Barry Bonds last night played his last game as a Giant in San Francisco and, apparently, his last as a Giant, period. There is no chance in hell, of course, that he'll get any sympathy from readers outside of the Bay Area, even though he's the all-time home run leader, with or without the asterisk. (More on that in Part II of this posting.) And Bonds probably doesn't deserve a lot of the sentimental musings a moment like this should invoke, since much of the bitterness he brought on himself over a long, contentious career.
Still ... he is one of the biggest names ever to take a major league baseball field and one of the significant figures in sports history. You'd think he'd be a candidate for something more of a farewell than a press conference a week earlier announcing that the team he defined for 15 years wasn't re-signing him for next season. Doesn't anybody get to retire from their sport anymore?
No, and they never really did.
In younger days, Dr. J's farewell tour was a huge deal; he had announced beforehand that his last season was coming up, and the NBA sent him out like royalty, with ceremonies in every city and gifts galore and ovations all over. A few years later, Kareem got the same treatment. Walter Payton got a similar NFL farewell tour, and everyone remembers him with his head in his hands on the bench at the end of the playoff game against the Redskins that signaled the end.
And that's about it for great farewells. A relative handful of other players, in all sports, get to do huge press conferences where they sit or stand at the mike and fight back tears and get hugs from the family and bouquets of praise from coaches and teammates.
The overwhelming majority, though, simply get kicked to the curb when their team, and their sport, are through with them. Or they limp or stagger to the curb because of injuries, huge ones or accumulated little ones.
Here's a partial list of names you might recognize, even revere: Babe Ruth (sold by the Yankees to the lousy Boston Braves, who cut him in midseason). Johnny Unitas (as we all know, traded to the Chargers). Jerry Rice (first cut for cap reasons by the 49ers, then buried at fifth receiver by the Broncos). Steve Young (too many concussions). Jerry West (contract dispute with the Lakers). Wilt Chamberlain (another contract squabble, signed by the ABA to coach, never played again). Hank Aaron (traded at his request to his original baseball home, Milwaukee, by a Braves team that was done with him after 715). Willie Mays (traded by the Giants, washed up on the Mets). Magic Johnson (HIV, then a bad decision of a comeback five years later highlighted by him shoving a ref). Michael Jordan (fired by Wizards owner Abe Pollin). Kirby Puckett (glaucoma). Sandy Koufax (prematurely blown-out arm). Barry Sanders (just got tired of it and walked away). Emmitt Smith (cut by the Cowboys, hung on too long with Arizona).
Those are just the ones off the top of my head, and they're the legends. The masses just get released, or their contracts run out, or they just disappear one day. Lots of glory while they're playing, but virtually none when it's over, at least until Hall of Fame time, if they're good enough. But overwhelmingly, their careers come to an end because teams don't want them around anymore, don't want to pay them, don't want to see them. For the most part, no one cares about them until they start making noise about their pensions and long-term health benefits, or lack thereof. That makes their graceless (and, by then, forgotten) exits even more painful.
Most fans couldn't care less about the cruel ends to the careers they worshiped and idolized so much during those players' primes. People have felt the same level of sympathy for beloved players as they surely will about Bonds' departure from the Giants, who he made unfathomably rich over 15 years, whose acquisition made the 11th-hour rescue of the team in 1992 worth the effort, and on whose back they built a gem of a ballpark.
He became unfathomably rich, too, so that's supposed to make things even when they say, "We've wrung all we can out of you, so beat it, take you and your records and the fans you brought in and scram.'' But believe it, if Bonds was still hitting 40 homers a year and had the knees he had a decade ago, and they thought he'd guarantee another season of sellouts at AT&T Park, this wouldn't be happening.
That's life in the big leagues. Every once in a while it should be recognized as the same cutthroat, bottom-line world we all live in, but usually there isn't time to reflect on that, not with better, younger and more fun players to glorify. So Barry Bonds gets to join his brethren on the scrap heap, and most people either have said or will say, "Good riddance, let's talk about the playoffs.''