I remember the first time I was forced to think about the possibility of retirement.
My ERA was hovering above six, and answers were fleeting. I was getting lit up game after game. Everything about the sport of baseball had become difficult. It was wearing on me. And people started to notice.
One night, after another miserable start, a teammate of mine — a close friend who shall remain nameless — sat me down and just put it out there.
“Hey, man,” he said, looking me in the eye, “I hate to say it, but maybe it’s time for you to take it to the house. This just isn’t for you anymore.”
I didn’t really know what to say, so I just kind of looked at him.
“Maybe you should just retire and pursue something else instead of putting yourself through this any longer.”
You never forget when someone says something like that to you. And I’m telling you about it now mainly for two reasons.
First, because I think what’s most important about it is that it didn’t happen last month … or even last year. That conversation took place more than a decade ago, in 2005, when I was still at Triple A Buffalo, only 2½ years into my career.
Baseball, like life, is full of successes and struggles. Oftentimes when we are at our lowest is when things can turn around if we are willing to persevere and never give in to defeat. Not only was I able to fight through those rough times in the minors and become a longtime starting pitcher in the big leagues, but I was also fortunate to start Game 7 of a World Series and eventually be part of a world championship team in Kansas City.
The second reason I bring up that story, though, is because, well, more than 12 years after that first retirement conversation … here we are again.
This time it isn’t a teammate who is suggesting I retire. It’s the circumstances and reality of the situation. And I’m ready to say that it actually is time for me to call it a career. So today I’ve decided to officially announce my retirement from major league baseball.
Now, you might be scratching your head at this.
I mean, based on my struggles with K.C. in 2015 and my disastrous 2016 season — which I spent entirely in the minor leagues — I wouldn’t hold it against you if you thought I already was retired.
I pitched for two different Triple A teams in 2016 and opted out of both contracts when I was told there were no plans for a call-up. When I returned home in August, I did so with the realization that I may never again pitch professionally. My wife, Jenny, and our three kids (Avery, 13; Hudson, 10; Dash, 7) gladly welcomed me home. It was one of the most difficult seasons for all of us because we had been apart for most of the summer as the kids finished school back in Kansas City. We took our first ever summer family vacation, to Lake Powell, on the Arizona-Utah border, and that was a strange but great feeling. I was O.K. not playing baseball for the first time in I don’t know how many years.
I was happy to be home. I could also see the joy in my family’s eyes — they loved having Dad home.
Yet, as I planned for the next phase of my life, there was a lingering desire inside me to come back just one more time and attempt to prove to myself and others that I could still pitch and get major league hitters out. Jenny could sense it.
After we moved back to our home state of Oregon in September, I began going to the gym. I met a young high school ballplayer who was willing to play catch with me a few times a week in the fall. And eventually I asked Jenny what she thought about me trying to play in the big leagues one more time if I could get a job offer. She expressed how great it was to have me home, but as she always does, she said she would support my decision either way. I asked my kids the same thing. My oldest could sense my desire and wanted me to give it a try. My two sons were on board as well. I determined that I needed to get to work.
The first thing I did was reach out to old friend and pitching guru Tom House. I scheduled a few bullpens with him down in Orange County. Second, I called the guys at Driveline Baseball in Kent, Washington, and met with coaches who specialize in data-driven training. I had determined that I should better familiarize myself with the information clubs commonly use to evaluate today’s pitchers. Yep, we were trying to teach an old dog new tricks!
Following a successful one-month stint pitching for the Melbourne Aces in Australia, I received an invite to spring training from the Washington Nationals. The opportunity to compete for a roster spot in the bullpen gave me new life, even if I was buried near the bottom of the depth chart. After pitching sparingly for the first 10 days of camp, I earned more opportunities with a string of strong outings. Suddenly my name was in the mix to make the club out of spring training. When the Nationals explained to my agent that I had not only earned a spot on the club, but also that I would be starting the fifth game of the season in Philadelphia, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I had earned my shot at redemption.
Taking the ball for the Nats on April 8 in Philadelphia, on my 38th birthday, was in my mind the perfect comeback story. The string of successes I had experienced throughout spring training had my confidence at an all-time high. What if I get another win? What if I throw a shutout? What if I throw a no-hitter?
That was the level of confidence I had as I prepared and warmed up for the game.
As I jogged to the mound, I took it all in — back in a major league stadium, pitching for a World Series contender.
My first pitch that night was a strike. All systems go.
Here’s what happened next:
Writing all that out now, and seeing it on the screen, it seems ridiculous — and almost unbelievable.
Notice the little asterisk by that one walk up there. I added that in for a reason. That was the backbreaker. Down 4–0 with two outs … I walked the pitcher to load the bases.
