It's so easy to compress a player's career -- his life -- into an easily digestible set of numbers to determine his value and thus what he meant to his teams. That's fair; baseball players, after all, are paid to help win ballgames. For Michael Cuddyer, this final perspective will focus on how the New York Mets foolishly gave a broken-down, aging player a two-year contract for too much money, costing the team a first-round pick in the process. That too, is fair: Critical analysis of the game comes with the territory.
Cuddyer predictably battled some injuries with the Mets in 2015. After hitting .331 with the Colorado Rockies in 2013 to win the batting title and then .332 in 49 games in 2014, he hit just .259 with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs in 408 plate appearances. Baseball-Reference.com tells us he was worth 0.5 WAR, barely above replacement level.
Those are the numbers.
The Mets reached the World Series, and after 15 years in the majors and his seventh trip to the postseason, Cuddyer finally got to play in the Fall Classic. He got into one game, batted three times, struck out three times. Those, too, are the numbers. But they shouldn't be Cuddyer's final legacy.
Cuddyer announced his retirement from the game on Saturday, foregoing the second year of his contract with the Mets, walking away from $12.5 million. Yes, he's made nearly $80 million in his career. Still, you try leaving $12.5 million on the table. For a player universally regarded as one of the best teammates in the sport, maybe it's not a surprise he'd walk away like this, knowing he no longer had his best to give his team.
On The Players Tribune website, Cuddyer wrote about his decision:
With one year left on my contract, it is especially difficult to imagine not suiting up in a Mets uniform for one more year. As an athlete, retiring is the toughest decision you have to make and I don't make it lightly. I've always run out every hit like it was my last. As an untested high school kid drafted with a dream, I've never taken a single moment in the Majors for granted. It goes against every grain in my body to consider a future without the game. But after 15 years, the toll on my body has finally caught up to me.
Baseball is a game of beautiful contradictions. It can be entertainingly fast and painfully slow. You sacrifice your personal and family life for the grind and the glory. Baseball is my life's passion, but at the same time I knew in some distant part of my heart that it wouldn't and couldn't last forever. Ever since I was a kid, my mantra has been, "Play hard, dream big." But I've always believed in loyalty to the game itself: the day that I can’t give it 100 percent is the day I have to walk away. Now that the day has come, it’s harder than I thought it would be.
The beat writers loved Cuddyer. I was fortunate enough to interview him a few times, once in spring training a couple of years ago when he was with the Rockies, and once at this year's World Series. He was thoughtful and enthusiastic in his answers, which, you can guess, is not always the case for baseball players. The season following his batting title, Tim Brown of Yahoo wrote a piece about how Cuddyer dealt with chasing that crown:
Thing is, the whole experience felt weird to him. It seemed so personal, so slightly imperfect, the chase for batting average points like a beautiful painting well framed and tacked to the wall but gnawingly, almost imperceptibly, crooked. He was a team guy, as much as the game allowed anyway. The team was done. And he was counting hits. Hell, everybody was counting his hits. And that wasn't him.
"It wasn't the best feeling in the world," he recalled.
How many baseball players open with that kind of honesty?
The Minnesota Twins made Cuddyer the ninth overall pick in the 1997, a shortstop from Great Bridge High School in Chesepeake, Virginia, an area of the country that has produced a lot of major league talent (Justin Upton also went to Great Bridge). He was a first-round pick, but his road to becoming a big league regular was slow: His first full season in the majors didn't come until 2004, when he was 25; his first season with 500 plate appearances didn't come until he was 27. He was part of several good Twins playoffs teams, driving in 109 runs in 2006, hitting 32 home runs in 2009. He had the batting title year with the Rockies, when he, mind you, hit .311 on the road.
Was he a great player? No, not in the superstar sense, but he was good enough to make two All-Star teams and play on all those playoff teams. Hey, he's also a magician and photographer.
Cuddyer wrote that in the past four years he's had a broken shoulder, a strained oblique, a torn-up knee and a bulging disc in his neck -- the physical and emotional taxation had become too much.
So he's leaving the game he loves, at least as a player. Twins fans and Rockies fans -- and maybe even Mets fans -- tip their caps.