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Staying or going: Athletes playing past their primes

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While the first part of the Astro-iest bracket is up and running, Craig Biggio is out to a big lead in his matchup against the Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn. We know Craig played his entire career in Houston, led the team to a 2005 World Series birth, and is a member of the 3,000 hit club. All are accolades worth weighing in your mind when determining if he should be the most Astro-iest Astro of all time.

He may be first in our hearts, but if we take a more objective look of Bidge's career, is he as good as our hearts make him out to be? What's more, did he/Astros management handle the end of his career the "right" way?

 

Craig's career can best be divided into two parts. The first being from 1988-1999. In those years, he was named an All Star four times, a Silver Slugger five times, and was top 20 in MVP voting five times as well. His 1998 season was perhaps the most impressive of all of his seasons, when Biggio compiled an impressive .325/.403/.503 line, with an OPS+ of 139. Oh yea- he was a 50 steal/50 double man as well (50 steals/51 doubles). If Craig had called it quits after the 1999 season, at age 33, he would have had himself an extremely productive career which would have ranked him as a probable top 10 second baseman all-time.

Thankfully, Craig went on to play another eight seasons. He was able to win his first postseason series, and play in his first and only World Series. While his skills diminished, the teams he played on were not lacking in talent, and as a result, the load atop Bidge's shoulders was lessened.

Gradually, it became apparent that age was catching up to our gritty lead-off man, and with it came a decline in production. In his final eight seasons, his OPS+ would top 100 only three times. He would steal more than 15 bases only once, after swiping 15 or more in 11 consecutive seasons from 1989-1999. What kept him interesting, for better or worse, was his quest for 3,000 hits, which he reached June 28, 2007, at home against the Colorado Rockies. It was an obvious career defining moment for Biggio, but it also stood as a bright spot in an otherwise dismal 2007 season for the Astros.

Professional athletes, for the most part, devote themselves entirely to their craft. They not only play through pain, but through every other emotional and physical malady that afflict us all in our day to day lives. Relationship problems, deaths or illness in the family, and self-doubt are as much a part of the athlete's psyche as is of any of ours. As a Packer fan, I remember watching Brett Favre slice and dice the hapless Raiders on Monday Night Football just days after the passing of Brett's father, Irvin. The game seemed to be a refuge of sorts for Favre, a safe place where his teammates acted as brothers, while the competition of a professional football game was a therapy session for the grieving quarterback. Moments after the game, his face bore the grimace of a man in pain.

I mention that anecdote to illustrate how professional athletes have many reasons for participating in any game, on any given night. Far be it for me to come out and say that a particular athlete should retire or leave the game the he or she loves. I will acknowledge that if an athlete hangs on too long, they can hurt their own statistics, but also the performance of their team.

I think that if a player is under contract, is physically able to play and is willing to devote 100% to the team, then play. It's up to the coaching staff to determine what type of situations a player is used in, and how much action he/she will see. When people clamored for Cecil Cooper to sit Craig Biggio more often down the stretch in 2007, I would think, "Is Chris Burke a better option?" I could see if the next Jackie Robinson was playing behind Craig, but the fact remained that there was nobody waiting in the wings.

The same goes for a lot of former greats playing in the twilight of their careers. When Thomas Jones criticized Brett Favre's play in their loss Sunday to Miami, he suggested that Favre should have been benched. The team was floundering, and a change at the helm was in order, at least in Jones' estimation. Would Kellen Clemens, a third year nobody, really have righted the ship? When times are tough it is the headliner that attracts the criticism. On the 2007 Astros, a struggling club with no farm system, Craig Biggio was criticized as well, in part, for sticking around a bit too long, if only to get 3,000 hits.

All of this leads me to wonder: Do professional athletes have an obligation to their team/organization to retire or ask, within reason, for a diminished role once they realize their skills are declining? Or do they owe the responsibility to themselves and their family to play as hard as they can for as long as their contract warrants, and let management/the coaching staff decide how best to use them?