Ten weirdest career-ending performances of all-timeby Chris Jaffe
October 17, 2011
Last month here at the mighty THT, I wrote a fun column, “Ten worst career-ending performances of all time” that looked at, well, exactly what the title said it did. I found everyone with at least 35 career WAR from 1919 onward and found the prominent careers with the most pathetic endings.
But that column only told part of the tale. While looking at all those notable players, I found others who had tremendous career-ending games. And others I came across had finales that were just plain odd. We’ll get to the guys with the best career finales another time. Frankly, the weird endings have some of the better stories, so let’s discuss those here.
A few notes beforehand. First, since last month, I expanded the original search. This isn’t just the guys with 35 WAR or more, but I checked everyone with at least 30 career WAR since 1919. In all, that’s 475 retired players. Also, in a few occasions, I knew of a couple of other bizarre career-ending games from guys with notable careers but less than 30 WAR that I just had to include. So they’re here, too.
With that in mind, here is the list of the oddest career finales from noteworthy players.
10. Hello, I must be going: John Kruk
You may know this story. Kruk, then playing for the White Sox, rattled out a base hit in his first at-bat on July 30, 1995. And that was it for him, as he left the game before his next time up. Was he hurt? Did something happen to him?
Nope. As baseball legend and lore notes, Kruk intentionally removed himself in order to preserve a career batting average over .300. That’s why he left the game, and that’s why he retired that day.
Looking at the details, the reality is a little messier. Kruk’s lifetime average was over .300 before that at-bat, and it would’ve been .300 even if he would have made an out, but it would have to round up to .300. Prior to that last at-bat, Kruk was 1,169-for-3,896 in his career. That’s a .30005 mark. If he grounded out, he’d be at .29997. Yea, it’s .300 when put to three digits, but it's still a little under.
The hit made put his mark at .30023. He probably could’ve lasted the game and stayed over .300. If he’d gone 1-for-4, his career average would be exactly .300 (1,170-for-3,900 is precisely three hits per ten at-bats). But why risk it?
There’s a back story. Until that last at-bat, Kruk hadn’t gotten a hit in over a week, going 0-for-16 in the process. He’d seen his average drop down from .30129 to just barely over .300 in that span, which made him that much happier when he finally broke the slump and preserved his career mark.
Epilogue: This year, when Jose Reyes sat out most of the final game of the season to preserve his NL batting title over Ryan Braun, Kruk went on the air blasting Reyes. Kruk said he didn’t understand how a player could do that. Actually, if anyone could understand, it’s Kruk.
9. Not even needed for your last moment: Brady Anderson.
Everyone would like their last moment to be a great storybook finale, where you hit the big blast to win the game or something dramatic like that. Those storybook endings, alas, almost always occur solely in storybooks.
Brady Anderson had the sort of finale that makes us turn to fiction. On May 20, 2001, the Indians called on him to pinch-hit in the eighth inning. When that happened, the opposing Tigers called in a new pitcher to get the platoon edge. Not to be outfoxed, the Indians regained the platoon edge by lifting Anderson for a pinch-hitter.
Yep, in his last game, Anderson didn’t even get to appear for his only appearance. He took at least one pitch, but that was it. Yeah, that sounds like the way a guy’s career normally ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. The exact same thing happened in Matt Stairs’ last game earlier this year.
8. The only PA of the entire year: Paul Waner.
On April 26, 1945, the Yankees called on veteran outfielder Paul Waner as a pinch-hitter, and he drew a walk. In and of itself that’s not too interesting or odd, except that this proved to be his only PA of the entire season.
That’s a weird way to end a career, but at least it makes for a nice OBP.
7. One last mark to remember you by: Dazzy Vance.
Dazzy Vance was the most dominant strikeout artist of his era, but his last game was not among his best. He is the only notable pitcher in baseball history to have his career end on a hit batsman.
Pitching for the Dodgers on Aug. 14, 1935, Vance faced two Cubs, surrendering a hit and a hit batsman. There’s no play-by-play, but a little bit of deduction shows the first batter got a hit and the second got plunked.
