Today I want to talk about sports legends, and specifically their shelf lives and end dates. Last night, in Seattle, Félix Hernandez, one of the best pitchers the Mariners have ever had, made what is, in all probability, his last start in Seattle. His contract ends this year, so there is little chance he’ll be a Mariner again, and a non-zero chance that he’ll never play again, although he might catch on somewhere for a fraction of what he makes now.
His last couple seasons have been, to be charitable, un-Félix-like, to the point where it’s almost hard to remember the dominance of the only Mariner to ever throw a perfect game, the only Mariner other than Randy Johnson to win a Cy Young Award, and the owner of the best nickname - King Felix - in Mariner history. I don’t think anyone has a burning hatred of Felix at this point, but these last couple years have been rough, and it’s been really sad to watch all that talent just erode away and see the aura around Félix just disappear, turning him into basically every other struggling pitcher in the game today.
As a contrast, there’s another legendary athlete facing a similar decision just down the road, here in Portland. Diego Valeri, franchise and community icon, and arguably the best MLS-era Portland Timber not named Diego Chara, is currently at or near the end of his contract (the Timbers hold an option for 2020), and by all accounts, the negotiations about a new contract are...not going well.
Valeri is 33, and reportedly wants to be given MLS’ version of a max contract. He wants to retain his Designated Player status AND to be at or near the top of the Timbers’ payroll, which he feels is deserved given his contribution to the team since his arrival in 2013.
The thing is, from a playing and fanbase perspective, he’s not wrong. He has meant so much to this club and to the Timbers Army and Timber fans in general. He does a ton of volunteer work in the city, we’ve all watched his daughter grow up (and become more of a Thorns fan than a Timber fan) in front of us, and at some point he’ll probably get a statue outside Providence Park.
Even the most casual Valeri watcher can tell you he’s lost a step this year. He’s still insanely talented and still good for double-figure goals every season, but his ability to play 90 minutes a game at Diego Valeri levels is receding seemingly by the week. If he signs a three year DP-level contract this off season, the last year-plus of that contract could get ugly (from both a playing perspective and a fan-relationship perspective, as the playing declines) really, really fast, as he hurtles headlong down his decline phase at top speed.
If that happens, it could sour what has, up to this point, been an amazing, wonderful, deliriously fun relationship between an athlete and a city. And I don’t want that. I’d rather he leave now, if that’s what he wants, and let another team deal with managing the end of a career and its attendant decline in skills and playing time (actually, I’d rather he stay in Portland and become a 25 minute super sub, but he doesn’t seem interested in doing that).
So that’s my question for today: When is it best to let your sports icons go? Would you rather they stay with the team they made their name with until they have no more to give, or should they move somewhere else for their last few seasons, so another, not quite as attached fan base can deal with the inevitability of time being undefeated? Do you have a favorite athlete that held on a bit too long, and if so, did that last season or whatever stretch of time tarnish your perception of that player?