A first-round draft pick of the Phillies in 2006 and rated a top 75 prospect by Baseball America at age 21, Adrian Cardenas came to the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs in 2012. That summer, he got playing time in 45 games, including one against the Pittsburgh Pirates in which he broke up A.J. Burnett's no-hit bid with two outs in the eighth inning. The stuff of boyhood dreams.
Though his major league numbers with the Cubs weren't much to look at overall, Cardenas still hit .302/.369/.417 in 3,084 career plate appearances in the minors. He was more than good enough to play baseball and get paid for it. And yet, Cardenas didn't play pro ball in 2013. He wasn't injured. Not physically, anyway. He didn't "retire" — he was too young for that. Though declared a free agent at the end of the 2012 season, he wasn't released from an organization in the "you're fired" sense. He didn't lack for other opportunities. He just quit. Despite being given nearly $1 million to sign with the Phillies as a teenager, and being in position to earn at least $480,000 if he made a major league roster in 2013, Cardenas was walking away from the sport. Even if he played all of 2013 in Triple-A, he still could make between $60,000-$125,000 for five months of work.
So, what gives, Adrian? Cardenas explains, in a post he wrote for the New Yorker, that he quit baseball because it stopped being "sacred" to him as soon as he got paid to play it. He liked school better than he liked playing. He didn't like how failure, naturally, was the game's currency for success. He didn't like being the soulless instrument of an ownership seeking to pad its bottom line. He didn't like how the long seasons took him away from friends and family. He didn't like the life:
Of course, I have regrets. The irony of the business of baseball is that the business has a seriousness that the game lacks: the fortune of a billion-dollar company rests on the shoulders of the twenty-five players competing to hold their spots on the roster, and an enormous pride comes with being one of those players. Now that I’ve quit, I will never again find myself in a position where the stakes are so high and I’m held accountable. I miss that the most. But quitting, for me, was still the right move.
A few days into the start of this season, my friend Anthony Rizzo, who plays first base for the Cubs, called me to say that he had told A. J. Burnett that the rookie who broke up his no-hitter had retired. Burnett replied, half joking, “I wish the kid had retired one year earlier.”
Cardenas says he felt the same way. He has written a terrific essay on what it's like to be a pro ballplayer, and how he's no longer willing to meet the demands that such a life requires. To many, success might seem like a million bucks and a .300 batting average, but not for Cardenas. He requires something else for his happiness.
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