As a professional athlete, it can be really difficult to stop doing something that you love. Plus when you are getting paid millions of dollars to do play a game, it makes it even harder to walk away. While some athletes pick the perfect time to walk away, others hold on way too long — even tarnishing their image by stinking it up for a few years. With that in mind, this article will take a look at 15 Major League Baseball stars that were on top of the world at one point, only to take some of the shine of their careers by refusing to retire when they probably should have. While many of these players are true Hall of Famers, they definitely hung on to the dream just a touch too long.
15. Tommy John
Back in his prime, Tommy John was an incredible pitcher. His career ERA was barely over 3.00 for the first 15 years of his Big League career and he was an annual Cy Young candidate from 1977 to 1980 (although he never actually won it). Unfortunately it took a major hit over his last few seasons. In fact, his ERA was only under 4.00 once in his final few seasons (and approached 6.00 in his last one), seasons which he should have never even played. He rarely posted a winning record at the end of his career and it was definitely a frustrating end to an otherwise solid lifetime of baseball (especially since he was still playing at the age of 46). He is more well-known these days for the then-revolutionary elbow surgery named after him, than for his playing career. That tells you something about how he is remembered.
14. Manny Ramirez
Seemingly every baseball fan has a strong opinion about Manny Ramirez. He was incredibly polarizing, not only for his incredible offensive skill, but also his many antics — both on and off the field. He had a ton of power and made great contact as a hitter when he played with both the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox. He was arguably the best hitter in baseball during the 2000s, making 12 All-Star teams and routinely finishing in the top ten of MVP voting. But it took a turn for the worst over his last few years, as he bounced around from the Dodgers to the White Sox and finished his MLB career with the Rays. He was approaching 40, and his power dropped and his other offensive stats plummeted too. He was never a great defensive player, so once his bat went cold, teams had no use for him any more. When he failed a PED test in 2011, it was clear he was done.
13. Jim O’Rourke
While Jim O’Rouke played long before everyone reading this was even alive, he definitely deserves a spot on this list. He played in the late 1800s and hit mostly for contact, but also hit more home runs than average, even before home runs were popular (for example, he led the league in 1874 and 1875 with five and six home runs, respectively). He played 23 seasons with a variety of different teams before retiring at the age of 42 in 1893. However, after 11 years off, O’Rourke decided to make a comeback at the age of 54 in 1904. That is the textbook definition of not knowing when to walk away from the league.
12. Ken Griffey Jr.
Ken Griffey Jr. might just be the most exciting player in the history of the game. Not only could he hit major bombs, but he was also incredibly athletic — he could steal bases and make amazing catches with the best of them. Add to that his enthusiasm for the game and he was a huge fan favourite during his time in the MLB. His seasons with the Mariners (and a few with the Reds) were incredible. However, the end of his career was plagued with injuries. Instead of listening to his body, he decided to continue playing, and ended his career with a couple truly awful years. In 2008 he hit .249 with just 18 home runs. In 2009, he sunk to a .214 average and managed just 83 hits all year.
11. Sammy Sosa
Sammy Sosa was among the premier home run hitters in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, Sosa hit 60+ homers three times in four years from 1998-2001, which is an incredible feat. However, his career began to decline quickly (maybe as a result of the increased scrutiny over PEDs?) and he lost a lot of his power over his last few seasons. He hit .221 and just 14 home runs in 2005 after signing with the Orioles, posting his lowest OPS since 1991. He also came back for a season in 2007 with the Rangers, amid a ton of controversy. He was a seven-time All-Star and the 1998 MVP, but his career was tarnished by allegations of steroids, being caught using a corked bat, and his dismal final few seasons in The Show.
10. Dave Winfield
Dave Winfield is arguably one of the best and most pure hitters of all-time in the MLB. He had a solid career average (.283), had over 3,000 hits, and even hit a whopping 465 home runs. He was great for several different teams during his early years and retired in 1996. However, he got his 3,000th hit in 1994 and many believe he should have retired then and there. His second last season was mediocre at best (.252, 10 home runs, just 74 hits), while his last one was downright awful — he hit .191 with just two home runs at the age of 43, only appearing in 46 games. He could have quit while he was ahead, but instead hung on too long.
9. Steve Carlton
Steve Carlton is without a doubt one of the best left-handed pitchers of all-time, with over 325 wins and well over 4,000 strikeouts. His career ERA was also a respectable 3.22 but could have been much less. Unfortunately, he stuck around far too long and tarnished his legacy in the eyes of some people. During his last four seasons, he couldn’t muster a winning record and posted ERAs of 5.10, 5.74, and 16.76, which is just awful for a starting pitcher. He pitched until the age of 43, but should have simply left when he hit the big four-oh. His career averages would be much more impressive.
8. Pete Rose
While the infamous Pete Rose is mostly known for being banned from baseball forever for betting on games, he was also a pretty incredible player on the diamond. He played for 24 years in the big leagues, mostly with the Reds, with stops on Philly and Montreal along the way. He retired as the all-time hits leader at 4,256, and he hit for a career average of .303. If that sounds fairly low for a guy like Rose, it is because he didn’t know when to quit. His numbers plummeted during his last few seasons (.264 in 1985 and .219 in 1986, for example), before he returned to the league as a manager and irreparably damaged his legacy by betting on baseball.
