Nearly 19,000 men have played baseball in the major leagues. I've decided that their careers all had one thing in common: Not one of them had a final season as spectacular as the grand finale currently being crafted by a man named David Americo Ortiz Arias.
Willie Mays hit .211 the year he said goodbye. Hank Aaron batted .229. Harmon Killebrew hit .199. Goose Gossage had a 4.18 ERA. Robin Roberts went 5-8, 4.82. John Smoltz and Phil Niekro both had ERAs north of 6.00. And that's normal.
So keep that in mind as you watch Big Papi heading for the finish line. He leads the whole sport in slugging. He leads the whole sport in doubles (tied with Daniel Murphy). He leads the whole sport in OPS. And he's 40 years old. Seriously?
Which means it's time to begin actively debating a question I don't ask lightly: Is this the greatest "retirement season" in baseball history -- or even sports history? It just might be.
The answer is coming right up. But first -- while you, Sandy Koufax and John Elway think about that question -- I have another. It's a question I've been asking players over the last couple of months. It's one every great athlete in history has had to contemplate. And I asked it because it helps wrap some perspective around Ortiz's incredible season. It goes like this:
If you had the choice, which script would you write for yourself? Would you like to play as long as you could? Or would you like to go out like David Ortiz -- waving adios when you were still one of the best players alive?
I chuckle to myself every time I ask this question and players say, "Both." Because in real life, that ain't happening. They just don't know it yet.
I also smile when players say they want to be like Big Papi and exit when they're still great. Because they haven't grasped the truth: Almost nobody ever winds up doing that, either.
But there are some people in the game who get it. Like Josh Donaldson, for instance.
"Obviously, the whole movie script is to be able to go out on top, right?" the Blue Jays third baseman said earlier this summer. "I think that's the way we'd all like to do it. But ... I think it's probably one of the hardest things to do, because when you've been doing something as long as Big Papi has done it -- for him, Elway, Peyton [Manning], Tim Duncan -- the hardest thing to do is to let it go, because you've been so successful at it and it's what you've done for so long.
"But Father Time is undefeated," Donaldson said with a laugh. "And all of us, one day, are going to have to walk away."
Uh, I hate to break it to him, but that's not exactly how it usually works, either. Not for most people. Almost no athletes in any sport reach the point where they get to decide when to walk away. The game decides for them.
So as we contemplate the list of contenders for Greatest Final Season Ever, we need to remember that, OK? Hardly anyone on that list said, "Goodnight, everybody," voluntarily. Either their body wouldn't let them, or there was, well, some other reason. Here's my all-time ranking of baseball's top five finales. You'll see what I mean:
1. David Ortiz, 2016
2. Ted Williams, 1960
3. Sandy Koufax, 1966
4. Barry Bonds, 2007
5. Shoeless Joe Jackson, 1920
Koufax's throbbing elbow wouldn't let him pitch anymore, and medical science hadn't invented Sandy Koufax Surgery yet. Shoeless Joe got suspended for life in the Black Sox scandal. And you can decide for yourself what happened to Bonds, but for whatever reason, he went looking for a team that winter and couldn't find one.
So only Williams, at age 41, realized his body had reached the point where it was more suited for the aches-and-pains business than the hit-.400 business and retired of his own volition. Too bad he and Big Papi never got to swap retirement stories. Would have made for an awesome 30 for 30.
But how did we sift through those names (and others) and decide that David Ortiz deserved to be No. 1? Let's run through his credentials, which were gathered with the brilliant assistance of ESPN Stats & Info's Paul Hembekides and the Elias Sports Bureau:
• No player in history has led the major leagues in slugging or OPS in his final season (min. 400 PA). With less than three weeks to go, Ortiz leads in both.
• No player has ever led the entire sport in extra-base hits in his final season, either. Ortiz ranks first in that department, too (tied with Brian Dozier).
• No one since 1920 has even hit 40 doubles in his final season. Ortiz is on pace to hit 50.
• Only one player in history (Dave Kingman) has ever hit 30 home runs or more in his final season. Ortiz is on pace to hit 37. (Editor's note: Kingman hit 35 homers in 1986, but did it in a season in which he contributed so little else that his slash line was an ugly .210/.255/.431/.686. Ortiz is at .316/.403/.624/1.0284.)
• If Big Papi keeps mashing at his current rate and finishes with those 37 homers and 50 doubles, he would be the 12th player in history to reach both of those plateaus in a season. He's 40. All of the other 11 did it before they even turned 30.
• Add up all those extra-base hits and you'll find a man who is on pace to finish with 88 of them. Since 1921, know what the current "record" is for a player in his final season? Would you believe 62, by Kirby Puckett?
