In light of Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccanneers’ early-season struggles, Boston Red Sox fans – many of whom are Brady fans as well – should count themselves lucky that their own franchise great, David Ortiz, chose a different path.
The obvious disclaimer is that football and baseball are vastly different. The reason for comparison and reflection is that these are two New England legends who made different choices as they neared the tail end of their respective careers. This also isn’t about championships or playoff glory; both players have more of that than almost anyone. The Sox losing the 2016 ALDS didn’t change or detract from what Ortiz accomplished in his final season, and Brady will be a Hall of Famer regardless of what the Bucs do before he retires.
In 2016, Ortiz announced that he’d retire at the end of the year. He then proceeded to have one of the greatest final seasons by any player in MLB history. Over 151 games – the most he’d played since 2006 – he hit .315/.401/.620. He led MLB in slugging percentage, OPS (1.021), doubles (48), and led the American League with 127 RBI and 15 intentional walks, because even at 40 years old, no pitcher wanted to face him. Beginning with a home run on Opening Day, he hit 38, his highest season total since 2006. He even stole two bases after not swiping a single bag since 2013. By year’s end, he was an All-Star for the 10th time with a seventh Silver Slugger to add to his trophy case. He finished sixth in MVP voting.
Unsurprisingly, no one believed that he was actually retiring. Even when every team the Sox visited paid tribute to him with some kind of gift, and the Red Sox held a pregame ceremony on the final day of the regular season and announced they would retire his #34 the following summer and that a bridge and street by the ballpark would bear his name, there was no way he’d walk away when he was still Big Papi.
But he did. And several times since, he’s been asked why. His answer is that his body could no longer perform to the standard he needed to be the player that he’d been for Boston. He’d dealt with Achilles issues since 2012, and admitted that it took him so much longer to warm up for games that he’d show up to the ballpark at 11:30 for a 7 PM game. So, he decided to ‘go all in’ for one last season.
Saying goodbye to Ortiz – though we now know that he’d end up employed by the organization less than a year later and be around more often than not – was incredibly painful. He’d been the catalyst of impossible postseason glory and a hero to the region after a time of horrific trauma. Whenever we needed him, he was always there, so it was terrifying to picture life without him.
It would have been so much worse for him to stick around and end his career on a low note, though. To watch him swing and miss at pitches he would’ve sent into the bullpen in his heyday. To watch him hobble around the bases because his mind was willing but his body could no longer follow through.
Brady’s situation is different. Last winter, he announced that he was retiring from the NFL after a legendary career with the New England Patriots and Bucs. His list of career achievements, awards, and records is longer than a CVS receipt; among them, seven Super Bowls championships.
Barely a month later, he reversed course and announced that he’d be back with the Bucs in 2022, making him the oldest starting QB in NFL history. It hasn’t been pretty so far, though. The Bucs are 3-4, and while much of that isn’t Brady’s fault, it’s also making people question why he bothered coming back. He’s largely healthy, especially by football standards, but he’s also 45 years old, and with what it seems to be costing him in his personal life, many think it’s not worth it.
To be clear: there’s absolutely no shame in not wanting to walk away. Athletes work their entire lives to get to the pros, and if they get there, they strive to succeed at the highest level for as long as possible. Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game; it’s no wonder he doesn’t want that to end. But it’s unfortunate that it’s playing out like this right now.
On September 28, 1960, Ted Williams played the final game of his 21-year career, all of which had been spent in a Red Sox uniform. He’d played through injury in 1959, but wasn’t happy with his numbers or the fact that the brass had encouraged him to hang it up. So, he returned for the 1960 season to prove them wrong, and on that fateful day at an almost-empty Fenway, he stepped up to bat on last time and sent a baseball soaring into the bullpen for his 29th home run of the season. That’s how he left things.
As Kenny Rogers would say, know when to hold, know when to fold.