On rare days we see the introduction of a brilliant prospect taking the field for the first time. Juan Soto’s electrifying coming out party on Monday was eagerly awaited albeit earlier than anticipated. Such great theater is the lifeblood of the sport. Baseball is always about anticipation. The next great thing is always seemingly just around the bend. There are other realities in play, however. The old Professor teaching Thermodynamics 101 invariably describes the so-called “Steady Flow Open System” with a simple phrase: “When a drop of water enters on one end another surely exits on the other.” As Soto’s career was launched to bright lights and loud cheering another baseball career surely faded-to-black quietly far from view.
Baseball players are part of a system. The 750 players on the Active Rosters of MLB teams represent the tip of the iceberg. There are 248 Minor League teams with a typical roster size of 20 per affiliate yielding somewhere near 5000 players. Below that are the development centers. The youngsters in the Dominican Republic at the Nationals’ facility celebrating Soto’s inaugural home run were part of the off-radar feeder system. Add in the College and High School draftees and the picture starts to emerge of salmon fighting upstream log-jammed at a weir gate. Some will winnow through. Only approximately 10-percent of the 1200+ annual draftees will ever wear a Major League uniform. But, then, someone has to leave the stream. It is easy to lose sight of a player in the continuous churn of roster shuffling. In the last week there have been a total 225 MLB roster transactions. The average across the teams is 7.5 transactions in a week…one a day.
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” — Dan Wilson
The number of Major League players retiring in any given year is roughly 350 based upon data from 2010 through 2014. The average MLB service for the 2014 retiree class was 5.75 years. Roughly 20-percent had ten or more years of service. Slightly over half of them had less than five years. Then there are the 14-percent who had one year or one partial year of service. The average length of service for the 2014 retiree class was 6.25 years. The median was 4 years. Life may come at you fast. But, a typical MLB career is life in hyper-drive.
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
When we think of players leaving the game we tend to remember the greats. There will be four players getting their numbers retired this year; Alan Trammell, Barry Bonds, Jack Morris , and the late Roy Halladay. Amid bunting and ceremony such occasions bring back wonderful memories. The other 99-percent of those who have left the game don’t receive such honors. For many the final moments of their career are spent in a manager’s office, typically in some third or fourth-tier town in a Single-A affiliate like Kannapolis, NC far from the bright lights. Some will meet the end while sitting across the desk from a grim-faced Orthopedic Doctor. Or they could simply depart at a season’s end only to wait for a phone call that never comes.
On the lowland islands of the Chesapeake Bay the Watermen make their living on the work boats. It provides a deck upon which to harvest the Bay’s riches. Wooden boats are like any machine; in time they wear out. For many years when a boat had reached the end of the line the islanders would remove the engine and anything of use. They would wait for a flood tide to come so they could take it far up into a gut of a marsh, drive in a painter pole, tie the old girl up tight, and then leave it to die. If you ever get a chance to fly over those vast marshes you will see their white outlines against the marsh grass. Their gunwales resemble an outline sketch filled with shallow mud. Over time they rot into the ooze becoming part of the soft, saturated land all the while shedding ragged, fist-sized flakes of long ago lovingly-applied paint. They stand alone in stillness while the Bay continues life around them in her timeless rhythm.
Juan Soto’s arrival is surely a cause for celebration. Somewhere, someone is simultaneously leaving the game without fanfare or attention. Left to rot in the tidal mud, a career goes slowly into the night with the game within sight, but out of reach. Such is the nature of the system.