Mark Buehrle(notes) survives in the major leagues with an 85-mph fastball and drives a truck that scares little children and is about as concerned with his physique as a plumber. He comes from a tiny town in Missouri and might be a better hunter than pitcher and signed as a 38th-round draft choice.
As atypical as the path Buehrle took to major-league success, his exit could defy convention even more.
Buehrle is ready to walk away from baseball. Not now, in the midst of perhaps the best season of his 10-year career with the Chicago White Sox, one rewarded this week with his fourth All-Star selection. Buehrle wants to finish his current contract in 2011, head back to his 1,200-acre ranch in Bowling Green, Mo., and pass up a shot at 300 victories and untold millions of dollars by retiring at 32.
"Everybody in here is calling B.S. on it," Buehrle said. "And it could be. Those two years could fly by and I could say I'm not ready to retire. But today? I don't see myself playing past this contract."
When the Chicago Tribune first reported Buehrle's plan during spring training, it seemed a perfect collaboration of timing and emotion. Buehrle's wife was two weeks from giving birth to their second child, and homesickness gripped him. Then he thought more about retiring and it made sense. He’s won a World Series. He’s started an All-Star game. He'll have made $84 million, and anyway, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said, "Buehrle has the same meal money from when he was playing in Double-A."
"I don't blame him," Guillen said. "This job is not easy. I think he wants to see his kids growing up."
Buehrle talks often of his two-year-old son, Braden, and four-month-old daughter, Brooklyn. He'll be in Detroit for Braden's birthday later this month and back in Arizona for spring training when Brooklyn turns one. Those days hurt more than a left arm with nearly 2,000 innings of wear, the only one in the major leagues to slave through 200-plus innings each of the last eight seasons.
This year should make nine. Buehrle eclipsed 100 in his last start, a brilliant 8 1/3-inning lockdown of the Kansas City Royals, and the White Sox will shoehorn him in for two more outings before the All-Star break, beginning with tonight’s start against the Cleveland Indians. His numbers are as good as ever: a 3.09 earned-run average that ranks sixth in the American League (and upped his career ERA to 23 percent better than league average), eight wins (giving him 130) and 24 walks (which is typically penurious).
However long Buehrle's shot at 300 wins, it is feasible thanks to a pair of inherent traits: an ability to succeed at diminished velocities and a left arm that typically portends longer careers. Buehrle tries not to delude himself with such grandeur, though it's difficult to ignore. At 30, Randy Johnson(notes) had 81 wins and Gaylord Perry 95. Buehrle's closest comparable in the 300-win club, Tom Glavine(notes), finished his age-30 season with 139 victories, which is about where Buehrle will land after this year.
Of course, there is the matter of playing another decade beyond that.
That's a big if.
"If I do, it will be in either Chicago or St. Louis," Buehrle said. "When I signed back here, people told me I could've got more money playing for the Yankees or Red Sox. The only way I'll be a Yankee is if I get traded over there, because I will not sign a free-agent deal. What ruined me was that my first time in New York was on 9/11, and every time I go there I'm scared.
"I could've gone somewhere else and gotten more money. What, is $14 million a year not enough? I need to go somewhere and get a couple extra million? I'm happy with the deal they gave me and happy to be in Chicago. I'm not going to go there for a few extra million and be miserable for four years."
Each of Buehrle's perspectives, more refreshing than the last, comes from the same place: All of this – the adulation and the money and the perks – is gravy.
He wanted to be a cop. Or a firefighter. Some kind of civil servant. Baseball wasn't supposed to be in Buehrle's future. He couldn't make his high school freshman team. He got cut sophomore year, too. Buehrle didn't want to bother junior year, until his parents reminded him they didn't raise a quitter.
Even then, Buehrle didn't enthrall anyone. The only school that recruited him was Jefferson College, a junior college in rural Hillsboro, Mo. The White Sox drafted him in the 1,139th spot overall after his first year, watched him blossom as a sophomore and signed him for $167,000 as a draft-and-follow. Thirty-six minor-league games and 421 days later, he was in the major leagues.
And the scary part is, Buehrle knows nothing else. He grew up in clubhouses. Met his wife as a ballplayer, had his kids as a ballplayer, built his life as a ballplayer. The identity isn't just what keeps some players around until long past their prime; it's what prevents them from leaving the game before they've exhausted every bit of performance.
That doesn't worry him. Buehrle is not Brett Favre. Retired means retired. Time on the ranch hunting deer with his dad. Coaching Braden's baseball team. Celebrating birthdays. He wants that.
Only he wants something else, something that could keep him around. Maybe not long enough to get to 300, but a couple years nonetheless. Buehrle dreams of spending summers with Braden in the clubhouse. He'd like to show his son the sort of life he’s lived, to demonstrate how camaraderie and daily diligence so shaped his life.
"I might need to play a little bit longer for him to realize what I do," Buehrle said. "But then when I go on the road and he starts asking, 'Where's dada? Where's dada?’,” that's going to kill me, too, and I'm going to have to retire.
"Look, I'm having fun. It's not like I want to quit. If I didn't have a family, I'd play until I was 60, or until they kicked me out. I just don't want to miss my kids growing up."
He isn't the first to say that. The others recanted. Baseball players don't retire voluntarily. They just don't. They talk about it – Carlos Zambrano(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes) say they're gone after their current contracts as well – though it's not like football, where Jim Brown and Barry Sanders and Robert Smith left in their primes.
When balancing family vs. the game, kids vs. money, a decision that seems so easy isn't. The baseball life, with its savory trimmings, is more conducive to long careers, an addiction that's difficult to kick.
Mark Buehrle's got 2½ years to figure out if he can do it – or even wants to.