Baseball is more forgiving than other sports in regards to longevity. Whereas the average football or basketball career may not be more than ten years, baseball players have careers that regularly exceed 15 years, at times even going more than 20.
Because of this, it is often a difficult decision in deciding when to hang up the glove and cleats and call it a career. Many baseball players have tried to squeeze a few more years out of themselves with very mixed results.
But today, we will focus on those whose attempts to keep playing backfired. Their reputations weren't necessarily tarnished, but the unimpressive years at the end of a career certainly don't look appealing on a stat sheet or in the memory bank.
Here are 25 players, almost all of whom are household names, who simply held on for too long.
Without a doubt one of the greatest players ever to grace the baseball field, Willie Mays' brilliance is indisputable. He compiled one of the most incredible careers of any player, with 660 career home runs, a .302 average, 2 MVP awards, and 12 Gold Gloves.
While he will always be remembered as a Giant, Mays did spend a year and a half as a New York Met, a last hurrah that probably should never have happened. After posting a respectable year in 1971 in which he hit .271 with 18 home runs and 61 RBI, Mays played parts of two more seasons.
He hit a combined .232 with 14 home runs and 47 RBI these two years. 1972 marked the single worst statistical season of Mays' career in terms of fielding. It was very clear that the aging Mays was not meant to keep playing.
Regardless, these last two years didn't take anything away from an amazing career.
The Commerce Comet, Mickey Mantle, was one of the most exciting players to ever set foot on a baseball field. He was an almost unparalleled talent, a man who could hit moonshots, run like the wind, and carry his team to victory. He did that many times as a New York Yankee.
But Mantle's career was filled with injury and the last years of his tenure saw his position switch from center field to first base. It was clear that Mantle's body was deteriorating, and it could be argued that his final two seasons, 1967 and 1968, could probably have been better spent in retirement.
His .245 and .237 batting average in those years, respectively, was a testament to his decline.
Rickey Henderson always thought that Rickey Henderson was the greatest athlete on the planet. And, for a good time, he may well have been close. But the fact that Henderson's career spanned four decades, beginning in 1979 and ending in 2003, speaks volumes about not only his athleticism but his stubbornness.
Rickey just simply would not retire. In his final four seasons from 2000-2003, Henderson never played a full season, never hit more than .240, never had a positive defensive season, and only twice stole over 25 bases.
After that, he spent time bouncing around the minor leagues. Finally, he hung up the spikes. It was about time, Rickey.
The interesting thing about Julio Franco is that he was never an exceptional player at any point. He just found a way to stick around. Franco's career began in 1982 in Philadelphia and came to an end a quarter-century later following the 2007 season in Atlanta. He was a lifetime .298 hitter, but never really turned any heads.
At a point, it almost seemed like Franco sticking around was a publicity stunt. He became the oldest position player in baseball history when he finished the 2007 season at age 49. But he didn't play a full MLB season from 1994 until the end of his career, and only hit above .300 twice during that span.
One of, if not the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time, Steve Carlton had a brilliant career. He pitched his way to 329 career wins and 4,136 strikeouts. Had he cut his career short after, say, 1984, his career ERA of 3.22 might have been even lower, solidifying his place as one of the greats.
But Carlton stuck around. Then he stuck around some more. He played until 1988 for San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago, and Minnesota. During those final years of 1985-1988, he never had a winning record, only once had an ERA under 6.00, and saw the lowest K/BB ratios of his career.
It was sad to see, but again, it did not tarnish Carlton's legacy too much.
The Big Unit was one of the best pitchers of his generation, and had so many trademarks about him that it will be hard for history to forget him. Randy Johnson's blazing fastball, biting slider, awful mullet, and super-tall frame will make him one of the most memorable players ever. He had a heck of a career to go along with that, winning 303 games and striking out an incredible 4,875 batters.
When you look at Johnson's stats from the end of his career, they are not awful. But it was clear he wasn't the same pitcher he once had been. His K/9 ratio was down, his ERA was up, and his command was slipping.
This is excused because of his quest for 300 wins, but Unit probably could have stood to play a few less years.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Manny Ramirez is one of the most controversial figures to play baseball in recent memory. Whether his gaudy offensive numbers, ridiculous antics, or lovable personality got your attention, every baseball fan had an opinion on Manny.
But what he did towards the end of his career, essentially tanking it with the Dodgers, White Sox, and finally the Rays, made it clear that Ramirez hung on far too long. When news broke of his positive test for a banned substance, it became obvious that he was trying way too hard to prolong his career.
