Pondering burning out, fading away, or leaving on top

I’m a big fan of the FX cop drama The Shield. I’ve been watching regularly since a friend showed me the first ten episodes of the first season. After a stellar fourth season featuring Glenn Close, the fifth season, which started yesterday, has all the markings of the show’s final season. It’s longer than any other season, and the protagonist Vic Mackey may finally have to answer for his checkered past. It’s clearly being billed as the final showdown.

Interestingly, The Shield is also at its peak. The reviews this week for the new season were glowing, and the acting is fresh and intense. The story lines are still gripping, and the characters are better than ever. Nothing seems tired yet. For an industry that often insists on milking stale shows for all they’ve got until they are rotten, it’s refreshing to see a show’s creators decide they want to go out on top.

To paraphrase Neil Young (or is that Jack Black?), while The Shield isn’t exactly burning out, it sure ain’t fading away.

This baseball off-season, the free agent picture couldn’t be much different as a group of aging sluggers seem more intent on fading away than bowing out gracefully. Led by Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa, a group of nearly-definite first-ballot Hall of Famers haven’t yet come to grips with the march of age pushing ever onward.

Piazza, the former Met catcher, is the poster boy for this group. Piazza, who just turned 37, is one of the most prolific offensive catchers in the history of the game, but he’s fallen hard and fast this decade. In 2000, Piazza led the Mets back to the World Series for the first time in 14 years. In a five-game Series that was exciting for New Yorkers only, the Mets lost handily. But that year, Piazza had a season to remember.

For the Wild Card Mets, Piazza hit .324/.398/.614 with 38 home runs and 113 RBIs. He couldn’t quite capture the MVP, finishing third to Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds, and Piazza never matched those totals. In 2005, he finished as a shell of his former self. In just 113 games, he hit just .251/.326/.452 with 19 home runs and 62 RBIs. Never a great defensive catcher, he has become a liability behind the plate. The Mets, playing in the DH-less NL, opted not to re-up with Mike.

For all of the wear and tear Piazza has suffered through, he’s not ready to call it quits. While no one is knocking at his door, Piazza thinks he can still help out the right team as a Designated Hitter and back-up catcher. Slowly, the rumors have dried up though. Originally, the Twins, Orioles, Blue Jays and A’s were interested, but one-by-one, the suitors have stopped calling. The Angels have denied any interest.

Could Mike’s swan song really be with Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic? Just 3 home runs away from 400, Piazza would choose to keep going, but at what cost? Is it better for him to latch on with a directionless team for a few at-bats or just call it quits now? Hang up the spurs; sit back and wait for Cooperstown to come calling.

In the same boat is Sammy Sosa. Tarnished by a bad attitude, a foot injury and a shaky appearance before Congress last season, Sosa had his worst season since the first George Bush was president. Just four years removed from his 60-home run, 160-RBI campaign, the 36-year-old hit .220/.295/.376 with just 14 home runs and 45 RBIs. Like Piazza, Sosa is nearing a milestone; he is just 12 home runs away from becoming just the fifth player to hit 600 home runs.

He may have to get there as a member of the Washington Nationals, playing literally down the street from the scene of the infamous steroid hearings. While being on the Nationals is worse than being on, say, the Royals these days, Sosa’s stock has fallen so far that he will have to take an incentive-laden contract to play in an extreme pitcher’s park. If he duplicates last season’s success, he may not even reach 600 this year. Fade away or hang it up? That’s always the question.

Sosa and Piazza aren’t the only two trying to find a few more at-bats before succumbing to age. Frank Thomas, also 37 and coming off a 2005 lost to injury, may land in Oakland. Thomas has spent his entire 16-year career as a member of the Chicago White Sox, but he’s topped the 74-game plateau just twice in the last five years. Why tarnish a legacy for one more season in a different uniform?

Last but not least comes Rafael Palmeiro, waging finger, infected B12 shot, and all. Palmeiro gained fame by becoming the third member of the 3000-hit, 500-home run club. Then he became a member of the Steroid Club. After testifying that he never, ever used steroids, Major League Baseball found out that, well, maybe he wasn’t telling the truth. Palmeiro has yet to find a new home, but will anyone give the disgraced slugger the chance? He tried to throw a teammate of his under the bus, and his legacy comes now with a big black mark that may even shatter his Hall of Fame hopes. Palmeiro burned out last year. Now he’ll fade away this year.

So as the last few months of the Hot Stove League wind down and the last few episodes of The Shield carry me toward the start of baseball season, I’ll be witnessing two different sides of one coin. The Shield will go out on top, and fans will remember it for a long time. Meanwhile, Piazza, Sosa, Thomas, and Palmeiro will fade away, aging sluggers trying to recapture the glory days of their careers before facing the long, hard path toward retirement.

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