Already aware of the struggles I was having finding the zone and executing pitches, feelings of embarrassment began to overwhelm me. What was it going to take to end this inning?
I’ll never know.
I proceeded to give up six more runs and never did get that third out.
As I handed the ball to Dusty Baker, a man I had come to love and respect in a very short amount of time, I knew my major league career was over.
As I handed the ball to Dusty Baker, I knew my major league career was over.
My family was in Philly for the game, and when I got back to the hotel, my wife and I plopped down on the bed. We just kind of sat there for a while not saying anything, but after a few minutes, she asked me how I felt.
I started crying.
I hadn’t cried in the clubhouse after the game, or on the bus ride to the hotel, but being there with Jenny, and both of us knowing that it was over … that hit me hard. There was this immense feeling of sadness that came over me.
So I cried.
We both did.
Jenny hugged me, and we sat there and talked about what would happen next.
She tried to be positive — encouraging me not to quit and to go to Syracuse and pitch for the Nats’ Triple A affiliate … to keep fighting. But we both knew that that wouldn’t be the best plan for me or our family. For all the encouragement and support she had lent me during my 14-plus years as a professional, this was the end, and we both knew it.
We cried some more.
It was confirmed by my agent the next morning that I had been DFA’d by the club, but that I’d have the opportunity to go to Triple A and continue pitching.
I told my agent to inform the team that I would not be going to Syracuse.
I was going home, home with my family.
I was drafted three times and despite not signing the first two times, I was fortunate to play professionally for five organizations during my 15-year career.
Kenneth K. Lam/TNS/ZUMA Press
Looking back, it’s humbling to think about all the guys I have been privileged to call teammates over the years. Great people like Kevin Millar, Alex Gordon, James Shields, David Riske, Todd Helton, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Paul Byrd, Melvin Mora, Paul Bako, Chris Gomez, Salvy Pérez, Adam Jones, Casey Blake, Jason Giambi, Greg Holland and Chris Young, just to name a few.
My level of gratitude for everything I’ve enjoyed during my career is boundless. For me it starts with my parents, who gave me every opportunity to develop my love for sports. They always attended my games and lent their support, win or lose. They were there to experience the failures and successes, up until my very final pitch.
I have also benefitted from tremendous coaches and mentors in my life. My high school baseball coach, Bill Swartwout, was someone who believed in me more than I believed in myself. Jim Nagel, Mark Marquess, Dean Stotz and Tom Kunis were all instrumental in teaching me important aspects of sports and life.
The Cleveland Indians gave me the chance to begin my professional career, and I’ll always be grateful for that, even though my time there was brief.
When I was claimed off waivers by the Baltimore Orioles, it was because of a good word put in by Dave Trembley and Dave Hollins. What a perfect opportunity that was for me. I give all the credit to Leo Mazzone, who was the best pitching coach I could have ever wished for. And my co-GMs in Baltimore, Jim Duquette and the late Mike Flanagan, were huge supporters. I was given the number 46 while playing for the Orioles. That was Flanny’s number, and I always tried to honor him by giving 100% and never taking one day for granted.
When I was down and just about out, pitching to around a 7.00 ERA in the very “rocky” mountains of Colorado during the 2012 season, it was Dayton Moore and his staff in Kansas City who were willing to give me another chance. Under the watchful eye of Dave Eiland, I made some adjustments that propelled me to the best stretch of my career. That two month stretch turned into a three year contract with the Royals.
John Sleezer/KC Star/Zumapress.com
Celebrating a world championship with a million friends in 2015 was unforgettable!
What makes K.C. so special is the family atmosphere that exists throughout the organization. The difference that this approach made was immeasurable. Celebrating a world championship with a million friends in 2015 was unforgettable!
I’m Forever Royal!
Now, I considered beginning by thanking the most important person to me. However, in a more typical fashion, I’ve saved the best for last. Thank you, Jenny, my best friend of nearly 20 years and my wife of 16. We have been through so much. I have always appreciated the fact that we’ve shared this entire baseball journey together. It started in 1998 at BYU, where you saw firsthand the ups and downs of baseball. You rode the roller coaster of emotions through my college career, the minor leagues, and into the majors. You are the MVP of our family. You provided the stability at home that helped me accomplish so much on the field. It is not possible to express my full gratitude for your love and support. Thank you for everything, Jenny.
I don’t know what the next chapter holds for me, but I look forward to the additional time with my family. I’m excited to see what opportunities are out there. Ultimately, I’m just grateful that I am retiring now, as opposed to 12 years ago when it was first suggested.