What we know: Vance faced two batters, and gave up a hit and a HBP, and there was only one batter hit all game, Cub leadoff man Augie Galan. That means the hit either had to come from the guy immediately after Galan in the order or before him. Though the Cubs got one hit from the ninth and second slots in the order, it must’ve been the ninth that got the hit.
The Cubs pulled their starting pitcher after the bottom of the seventh. In the top of the eighth, Gabby Hartnett got a pinch-hit single, and Vance entered the game in the top of the eighth. That’s the only time Hartnett could’ve gotten his hit, so Vance did, in fact, plunk the last batter he ever faced.
6. Huh? Tom Gordon.
I genuinely don’t understand the play-by-play account for Tom “Flash” Gordon’s final game on May 3, 2009.
Appearing in the bottom of the sixth for Arizona against the Brewers, he allowed a leadoff triple to Rickie Weeks before walking Prince Fielder. So far, so good.
But then it gets odd. According to the play-by-play, Weeks was thrown out at home, and Fielder advanced to second base. Wait—what? Was this some sort of delayed double steal that didn’t quite work? Doubtful, since no one is listed with a stolen base attempt. And, besides, what kind of darn fool manager tells Prince Fielder to rumble to second base?
Did Weeks just try to catch the defense napping immediately after the walk? Probably not, or Fielder also wouldn’t have scooted up 90 feet. Was it a pickoff play? Nah, the account says the catcher threw to the pitcher to get Weeks out.
Wait, if the pitcher is at the plate, shouldn’t that mean it was a wild pitch or passed ball? Yeah, that would make sense, except Gordon isn’t listed with a wild pitch and catcher Miguel Montero isn’t listed with a passed ball.
I dunno. I guess the ball got far enough away from the catcher for Gordon to cover the plate but the scorer didn’t think it was far enough to be ruled a passed ball. Whatever it was, it was weird, and it was the last pitch Gordon ever threw. He didn’t even get to finish the at-bat.
5. Catch them by surprise: Carlton Fisk
Carlton Fisk proved that even in your last game, you can still teach an old dog new tricks. Or, perhaps more accurately, an old dog still remembers the tricks he hasn’t performed in years.
On June 22, 1993, the 45-year-old Fisk came to the plate in the fifth inning with no outs and a runner on first and promptly laid down a sacrifice bunt. Every day, several players bunt the runner over, but on nearly all those days the batter is someone other than Fisk. In fact, this was Fisk’s first sacrifice hit in five years.
It wasn’t his last PA overall, as he flew out a few innings later, but you wouldn’t imagine many people who go years without doing something would then do it in their last game.
4. The last one that got away: Jesse Orosco
Orosco had an impressive way to end his career. It capped off one of the greatest and certainly most unlikely comebacks off all-time. Unfortunately for him, he was the pitcher who let the winning run score in the comeback, and he sure found a memorable way to let that last run in.
On the last day of the 2003 season, Orosco’s Twins cruised to an easy 8-0 lead. Normally, that would ensure victory, but that especially appeared to be the case on this day. The opposing team was the Detroit Tigers, who entered the day with a record of 43-119.
All the Twins had to do was hold onto their lead, and Detroit would tie the 1962 Mets for most losses in a season since 1900. Instead, the Tigers stormed back, tying it 8-8 after eight innings.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Twins brought in elderly reliever Orosco to hold the fort and send the game into extra innings. With one out, Orosco walked center fielder Alex Sanchez. In the space of five pitches, it was all over. No, Orosco didn’t allow any more hits or walks or even any hit batsmen. The batter at the plate would be a mere spectator for the rest. First, Sanchez stole second. Almost immediately after that, he stole third.
And then Orosco tossed a wild pitch that sent Sanchez home with the game-ending run. How many guys can say their careers ended on a walk-off wild pitch, let alone one that came in such a wild game? Well, Orosco can.
The closest thing to Orosco’s closing pitch came from Rick Sutcliffe, who allowed a run-scoring wild pitch with his last toss, but that came in the sixth inning of a game his team won, not a walk-off bit.
