Sunday, August 7, 2016

Retiring in Tears, with Class

By Jeff Kallman

Last month began speculation that the Yankees approaching a serious rebuilding period were thinking the once unthinkable, deliberating among themselves whether to think about releasing Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. On Friday, what began as unnamed sources saying so became the horse's mouth himself saying it: Teixeira saw and raised the earlier speculation, announcing he'd retire at season's end.

"After 14 years, it's time for me to do something else," Teixeira told a press conference at three Eastern time. "After this season, I'm gonna retire and do something else." Then, knowing the worst kept secret in the room was his being thatclose to breaking down, he admitted, "Teixieras are criers, by the way, so if you don't know that yet, but..."

He cut himself off for a split second before continuing. "You know," he said, "I got to live out my dream and had more success than I could have ever imagined. But it felt like it was the right time for me to step away from the game."

That from the man who was so optimistic in spring training that just maybe his long-enough-traitorous body would let him play maybe five more years. Then he missed time significant enough this season with knee and neck trouble. Come the All-Star Break, he said, he decided this would be his final season, but he kept it quiet until he knew for certain what most of baseball already figured out, that the Yankees would swallow their institutional pride, become sellers for the non-waiver trade deadline, and go into rebuild.

"My body can't do it anymore," said Teixeira, who remained a study in spreading tenacity at first base even if something was dissipating little by little at the plate. "If I'm going to grind through seasons not being healthy, I'd rather be home with my kids. My neck hurts almost every day. The knee thing popped up. It all kind of dawned on me that's not in the cards."

There'd been whispering previously that if the Yankees decided to cut him and swallow the rest of his contract (he'd have become a free agent at season's end but the club would have owed him about $16 million for the rest of the season), a contending team might yet have taken a flyer on him to provide veteran stretch drive leadership, solid first base, and occasional bat blast.

Teixeira made it plain that if he was to walk away from baseball he'd prefer to do it as a Yankee. The Yankees won't begrudge him that. To repeat something I wrote about the July whisperings, there've been those players called great for a team even when they're not playing well, and Teixeira's been one of them.

He's often been one of the most approachable and unflappable Yankees no matter what sort of madness enveloped the Empire Emeritus, whether the raging wars over Alex Rodriguez's status and suspension or the dissolution of the Core Four that wasn't always as smooth as the way they played in their prime. You'd see the latest Yankee hurricane and then you'd see Teixeira standing spiritually strong, untouched, hardly indifferent, the port to which you turned when you knew you couldn't weather the latest gale.

When you decide the numbers count Teixeira isn't hurting for them. His body may have betrayed him out of a place in the Hall of Fame, but he'll retire as one of only five switch hitters in major league history to hit 400+ home runs, joining Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray, and former teammates Chipper Jones and Carlos Beltran. And, Teixeira will be one of only nine major league players ever to hit 400+ home runs and win five or more Gold Gloves.

When the Rangers who raised him decided they probably couldn't afford to keep him after five and a half seasons four of which were MVP-caliber, they dealt him to the Braves for a package of kids two of whom (Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz) proved keys to two Ranger pennants.

A year later, the Braves went into a first rebuilding mode and swapped him to the Angels for a pair of small names. The Angels got the better of that one, Teixiera proving a key to their American League West title in 2008. Then the Angels wavered on whether to re-sign him as a free agent and the Yankees ended up the winners in a bidding war.

He hit big right out of the chute in the 'Stripes, helping the Yankees win their last known World Series in 2009. He probably should have been the league's MVP that year but for Joe Mauer's career year. Teixeira led the league in runs batted in, total bases, and home runs that season. He wasn't as productive in the postseason but nobody begrudged him his World Series ring.

He had two more terrific seasons for the Yankees before his body began finding ways to resign its commission. He'd never again play in more than 123 games a season and missed almost all of 2013; he had one more hurrah in him with his bounce-back in 2015.

If he ever complained it was only about getting hurt in the first place. He never used his health as an excuse; he never went to the plate or out to first base intending anything less than whatever he had in the tank. When the tank began dissipating in earnest, he refused to let it dissipate the effort.

He even promised to do what he could to bring the Yankees' lost season to a high-note finish. "We're a team in transition, and I don't want anyone to think that I'm thinking about next year or my future, because this is it for me," he said.

No big farewell tours for him. He'd seen the favors they didn't do for Derek Jeter, though he must marvel at what Red Sox rival David Ortiz's is doing for them. He'd rather thank God, the Rangers for drafting him number one, his first manager Buck Showalter, the Braves and Angels for dealing for him, the Yankees for signing him, every teammate from Little League through Yankee Stadium, and Yankee fans.

And his wife and family. "Honey, I know you're watching with the kids, I just want to thank you for being you," he said to his wife, still shaken with tears as he went on to thank his father for teaching him to switch hit at age 6 and his mother — who died last December — just for her motherhood.

"I wasn't perfect, I was far from perfect, but I want to let you know I appreciate all the support," Teixeira said, addressing Yankee fans bound to watch the conference afterward. Then, he burst into tears. "It wasn't always enough," he wept, "but I always tried my best, I'm proud to have a World Series ring with the Yankees, it's something I'll never forget."

Yankee fans and teammates past and incumbent won't forget the throwing errors he saved them with his sometimes surreal stretching and spreading around the pad. Or the home runs he hit. Or the stand-up fellow he so often was, which made it easier for Yankee fans to forgive him when he didn't come up big in the absolute push-to-shove moments beyond Game Two of the 2009 division series.

The Yankees have had a few elite first basemen in their history. Started with a fellow named Gehrig. Added a guy named Mattingly and another guy named Martinez. Big expectations to meet. When he was healthy Teixeira met them, resembled them, and stood toe to toe with them.

The next Yankee first baseman won't have an easy time meeting them. Teixeira didn't make it any easier. But when he was healthy he made baseball look like a genuinely simple game. Simple, and plain fun. What a surprise that the Yankees won't mind paying him the last couple of months of his contract. They could put a price on the athlete. They can't get anywhere near laying a price on the man.

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