MLB Retirement and the Challenge to Finally Let Go

Every baseball player’s dream is to make a major league roster and stay there. Some make it as top prospects, others work hard with the talent they have, and a few make drastic changes. Players come from far and wide to get the call. Skills erode and players are forced out, but some hold on, either sticking around in the minors or joining baseball operations. Brandon Magee takes a look at MLB retirement and the challenge to finally let go.

Baseball players train for their entire youth to excel at the game. Yet, at some point, the body is no longer capable of producing the same results. Last week, former Red Sox prospect Ryan Khoury officially declared his retirement from baseball on Twitter. Previously in the month, Portland Sea Dogs’ catcher Michael Brenly retired from playing, moving up to the majors as the Red Sox bullpen catcher.

Ryan Khoury was a 12th round pick for the Red Sox in the 2006 Draft. Khoury, who played shortstop at the University of Utah, quickly became a utility infielder for Lowell and Greenville, playing 2nd base, 3rd base and shortstop in his first season of professional baseball. That season he also earned his first call to AAA Pawtucket, largely because of his collegiate experience. Khoury would have his best statistical year in 2007 with the High-A Lancaster Jethawks, batting .300/.385/.468 with a career high 29 doubles and 11 home runs. He performed well in his first season in Portland in 2008 (.788 OPS), but he followed with two years of diminished offense. Khoury was released at the end of spring training in 2011, but was brought back in June after a month with the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League. Khoury played in 69 games for Portland and Pawtucket, batting .244/.343/.366. It would be his final season in the affiliated minors:

Khoury spent his final three seasons with the Wichita Wingnuts, of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, playing exclusively at shortstop. In his final season, at age 30, Ryan had an offensive renaissance, batting .315/.436/.481; a fine way to end a baseball career. Khoury, in his retirement statement, thanked the entire Red Sox organization (as well as the Gateway Grizzlies and the Wichita Wingnuts), his parents and wife… but most of all, his teammates.

Michael Brenly has baseball in his bloodlines. His father, Bob Brenly, spent the entirety of the 1980s as a major league player and won the World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks in his first season as a major league manager in 2001. Michael followed in his father’s path, spending eight seasons in the minors as a catcher. However, he was never much of a hitter, batting .241/.297/.324 in his 477 career games. When he signed with the Red Sox last season, he knew his role. In an article by Kevin Thomas of the Portland Press Herald, Brenly said:

From the very first day we got to Portland, [Matt] Spring and I had an understanding. We knew what we were there for – we were there to babysit [Blake] Swihart, to help him out and teach him things. Spring and I checked our egos at the door and were able to help each other as well.

In early May, Brenly was offered a chance to follow his father’s footsteps in a different way, joining the Red Sox as their bullpen catcher while being groomed as a coach. But, the transition isn’t always easy: 

Been a few times here and there I get the itch to go out there. I’ll watch Swihart get ready for a game and I remember that excitement of getting out there. But you know, it’s something you can experience as a coach as well. Just because you’re not out there grinding it on the field doesn’t mean you can’t feel that excitement and the crowd and a little pressure. It’s definitely still there.

Gabe Kapler showed how difficult it was to give up on playing baseball. In December of 2006, Kapler retired from playing and was named the manager of the Red Sox A-Ball affiliate, the Greenville Drive:

I had ample opportunity to continue my playing career, but feel that I can give so much more as a manager and a leader. I feel this decision will be extraordinarily fulfilling to me personally and professionally and look forward to tackling the challenges that lie ahead. I am ecstatic that the Red Sox, which I think is the best organization in baseball, believe in me enough to give me this opportunity.

His managerial career lasted one season:

Managing was incredible for me this year. I learned so much about baseball, about the young men I had an opportunity to lead, and about myself. Ultimately, the experience reawakened the competitor in me. I miss the battle. I still need to be on the field as a player.

Kapler would sign with the Milwaukee Brewers for the 2008 season and would go on to play for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009 and 2010. He attempted to continue his playing career with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011, but was released at the end of spring training. Kapler coached the Israeli baseball team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic qualification rounds in September of 2012 and then moved to television in 2013. He returned to the Dodgers this season as their new Director of Player Development.

While a couple of Yankees (Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera) have had retirement tours the past two seasons, most players end their career not with a celebration, but with a realization that it is time.

Ron Mahay pitched his final two seasons (2010, 2011) in AAA, trying to make one more appearance in the majors. Manny Ramirez played in AAA in 2012 for Oakland, 2013 for Texas and last season as a player/coach for the Chicago Cubs. He also spent two months in Taiwan in 2013, trying to make one final comeback to the majors. Oil Can Boyd saw his major league career end in 1991 at the age of 31. He would pitch four seasons of independent league baseball in the mid 1990s, and would come back again at the age of 45 to start 16 games for the Brockton Rox of the Canadian American Association in 2005.

Even Hall of Famers have difficulty letting go. Rickey Henderson played his three final seasons for the Newark Bears and San Diego Surf Dawgs in independent leagues at the ages of 44 through 46. Steve Carlton pitched for five major league teams in his final three seasons, putting up ERAs of 5.10, 5.74 and 16.76 before finally hanging up the spikes. Even the great Babe Ruth had one final hurrah in Boston, hitting six home runs in 28 games for the Braves in 1935.

The unfortunate reality for baseball players is that, at some point, whether voluntary or not, they will have to retire from playing the game they love. Most people do not have to switch careers away from their passion when they are in their 20s, 30s or 40s. For baseball players, it is a fact of life.

Check out Brandon’s weekly Minor League report published every Friday.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

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