• And we haven't even gotten into all the stuff Ortiz has done at age 40 that no 40-year-old had ever done. But let's just hit you with this: No one else in history had ever had a 30-homer, 100-RBI season at age 40 or older. Ortiz reached those milestones back on Aug. 24 -- with nearly six weeks to go in the season.
So what we have here is a "Thanks for the Memories" season that's downright astonishing. Now how does it compare with the other four on our list? Thanks for asking. Here is why we rank it No. 1:
TED WILLIAMS, 1960: The argument for Williams at No. 1 is that he owns the greatest OPS (1.096) in a final season of any player who ever lived, and he probably deserves bonus points for lofting that poetic Fenway home run in the last at-bat of his career. But the argument against him is that he only got to the plate 390 times. Ortiz is on pace to pile up twice as many extra-base hits as Ted's 44.
SANDY KOUFAX, 1966: Want to contend that Koufax ought to rank above both Ortiz and Williams? You might be right. He is the only pitcher in history to win a Cy Young in his final season. He led both leagues in ERA (1.73), strikeouts (317), wins (27) and innings (323). And his 10.3 wins above replacement blows away Ortiz (currently at 4.4). What makes this tricky is trying to compare a 40-year-old position player -- and one doing things no 40-year-old has ever done -- with a 30-year-old pitcher whose accomplishments were not unprecedented for a 30-year-old pitcher. Should we give Ortiz extra credit for making an impact on close to 150 games (as opposed to the 41 Koufax pitched)? Should we deduct points from Koufax for being forced to retire when he was still in his prime, when Ortiz piled on another decade worth of production? I'm voting yes and yes. But if you think otherwise, I won't say you're wrong.
"At the end of the day, you want to leave the game in a way where you were still productive. He's leaving the game on a super, super high note. And that's amazing."Carlos Beltran on David Ortiz
BARRY BONDS, 2007: It's still kind of fascinating that Bonds basically got run out of baseball after a season in which he led the major leagues in OBP (.480) and walks (132), and he was still so feared he drew 43 intentional walks in just 126 games. That's the greatest on-base percentage any player has ever had in his final season (min. 400 PA). And his 1.045 OPS ranks first among all final seasons if you lower the eligibility bar to the 477 plate appearances he got that year. But you would have to be the president of the I Love Walks Fan Club to argue that Bonds was more productive that season (at age 42) than Ortiz has been this year. Let's go back to the extra-base-hit competition. Bonds that year: 42 extra-base hits. Ortiz already this season: 79. So sorry, Barry. You had a great year. But not this great.
JOE JACKSON, 1920: Boy, this man could hit. He led the American League in triples (20) in his final season. He fired out a cool .382/.444/.589/1.033 slash line. He ranks No. 1 among all position players in wins above replacement in a final season (7.6). But ... once again, I'm forced to subtract points here -- in this case for why this turned into his final season at age 32. Suspended for life. He might have been innocent. He might not have been so innocent. But I'm not Kevin Costner. So I don't have to go down that road.
OTHER CONTENDERS: We had a great group. Roberto Clemente. Jackie Robinson. Kirby Puckett. Mariano Rivera. Mike Mussina. Just to spin through the highlights. Excellent candidates. Just couldn't crack the top five.
OTHER SPORTS: There was the great Jim Brown in 1965. He led the NFL in rushing -- but then quit. At age 29. ... There was John Elway. The oldest Super Bowl MVP in history. Then he walked away at 38. ... There was Wilt Chamberlain. He led the league in rebounding and field-goal percentage and got his team to the NBA finals -- at age 36. ... There was Bill Russell. He is the only man ever to average more than 19 rebounds per game in his final season. And he did it for the NBA champs. But he retired after his age-34 season. ... Feel free to add the legendary names of your choice, from Tim Duncan to Patrick Roy to Peyton Manning. We'll always accept nominations. Just don't think we can rank them above David Ortiz's fond farewell. Our apologies to all those who think we've lost our minds.
It isn't merely his numbers, though, that Ortiz has going for him. It's that he knew his time had come, at age 40. And then put up those numbers, without ever wavering on his decision to stroll off into legendhood.
"We'd all love to do what he's doing, to call it on your own terms," said Carlos Beltran, one of just five active players besides Ortiz who reached the big leagues in the late, great 1990s. "But you've got to be realistic with yourself. You've got to know your body and what you think you have inside. And he felt like what he had inside was one more year."
This is Beltran's 18th full season in the major leagues. So as he mulls when to turn out the lights on his own career, he admires a man who had such a perfect feel for making the right decision at the right moment in time.
"At the end of the day, you want to leave the game in a way where you were still productive," Beltran said. "He's leaving the game on a super, super high note. And that's amazing."