When Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax retired in 1966, he was only 30 years old and at the height of his powers. For five straight seasons, he had posted an ERA of 2.54 or lower -- three of those years his ERA was under 2.00 -- and Koufax was on a run of six straight All-Star appearances. Very few pitchers can claim as successful a run of seasons as Koufax had from 1961-1966.
Naturally, the puzzling thing back then was why someone would walk away from their profession right as they were in the midst of dominating it. What we understand better now is that his pitching elbow was in bad shape. Arthritis was making it very painful for him to pitch, and he was told that if he kept going, eventually he might lose the ability to use his left hand.
So even though he probably could have gone a few more seasons, made more money and earned greater fame, Koufax decided he was done. He had a lifetime to consider, not just his baseball career, and he chose to retire while he still had full use of his left arm.
Right now, as players are reporting to their summer camps at their home ballparks to attempt to begin the truncated 2020 season, some of them are weighing whether they should risk their health because of COVID-19 or opt out of the season and stay home. The league has granted them the right to do that, though for the majority of them that means going without pay.
Several players have already made that choice, including Ian Desmond (read his Instagram post on why), and some are still making up their minds. The biggest name in that group is Angels outfielder Mike Trout. He's unsure whether he'll play because he doesn't want to put his pregnant wife at risk.
Like Koufax, Trout is at the top of baseball right now. He is, without question, the best outfielder in the game and arguably the best all-around player at the moment, and he is regularly mentioned alongside legendary names like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
If Trout does decide not to play this season, it will be hard for some fans to accept. Sports put us in a weird place sometimes, where it can be easy to forget the humanity of the guys in uniforms. We have to battle a little with our own selfishness.
I want Trout to play because he's the best in the game, and I want a few more chances to see him do something great. He'll turn 29 next month, and conventional baseball wisdom will tell you that his productivity his bound to drop in the years ahead. If Trout does decide to sit out this year, there will be a range of reactions from fans, but at one end of that range of reactions there will be a lot of selfishness. Trout will get hate on his social media and fans will lament what his lost season cost them.
It's easy to accept the retirement of a favorite player when it happens like Ichiro or David Ortiz. Someone who has put together a long and accomplished career deciding it's time to hang 'em up. Undoubtedly, many Dodgers fans in 1966 must have looked at the numbers Koufax was putting up and struggled to understand why he was calling it quits so young. Not everyone reacted well.
Even if Trout doesn't play this year, he'll be back. He won't be stepping away for good like Koufax did. But something will have been lost. Who knows what he might have accomplished personally or whether he could have helped bring the Angels back to the postseason for the first time since 2014.
For Trout -- and a growing list of other players -- their choices about this year reflect the recognition that something bigger is going on than a single season. Several have opted out already, and it's likely that more will as the start of the season gets closer.
But the reality is that there are often times when we are forced, like it or not, to set aside our personal desires for how things will happen and accept when something much more important is going on. It's good to be reminded that these guys are human beings with concerns that go beyond their baseball careers. Koufax didn't want to keep pitching because he wanted to be able to retain full use of his left arm as he got older. Trout might not want to play this year because he doesn't want to risk his wife or newborn child to get sick. This is one of those times.