It was a very sad and angering end to his career.
Gaylord Perry was an absolute workhorse of a pitcher. During his prime, he would regularly throw over 300 innings in a season. Modern pitching coaches would have a heart attack if any pitcher did that, but Perry was about as solid as they come. This probably had something to do with his decision to keep playing until age 45.
Along with the chase for 300 wins, Perry had good reason to keep playing, but his numbers took a major hit. In his final four seasons, Perry never had a winning year, never had an ERA under 3.60, and couldn't come close to matching the number of complete games he had early in his career (regularly over 25 in a season).
All in all, Perry's quest for 300 wins was noble, but his final years were rocky to say the least.
Minnie Minoso loved baseball. Born in 1925 (we think), Minoso was a terrific outfielder, spending most of his career playing for the White Sox and Indians. He had a very respectable career—nothing spectacular, but a very solid and consistent one.
But what gets Minoso on this list are his two comebacks, one in 1976 and one in 1980. He had not played in the majors since 1964. In these two comebacks, he combined to hit .100 (1-10) in five total games. Not knowing if this was a publicity stunt or not, I'd have to put this comeback attempt under the category of "C'mon Man".
One of the most entertaining players in baseball history simply for his constant all-out effort, Pete Rose made a name for himself as baseball's all-time hit king as well as his off-the-field gambling issues. But it was this constant motor and longing for competition and excitement that probably kept Rose a player for so long.
It took Rose until 1985 to break Ty Cobb's all-time hits record, but Rose probably could have hung up the cleats after the 1981 season. Between 1982 and his retirement in 1986, Rose never hit above .275 and had a combined Wins Above Replacement of -0.7.
Much of this was as player-manager, but either way, Rose definitely wasn't the same player he once had been.
I feel bad putting Seaver on this list, but it's hard to get 30 people, and so I had to make some tough calls. What gets Tom Seaver on here was his final season in the majors, 1986. He had already won his 300th game the year before with the White Sox.
But in '86, splitting time between the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox, Seaver had a miserable season. He went 7-13 with a 4.03 ERA, well above his career mark of 2.86. It was a fairly sad ending to what had otherwise been a terrific career.
Again, it doesn't qualify as hanging around far too long, but Seaver probably should have hung it up after 1985.
Oh, Jose. You've just been around too long in everything you do. Period.
Is it just me, or does Fisk look like Jake Taylor from Major League here?
That's a pretty good comparison, actually. Fisk was a longtime leader and excellent player for the White Sox and Red Sox. He hit one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history in Game Six of the 1975 World Series. But later in his career, when the old catcher began to show his age, it was fairly sad.
His last three seasons were particularly hard to watch. In 1991-93, Fisk hit .241, .229, and .189 respectively. The old legs simply weren't strong enough to keep the great catcher going.
Somewhere towards the end of Greg Maddux's incredible run of 17 straight seasons with 15 wins, he should have started to realize that maybe, just maybe, his impeccable command was going away. One of the best pitchers of the 1990s, Maddux was known for his pinpoint control.
But in 2004, another streak started. Maddux finished his career with five straight seasons with a 4.00 ERA or higher. It was sad to see such a great pitcher continue to pitch as a shadow of his former self. Maddux was one of my childhood idols, and it was hard to watch him struggle (in a Maddux sense) late in his career.
He probably could have pitched two or three less years.
Seeing Trevor Hoffman struggle in 2010 was also very tough to watch. One of the greatest closers in baseball history, Hoffman was remarkably consistent in providing high-octane, highly-effective appearances throughout his career, mainly with the Padres.
After a shaky 2008, things looked to be downhill for Hoffman. But 2009 was a resurgence, with the closer going 3-2 with a 1.83 ERA and 37 saves for the Brewers.
The next year, however, Hoffman went 2-7 with a 5.89 ERA and ten saves. It was a terrible end to Hoffman's career, but does not take anything away from his status as one of the all-time greats.
He just waited too long to call it quits.
As far as pure hitters go, there haven't been many better than Dave Winfield. He had an illustrious career that spanned several teams. By his retirement in 1996, Winfield had amassed 3,110 hits and 465 home runs, as well as tremendous popularity as a player.
But after his 3,000th hit in 1994, Winfield went on to play two more seasons. He hit a mediocre .252 in 1995, followed by an even worse .191 in 1996. Winfield could have quit on top of the world with 3,000 hits. Instead, he played an unnecessary two seasons. No harm done, but no good either.
