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Fading Stars: The Last Go-Around for Some Future Hall of Famers

September 13, 1987|JIM DONAGHY | Associated Press International

Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro and Pete Rose have already left the stage. Others like Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton and Graig Nettles are making their final bows, and not always to a standing ovation.

All are probably headed for baseball's Hall of Fame, but the start of their journey into immortality has not been paved with a red carpet.

When they make that final strikeout, or hit a last home run, some of the game's greatest stars may have to ask: Is that all there is?

Among the players quietly fading from the baseball scene are four 300-game winners, the sixth leading home run hitter of all time and the man who had more hits than anyone who ever played the game.

In many cases, the players are leaving against their will. In some cases, the players haven't yet admitted that the end is here.

Seaver retired from baseball on June 22 after a 20-year career with the New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox.

But he will always be remembered in a Mets uniform as the man who turned a lovable loser into a formidable force.

At the age of 42 and coming off knee surgery, he answered the Mets' call for help when their pitching staff was decimated by injuries earlier this season.

"I had the opportunity to see if there were another three months or another 15 games left in my arm," Seaver said. "There were no more pitches there. I used them all up."

Seaver's career ended in a simulated game on June 20 before a smattering of fans at Shea Stadium.

About the time Seaver was traded by the Mets to Cincinnati, Reggie Jackson came to New York and owned the town for five years.

When Jackson signed as a free agent with the Yankees in 1977, he brought with him five years of pennant fever, candy bars and champagne.

In his first year in pinstripes, Jackson hit 32 homers and drove in 110 runs to help New York win its first World Series since 1962. In Game 6 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he hit three long home runs to wrap up the Series.

Jackson, who always stirred cheers and controversy at Yankee Stadium, however, made a quiet exit in what could have been his final regular-season visit to the ballpark on Sept. 2 as a member of the Oakland Athletics.

The only acknowledgement of Jackson was a simple introduction by public address announcer Bob Sheppard as Jackson brought out the A's lineup at game time.

Jackson, who could not play in the game because of a leg injury, got a polite ovation, nothing more.

"I didn't come here thinking, 'What is George (owner Steinbrenner) going to do for me?' Jackson said. "No one owes me anything."

"It'd be nice if they could have drawn 35,000 a night and chant 'Reg-gie, Reg-gie.' That would be enough. What else do I need? A parade, horses, a big ceremony? That would be nice, but what can I do?"

Jackson, 41, is finishing one of his most frustrating seasons. He is batting .209 with 15 home runs and 40 runs batted in, and has gone through several strikeout streaks. He ranks sixth on the all-time home run list with 563, including 144 with the Yankees. The 14-time All-Star was being platooned as a left-handed designated hitter until his injury.

If Jackson decides to retire at the end of the season he will finish with 21 years in baseball, 11 American League playoffs and five World Series appearances.

Phil Niekro would have gladly settled for one Series.

Niekro, who won 318 games, was in the National League playoffs twice with Atlanta. He signed as a free agent with the Yankees in 1984 but didn't make it there. The 48-year-old Niekro started the season with Cleveland and took one last shot at a championship when he was traded to Toronto last month.

But he was hit hard and released when the Blue Jays acquired Mike Flanagan.

Niekro packed his bags and went back home to Georgia.

"I'll be in uniform somewhere next year, somehow, in some capacity," Niekro said. "I'm not going to walk away from the game completely. If it's not active playing, it'll be something. I would like to manage."

Saying goodby is hard, accepting it even harder.

Carlton, a consistent 20-game winner with Philadelphia in the 1970s and early 80s, has been with five teams in the last two years.

"Life is a series of constant adjustments," said Carlton, who has 329 career victories.

"We like to travel. We're like Gypsies," he said. "I would like to settle down with a team for a few more years. It is tough traveling and it wears you down some."

Other stars who are heading into the autumn of their careers include Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Scott McGregor, Don Baylor, Bill Madlock, Cecil Cooper, Dave Concepcion, Jose Cruz, Ted Simmons, Davey Lopes and Rich Gossage. Ron Cey started the season with Oakland and was released.

While Rose never really made it official, it's all but certain baseball's all-time hit leader has run out his last walk. Not that he likes it.

"As a player-manager I was involved more," Rose said. "I was always into the game as a player. After a game, I could tell you what happened on every pitch. On the bench, sometimes you can think too much and not just react."

For Rose, and all the others, it's hard to leave the money, the attention and the fun.

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