On Wednesday, Prince Fielder announced that his playing career is over, the victim of two spinal fusions that have taxed his body to the point of breaking. This is sad. I don't know about you, but it made me sad, and it seems to have made Fielder and his family sad, too. Careers ending this quickly at this age is, luckily, not something we're used to.
Yes, Fielder is crazy rich, and he's made enough money in his playing career already to maintain a very comfortable standard of living for the rest of his life. While that might be a reason to change the system that prevents players from achieving that level of security until and unless they reach six years of playing time, it's not a reason to dismiss any feelings of sadness over Fielder's departure. Playing baseball is the only occupation he has ever had, and now he'll have to find meaning in something else entirely. And there's no one else to feel bad for in this situation; the Rangers almost certainly insured Fielder's contract, and this situation is exactly why insurance companies exist. There is plenty of room for genuine sadness about this announcement.
If this is the end for Fielder, it will be one of the most abrupt endings in history. From 2005 to 2016, his age-21 through age-32 seasons, Fielder was worth 26.8 fWAR and 215.6 batting runs over 6,853 plate appearances. Here's the list of players since integration with at least as much pre-32 WAR as Fielder and with no plate appearances from 33 on:
Fielder is entering a select club, if not one he would have chosen. He's the second-best hitter on the list, behind only Ralph Kiner, but also the worst defender, which is how he ends up at the bottom. He also had the most plate appearances, making his arguably the sharpest decline.
This is a list full of accumulated injuries taking their toll at an early age. Kiner retired after years of back pain, opting not to attempt surgery "doctors gave 50-50 odds" of fixing his back, according to his SABR bio. Al Rosen's retirement was hastened both by "normal" baseball injuries and a broken finger and back injury sustained after he was rear-ended. Gil McDougald was hit in the head with a ball during batting practice, before any kind of concussion protocols were in place, and went on to lose his hearing in both ears and retire a few years later. Similarly, in what the New York Times described as "a freakish injury," Butch Wynegar took a foul ball to the head in the on-deck circle during a game, and while he continued to play for some years after that, the Times article's description of "the storms raging inside [Wynegar]" in the seasons after his injury is chilling in retrospect. Thurman Munson is the tragic outlier on the list; rather than retiring, he died tragically in a plane crash during his age-32 season.
The list gets notably thinner the closer to the present you get. Edgardo Alfonzo last played in the majors in 2006, well within the modern era but still a decade ago. Grady Sizemore makes the list but doesn't exactly fit; he lost nearly all his value as a player in 2009 or 2010, but he continued to play for parts of four more seasons. He took the field less than a year ago (and could conceivably still return) but makes the list because his collapse happened when he was so young. (I was stunned to realize that Sizemore just celebrated his 34th birthday last week; his injuries caught up with him when he was only 27.) Of course, lingering is tragic in its own way, too, but it's not the same as a sudden disappearance.
Fielder is a throwback to an earlier time, when career-ending injuries happened regularly, even to players with a history of health and success. It can be easy to take things like modern medical care for granted, but it really has transformed baseball. Tommy John is the obvious example, and both concussion protocols and rules about sliding are things we can name and point to. Advancements in surgeries, rehabilitation, and injury prevention are a lot less concrete, and a lot easier to forget about as a result, but they're what minimize things like what happened to Fielder, and we should be grateful for that. Baseball is better with this:
Jamie Squire, Getty Images
and generally better when players get to play on their own terms and, eventually, leave on their own terms. David Ortiz is retiring this year too, and while it also is at least partially the result of injuries, it's bittersweet rather than just sad because he has (and we have) seen the end coming, anticipated it, and chosen the exact moment. Fielder's exit comes with none of that gradation and hits all the harder as a result.
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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.