Junior Griffey was arguably the most exciting baseball player in history. His incredible athleticism and home run power made him one of the most incredible hitters of his time, and his child-like enthusiasm made him an easy fan favorite. He will always be remembered for his unbelievable seasons in Seattle in the late 1990s.
Of course, the end of his career was plagued with injuries. It is without a doubt that Griffey probably hung on too long. His final two season in particular, in which he hit .214 and .184, respectively, for the Mariners, made it clear that it was time to retire.
But Griffey got his homecoming in Seattle, so that did ease some of the pain of his poor final few seasons.
One of the greatest defensive shortstops ever, Omar Vizquel was always a fun player to watch. He had a terrific run with the Cleveland Indians, and along with Ozzie Smith is the standard by which all shortstops are measured defensively. He wasn't a slouch at bat either, compiling almost 3,000 career hits.
But his final two seasons with the Chicago White Sox were entirely unnecessary. Vizquel's defense had a negative value, and his limited offensive production made him a questionable player to even be on the team. He probably should have called it quits in 2007 after a solid season in San Francisco.
Don't kill me, people. The Babe is on here for his final season, essentially a publicity stunt by the Boston Braves. Babe Ruth played only 28 games with the Braves, hitting .181 with six home runs (three in his final game). It was a very anticlimactic end to the most storied career in baseball history.
No one is ever going to question the Babe's decision to keep playing, but it can be argued that he stuck around maybe one season too long.
There have been many instances of a player coming back late in his career to the city where it all began. Ken Griffey, Jr. and Jim Thome are some notable recent examples. Orel Hershiser did it too, playing his final season in 2000 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom he had so much success early on.
But 2000 was a disaster for Hershiser. In 24.2 innings, he had a 13.14 ERA, going 1-5 in just ten games. It was a really miserable way to go out, and Hershiser probably didn't do himself any favors by sticking around to pitch one final season for his Dodgers.
Another victim of the "one year too many" problem is Nolan Ryan. The greatest strikeout pitcher of all-time, Ryan played in four decades for the Mets, Angels, Astros, and Rangers. He is well-known for his seven no-hitters and beating the crap out of Robin Ventura. Unfortunately, 1993 did not do Nolan Ryan any favors.
He went 5-5 with a 4.88 ERA and seemed every bit the old man he was. Leading up to that year, his strikeout numbers were down and his walks were up, but '93 was the culmination of it all. The final year of Nolan Ryan's career was the worst, but is not at all indicative of the pitcher he was.
Far too many people have forgotten this, but Tommy John was actually a very good pitcher when healthy. Of course, now he is synonymous with the elbow ligament surgery that bears his name, but Tommy John was a consistent and solid pitcher for several teams, notably the Yankees and Dodgers.
But in John's final seven seasons, his ERA was under 4.00 only once. It seemed as if he was waiting around for his great stuff to return, but it never did. That final stretch from 1983 to 1989 saw him post a winning record only three times.
It was a relatively frustrating end to a career that deserves more attention than it has received.
Orator Jim, as he was known, was a very good hitter who starred in the late 1800s for several now-defunct teams. Over his career, O'Rourke posted a .315 batting average with over 2,600 career hits. He was a very popular player in his day.
What gets him here was his comeback, eleven years after his final MLB game. O'Rourke came back in 1904 at age 53 for one last hurrah. In one final game, he went 1-4. For being the original man to not know when to give it up, Jim O'Rourke lands here.
The eccentric and much-beleaguered slugger, Sammy Sosa had a very interesting MLB career. He morphed from an all-around athlete, almost a speedster, into a home run machine. This was mainly brought upon by the use of steroids, the drug that tainted much of Sosa's legacy. As his career wound down, Sosa saw that 600 home runs was in sight.
So after missing the 2006 season, Sosa came back for one final go-round with the Texas Rangers. He had a decent season, hitting .252 with 21 home runs and 92 RBI. But the goal of reaching 600 home runs was met with hostility from fans knowing his use of steroids. He reached the number, but not without controversy.
The Flying Dutchman, Honus Wagner, was truly the first superstar of baseball. The longtime shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates played a legendary career, compiling 3,415 hits to go along with a .327 batting average. He was an incredible defender, great baserunner, and an elite hitter. It is no surprise that he was included in the first Hall of Fame class.
However, Wagner did play a few seasons too long. His final four seasons from 1914-1917 saw his batting average drop well below his career mark, along with poor speed numbers and a dropoff on defense. Of course, this doesn't change anything about Wagner. He is still viewed as one of the first truly great baseball players.