3. When the storybook ending closes on you: Chris Short
Earlier, I noted the classic storybook ending: When the player belts a big home run to end the game, just like Roy Hobbs in the movie “The Natural.”
As it happens, only once has a player’s career come to an end on a walk-off home run. Damn shame it was the pitcher, not the hitter, whose career ended on that blast.
On Sept. 18, 1973, longtime Phillies starter turned Brewer reliever Chris Short entered the game with no outs and the tying run on second base in a 4-3 game against the Indians. Facing him stood pinch-hitter John Ellis. There’s not much to say other than the one batter Short faced was one too many, as Ellis blasted a walk-off, tow-run homer for a 5-3 Cleveland victory.
There was no dramatic music, no John Williams score playing in the background. It was just one lousy team defeating another lousy team, with a once-talented pitcher trudging off the mound one last time.
Hey, if it makes him feel any better, Bob Buhl might have had an even worse ending to his career. He didn’t surrender a walk-off homer. Instead, to end his career Buhl allowed back-to-back home runs to Felipe Alou and Hank Aaron to end his days as a pitcher. Well, if you’re going to go out on a gopher ball, it may as well be to Hammerin’ Hank.
2. He didn’t time that dive: Jim Edmonds
It’s rather well known that Ted Williams ended his career by belting a home run in his final at-bat. He’s the only member of the 500 home run club to say that. In fact, he’s the only member of the 400 home run club who can say that.
The next-most-prodigious slugger to belt a home run in his last time at the plate was longtime centerfielder Jim Edmonds. Perhaps best known for his flashy defensive plays and memorable diving catches, Edmonds belted 393 home runs in his career, with the last one coming in his last ever plate appearance.
So why is he on this list? Shouldn’t he be on the “best career-ending performances” list? Well, this wasn’t supposed to be his last game. It wasn’t supposed to be his last PA.
When Edmonds homered in the second inning on Sept. 21, 2010, he managed to hurt himself in his home run trot. Approaching third base, he shuffled his feet and felt something pop. He favored one leg at the end of his home run trot, and left the game, never to return. In retrospect, he would’ve been better off striking out.
Yeah, that qualifies as an odd way to end a career.
1. Sometimes it’s good to be your own manager: Lou Boudreau
There’s a play that’s much rarer than a walk-off home run, though: The walk-off sacrifice bunt. On average, it’s happened maybe once or twice a year over the last 60 seasons. Officially, anyway, that’s the case.
In reality, it’s rarer, as most of the official walk-off sacrifice bunts are actually walk-off errors in which a defensive misplay lets the winning run score. An actual honest-to-goodness sacrifice hit where the winning run scores from third on a well laid down bunt has happened less than once per year since WWII.
So it’s kind of cool that a Hall of Famer’s career ended on that play. And not just any walk-off sacrifice bunt, but a pinch-hit walk-off sacrifice bunt. One that happened in extra innings, too.
In the bottom of the tenth in a 1-1 game on Aug. 24, 1952, the Red Sox loaded the bases with one out against the visiting St. Louis Browns. With shortstop Johnny Lipon due up, Boston inserted Boudreau as pinch-hitter, and he laid down the bunt that brought home the runner from third for the win.
Did I say, “Boston inserted Boudreau?” Well, it would be better to say, “Boudreau inserted Boudreau.” After all, he was not only a veteran infielder, but the team’s player-manager. That helped him make the list, as he could pick his final spot for the team, and he sure found a nice spot to pick for his last ever game.
So far I’ve covered the worst and weirdest career finales. That leaves me with the best ones, and I’ll cover them sometime soon.
References and Resources
All stats and info comes from Baseball-Reference.com. I double checked the account for the Tom Gordon game in the gamelogs at Retrosheet, but it also didn't yield the key info explaining what happened.
The account of Jim Edmonds' injury comes from Larry Granillo's article on "The Year in Taters" in the The Hardball Times 2011 Baseball Annual.
I didn't hear John Kruk's commentary on Jose Reyes, but did hear about it on the Boers and Bernstein Show in WSCR 670 AM in Chicago.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.