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Mar 28 2000: Comeback Dreams

Tom Pagnozzi announced his retirement today. About a week ago Tim Raines did the same. You may not know who both these guys are, but their stories are similar.

Both were players who were sidelined by injury or illness last year (Raines by the immune system disease lupus, Pagnozzi by a shoulder injury that required surgery). Both were experienced veterans who have made significant contributions to teams. Both were invited to spring training with the New York Yankees, baseball’s current World Champions, and one of the teams that many guys dream of playing for. (Carl Everett, now with the Yankee rival Red Sox, was almost a Yankee at the start of his career, and has harbored sour grapes about it ever since.)

Both Pagnozzi and Raines came into camp with something to prove, both to themselves and to Yankee manager Joe Torre, namely, that they could still play. Raines had played for the Yanks before, a couple of years back, and Pagnozzi had played for Torre before, six years with the Cardinals. Joe gave them a chance to play again, and play both did, though not well enough to make it onto a team well-stocked with veterans.

Raines had originally said, weeks ago, that he would play in the minors until he could make it back to the big leagues, but chose to retire before being “sent down,” once he realized he had proved his point. Pagnozzi hung in until the last out, as it were, and after being cut from the major league roster today, he announced his retirement as well.

Two guys, almost the same story: the almost-comeback.

We, as fans, love comeback stories. Even we Yankee fans love rooting for the underdog. Isn’t every sports movie, in some measure, the story of the come from behind victory or the lovable losers who finally get it together? From the “Bad News Bears” to Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master”, we want to root for the little guy to make it. It’s inherent in sports and the drama of sports. It’s the best reason to root for the Mets or Red Sox.

But as with the Mets and Sox so often, in the end there’s heartbreak.

Although, for Raines, his retirement was not a tearful affair. He proved what he had meant to prove, that he could beat his disease, and get back into shape. He said he felt the “alarm clock” ring, though, telling him his time was over. It was a nice dream, but it was time to wake up. Raines wakes up to a reality of a son in the minor leagues, and a loving family he’ll get to spend more time with. And maybe someday he’ll be back with the Yanks as a coach.

What went through Pagnozzi’s mind when he found out his one shot at making it back into the majors was with the Yankees? I don’t know squat about Tom Pagnozzi, but I am completely ready to cast him as a wholesome, hard-working guy, who was suddenly handed a chance at a dream. Did he imagine himself being in the on-field pile up when the Yanks win the ALCS? Did he wonder if he might someday wear a World Series ring?

Apparently, he did. I just checked the AP Wire, which carried the following quote: “This is it for me,” Pagnozzi said. “The whole thing was to come and try to get a world championship ring. You’d like to go out on better terms–spraying people with champagne–it just didn’t work out. I saw it coming and fully expected it.”

And so ends Tom Pagnozzi’s tantalizing brush with Yankee greatness, with his own comeback story, with what-could-have-been. According to AP, he’ll go back to Arizona, where he has season tickets for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

I guess it’s important that we have our failed comebacks as well as our genuine rise-from-the-ashes stories. I shouldn’t use the word “failed,” because these guys are heroes, who battled back, and although they missed out on the Hollywood ending, they did achieve something. But every story can’t turn out with champagne and fireworks. We need a little heartbreak to raise the stakes, so when the next one comes along, we’ll once again be on the edge of our seats, holding our breath, wondering if the guy (or the team) we’re pulling for is going to make it.

And sometimes, they will.

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