7. Rickey Henderson
While Rickey Henderson was an absolutely incredible player for most of career, he definitely stuck around for far too long. He was one of the best athletes the MLB has ever seen and was known for his base-stealing ability and his skills as the prototypical leadoff hitter. He was a ten-time All-Star and won the AL MVP in 1990, but instead of leaving once his skills started to diminish around in the late 90s, Henderson played another half decade for a grand total of 25 years in the league. Near the end of his career, playing into his 40s, he wasn’t capable of hitting for a solid average (.233, .227, .223, and .208 in his last four) or stealing bases (72 in his final four seasons, compared to when he used to steal over 100 every single season. He hung on long enough to become the all-time leader in both runs scored and stolen bases, and definitely earned his spot in the Hall of Fame. Even if those final seasons with the Dodgers, Red Sox, Padres, Mariners, and Mets were pretty damn forgettable.
6. Greg Maddux
While the start of his career was full of struggle, once Greg Maddux came into his own and entered his prime, he was nearly unstoppable as a pitcher. Included in this “prime” was a streak of 17 straight seasons with 15 wins of more. He won four ERA titles and four straight Cy Young awards. He was always known for his incredible control of the ball, but as he got older, that started to decline. In 2004, a worse streak started as his ERA crept above 4.00 and stayed there until he eventually retired at age 42. His strikeout numbers declined each year too, as he finished out his career with Cubs, Dodgers, and Padres.
5. Jose Bautista
Just a few seasons ago, Jose Bautista was one of the best hitters in the league, regularly hitting over 30+ home runs with a solid average and slugging percentage. He was even known for gunning down runners with a strong arm right field. After a slow start to his career, he quickly became one of the best power hitters in the league with the Toronto Blue Jays and was the face of the team for close to a decade. However, it all went downhill after that famous bat flip in the 2015 playoffs. Age and injury quickly caught up to him in a bad way, as he hit just .234 with 22 home runs in 2016 and a dreadful .203 in 2017 — a season where he was statistically the worst right fielder in all of baseball. Bautista became a free agent after the 2017 season, but there doesn’t appear to be much interest in a 36-year-old guy whose best days are behind him. He’s not officially retired, but we doubt he’ll find another Big League job.
4. Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez is a legend of the game and played incredibly well for multiple teams throughout his illustrious career. He was not only capable of hitting for a very high average, but also getting a ton of homers and RBIs. He was a great all-around player and enjoyed success for much of his MLB career, including being a 14-time All-Star and winning three MVP titles. However, by the time he reached his mid-to-late 30s, A-Rod had lost a lot of his power and contact. By the last three years of his career, he was pretty awful — especially his last season, where he exclusively played DH for the Yankees and hit just .200 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs (while still making $20+ million). That’s not even mentioning that he sat out the entire 2014 season due to a steroids-related suspension, further tarnishing his legacy. He’s been a pretty decent member of the FOX and ESPN broadcast teams since he retired though, so at least he’s got that going for him still.
3. Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan is one of the best pitchers ever, but it’s to argue against the fact that he stuck around in the league for a few seasons too many. He played in the MLB for 27 years, until he was 46 years old. As you could imagine, his aging led to a dramatic decline in his skills over the years. Ryan was known for everything from his strikeouts, to his wins, to even complete games and his record even no-hitters. However, those numbers all fell in his final few seasons. He picked up just five wins in each of his final two seasons, saw his ERA balloon up to 4.00 (and above), and his legendary strikeout numbers dwindled. He could have easily retired a few years earlier and no one would have really faulted him for it. Nolan was one of the few athletes who stayed great around the ages of 38-to-42, but those few extra years until he finally retired were tough to watch.
2. Albert Pujols
While he is still an active player in 2018, Albert Pujols is a shell of his former self. He used to hit almost a guaranteed 30 homers a year, and also post a very high average. In fact, he was one of the most feared hitters in baseball from 2002 to 2010. However, as soon as he signed that massive ten-year deal with the Angels, he began to slowly decline. He had some good years in L.A. early on, but his best times are certainly behind him. As he approaches 40, injuries are catching up to him. He’s terrible slow these days and is a defensive liability on the field, limiting him to playing DH. In 2017 he hit just .241 with 23 home runs, while earning a ridiculous $26 million. Even worse is that the Angels are committed to paying him another $114 million until the end of the 2021 season. For that kind of money, expect Pujols to limp around the diamond doing the best he can — which isn’t very good, these days.
1. Julio Franco
While Julio Franco was never a superstar like some guys on this article were, he did manage to last in the league for over two decades — from his debut in 1982 to his retirement in 2007. Sure, he was a near .300 hitter in his career, but never did much else to wow people. His durability started to fail in the mid-1990s, over a decade before he actually retired. Over the last ten years of his career, he hardly played a full season and his batting average just kept getting lower and lower (.222 in his final season). He became the oldest positional player in MLB history when he played until he was 48-years-old. What were the Atlanta Braves thinking when they kept this old guy around for so long?