From Ted Williams to David Ortiz, these entertainers capped their careers with a flourish
By David Crawford Jones
Last fall, when David Ortiz chose the occasion of his 40th birthday to announce that he would retire after the 2016 season, the storyline seemed set for a grand farewell tour. Like many beloved players before him, Big Papi would give one last demonstration of the power and personality that had made him one of the game's most compelling figures, before making a gentle descent into retirement and baseball immortality.
But the script for the storied slugger's goodbye took an unexpected turn, as the world struggled to reconcile his performance -- Big Papi entered his final All-Star Game leading the league in OPS and ultimately finished the season with the top mark at 1.021 -- with the thought that it would all soon be over. "He can't retire with those numbers," insisted Mike Trout, who ranked just behind Ortiz with a .991 OPS. "He's coming back for sure."
Yet citing the constant pain in his feet, Ortiz insisted it was his last hurrah. Thanks to his Herculean effort, the Red Sox icon will join an exclusive club of players who managed to leave the game on a final gust of greatness. Here are our picks for the 10 best final seasons in baseball history.
Roberto Clemente, 1972
Clemente's last season, the most tragic of farewells, was memorably capped by his 3,000th and final Major League hit. By then, The Great One had already proven that he had plenty more to offer the game he so deeply loved, as he finished with a .312 average -- the 12th time he surpassed the .300 mark in his last 13 seasons -- while guiding Pittsburgh to its third straight division title. Following Clemente's death after his plane went down in the Atlantic Ocean on its way to a relief mission to Nicaragua, the baseball world mourned his untimely passing by holding a special election to bypass the five-year waiting period and induct him into the Hall of Fame in 1973.
Mariano Rivera, 2013
During his 19 seasons, Rivera rewrote the record books with a cut fastball that opponents never learned to hit, even though it was essentially the only pitch he ever threw. During a farewell tour in which almost every MLB team showered him with gifts, Rivera -- one of the most respected figures in baseball history, beloved for his preternatural calm and grace in both victory and defeat -- provided one last glimpse of his greatness. The 43-year-old saved 44 games and posted a 2.11 ERA, which lowered his career mark to 2.21, the best by any pitcher in the last century.
Will Clark, 2000
One of the most intense competitors of his generation, Clark was arguably the game's best hitter during his prime with the San Francisco Giants. Slowed by injuries after moving to the American League, though, Baltimore dealt Clark to St. Louis for a pittance at the 2000 trade deadline. For two months, the 36-year-old recaptured the glory of his youth, smacking 12 home runs while batting .345 as he led the Cardinals to a division crown. Yet to the surprise of many, Clark abruptly retired at season's end. "I can still play," he said, "But … this is the right time for me to exit."
Billy Wagner, 2010
One of the most underrated closers in baseball history, Wagner rode a high-90s fastball to 422 career saves and the best strikeout rate ever by a relief pitcher (11.9 K/9). But in May 2010, less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery, the 38-year-old southpaw announced his plans to retire at the end of the season. "I'd like to go out when I feel halfway decent and am not laboring to get through seasons," Wagner explained. The Virginia native was a good deal better than that in his farewell campaign, leading a dominant Atlanta Braves bullpen with 37 saves, a 1.43 ERA and 104 strikeouts, while making his seventh All-Star team and helping the Braves reach the playoffs.
Mike Mussina, 2008
Throughout a masterful 18-year career, Mussina nonetheless gained the nickname "Mr. Almost" thanks to his penchant for falling just short of some of the game's biggest accomplishments. Most incredibly, despite accumulating 250 wins in his first 17 seasons, Mussina had never enjoyed a 20-win campaign. All that changed, though, in Mussina's last season, as the 39-year-old right-hander used craft and guile to go 20-9 while posting his best ERA since 2001, a 3.37 mark. After notching the magical 20th win in his final start, Mussina hung up his spikes. "It was like the last year of high school," he said at the time. You know it's going to end, and you just enjoy the ride."
Barry Bonds, 2007
Dogged by controversy and battling the ailments that beset 43-year-olds, athlete or not, Bonds put the capstone on his peerless career with a campaign that once again demonstrated his mastery of the art of hitting. Although his final season is probably best remembered for his 28 home runs -- which by August had given Bonds the all-time home run crown -- what was most impressive about his showing was the laser-like precision with which he attacked the strike zone. The Giants' elder statesman displayed unfathomable patience as he led the league in walks (132) for the 12th time in 22 seasons. His .480 OBP also raised his lifetime mark to .444, the best by any player since Ted Williams had retired 47 years earlier.
Ted Williams, 1960
Like Bonds after him, Williams parlayed his obsessive approach to hitting into a late career renaissance. Ironically, Williams began his landmark 1960 season by insisting on a 30 percent pay cut for his poor showing in 1959, when he had hit just .254. After the '60 campaign, in which he smashed 29 home runs, batted .316 and slugged .645 -- the best by any hitter in his final campaign -- Williams ought to have demanded a bonus. Instead he retired to a life of fishing, but not before he left the baseball world with one final gift: a home run in his last ever at-bat.
David Ortiz, 2016
During his final foray around the Majors, Ortiz elevated his performance beyond the realm of spectacular and into legendary. Before the 2016 season even came to an end, Papi set the records for the most extra-base hits and RBI by a retiring player -- he had far surpassed Albert Belle in the latter mark with 127 -- and also topped Dave Kingman's record for home runs with 38, his highest total since 2006. Both the numbers and the awe-inspiring reception he received as he toured MLB's ballparks one last time were a testament to his unchallenged status as the game's most feared hitter.
Joe Jackson, 1920
1920 was a pivotal year in baseball history, as Babe Ruth demolished the single-season home run record with 54 blasts, bringing the deadball era to an abrupt end. If any hitter could have challenged Ruth's claim to being the greatest in the sport, it was the man whose swing the Bambino emulated: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who batted .382 with 74 extra-base hits that summer. But the shadow of the Black Sox scandal loomed on the horizon, and during the last week of the season, Jackson's brilliant career came to a sudden end with the revelation that he had accepted money from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series.
Sandy Koufax, 1966
In 1966, Koufax turned in one of the greatest pitching seasons ever, leading the league in wins (27), ERA (1.73) and strikeouts (317). The delivery that produced such dominance was pure poetry, but the price it exacted on the 30-year-old's left arm was unending pain, as his arthritic elbow swelled grotesquely after each start. At season's end, Koufax stunned the baseball world by announcing his retirement. "I have taken too many pills and too many shots," he admitted. Fearful of permanently damaging his body, Koufax walked away at the very peak of his powers, a noble exemplar of both the agony and sacrifice that define any athletic endeavor.
This article appears in the MLB Official World Series Program. To purchase a copy, visit mlbshop.com.
David Crawford Jones is a freelance writer based in Ohio. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.