics.

The 27-year old is signed through 2019, filling a Yankees need for starting pitching both for this year and the future—Gray has a 3.43 ERA in 16 starts this season totaling 97 innings, and a 3.42 career ERA in five seasons, all with the A’s.

Given that Oakland was giving up two more seasons of Gray, they required a big prospect package from the Yankees.  They got one, acquiring the fourth, eighth and 12th-ranked Yankee prospects in OF Dustin Fowler, the 77th-ranked prospect in MLB, SS/OF Jorge Mateo and RHP James Kaprielian.  Fowler and Kaprelian are both out for the season with injuries.

The move furthers the chances of both making the postseason and making a deep run in it for the Yankees, who lead Boston by a half-game in the AL East.

Other Moves

Another of the biggest deadline moves was agreed to late Sunday night, as the Cubs acquired left-handed reliever Justin Wilson and C Alex Avila from the Tigers for two prospects:  Jeimer Candelario, a corner infielder who was the Cubs’ top-ranked prospect (and MLB’s #92) but was blocked at the major-league level by stars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and SS Isaac Paredes, the Cubs’ 10th-ranked prospect.

Wilson, who will likely be the setup man for closer Wade Davis, is signed through 2018.  Avila will be a free agent this winter; Tigers GM Al Avila became the first GM to trade his son at the major-league level since Al Campanis in 1967.

The Dodgers and Cubs were not the only teams to trade for relief pitching.  The Nationals, who acquired relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from Oakland two weeks ago, added their biggest piece yet in their continued search for bullpen help, getting closer Brandon Kintzler from the Twins, adding LHP Tyler Watson (Nationals #17 prospect) and increasingly-valuable international bonus pool money.

The Red Sox acquired RHP Addison Reed, who will set up for closer Craig Kimbrel, from the Mets; Dillon, S.C. native RHP Jamie Callahan was part of a return that included three top-30 Red Sox prospects but none of their top 17.

Veteran LHP Francisco Liriano was acquired by the Astros, the best team in the AL at 68-36, where he is expected to move to the bullpen.  Veteran OF Norichika Aoki and ninth-ranked Astros prospect Teoscar Hernandez were shipped to the Blue Jays in return.  The move was the only move made by the Astros, however, who lost ground to the Dodgers in a potential World Series matchup.

The Brewers got RHP Jeremy Jeffress from the Rangers, where he had been dealt at last year’s deadline.   The Indians added RHP Joe Smith from Blue Jays, the Diamondbacks acquired RHP David Hernandez from the Angels, and the Pirates acquired RHP Joaquin Arias from the Phillies, all for low- to mid-level prospects.

On a day pitching dominated the headlines, only two major-league position players were moved.  The Diamondbacks traded for 2B Adam Rosales after IF Chris Owings broke his finger on Sunday and IF Ketel Marte was placed on bereavement leave due to his mother’s death.  The Orioles, who were surprise buyers sitting 5 ½ games out of the playoffs, traded for Rays IF Tim Beckham.

A Quiet Deadline

This deadline, the story of who wasn’t traded is as big as the stories of who were.  After a July filled with rumors about numerous big-name players, most remained with their current club when the dust cleared.

These names include a trio of Tigers in RHP Justin Verlander, 2B Ian Kinsler and SS Jose Iglesias, Orioles relief ace LHP Zach Britton, Padres LHP Brad Hand, Cardinals RHP Lance Lynn, Marlins RHP Dan Straily, Blue Jays RHP Marco Estrada and LHP J.A. Happ, and numerous veterans on out-of-contention teams including the Braves, Giants and White Sox.

The relative lack of deadline drama is in part due to the high volume of trades between the All-Star Break and now, as teams opted to make moves sooner rather than later to address their weaknesses and add personnel, rather than waiting until the deadline.

Deals over the last three weeks include LHP Jose Quintana to the Cubs, OF J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks, IF Todd Frazier, RHP David Robertson and RHP Tommy Kahnle to the Yankees, RHP David Phelps to the Mariners, 1B Lucas Duda, LHP Dan Jennings, RHP Sergio Romo and RHP Steve Cishek to the Rays in separate deals, IF Eduardo Nunez to the Red Sox, RHP Anthony Swarzak to the Brewers, RHP Pat Neshek and C Jonathan Lucroy to the Rockies in separate deals, RHP A.J. Ramos to the Mets, 2B/OF Howie Kendrick to the Nationals, RHP Jeremy Hellickson to the Orioles, and LHP Jaime Garcia to the Twins, who in turn traded him to the Yankees.

Trades can still be made after Monday’s deadline, but players have to pass through revocable waivers to be traded, making the process more difficult.  To be allowed to participate in the postseason for their new club, players must be acquired by August 31.

Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.