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In baseball, farewell doesn't always come with fanfare

Cleats and baseball equipment in a locker at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg for a photograph taken on Friday, June 3, 2016, for a Sunday story about how few baseball players actually get to make the decision to retire from the big leagues. WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times

Cleats and baseball equipment in a locker at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg for a photograph taken on Friday, June 3, 2016, for a Sunday story about how few baseball players actually get to make the decision to retire from the big leagues. WILL VRAGOVIC | Times
Published Jun. 14, 2016

Dan Wheeler was accustomed to being on the Rays television broadcast, not watching it.

Watching was strange for the former pitcher shortly after he retired in 2013.

"It felt weird," Wheeler said. "I'm normally there, and I wasn't."

But Wheeler's children were eager to watch. Their grandfather — Wheeler's father-in-law — is Rays broadcaster Dewayne Staats.

What's better than Grandpa on TV talking about baseball?

Players such as Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr. and David Ortiz have had much-celebrated farewell tours with gifts and tributes as they approach retirement. But for Wheeler and most other players, the end is unceremonious and often beyond their control.

The game stops for no one, especially those who stop playing.

It can make for an uneasy transition for nearly every ex-player, especially for those who didn't walk away on their terms.

"Every player," former Devil Rays pitcher Doug Waechter said, "wants one more year."

•••

Wheeler remembers when he was the heartbeat.

That's what the guys in the Astros bullpen called themselves during their run to the 2005 World Series.

They knew the difference that night between a win or a loss would come down to them.

Wheeler said he misses those wild days in 2008 when he helped the Rays to the World Series, as improbable a story as the sport has ever seen. The Rayhawks, the walk-off wins. Beating the Red Sox for the American League pennant. Playing in the rain in Philadelphia.

"Thinking about it now still gives me goosebumps," Wheeler said.

Standing on the mound at Fenway Park and facing someone like Ortiz — the thrill, the adrenalin — that feeling never goes away.

Part of Wheeler will always listen for the bullpen phone to ring.

"I still miss it every day," he said. "I don't miss the grind of the season, but I do miss when the manager gives me the ball and says, 'I need you to get three outs.' "

It's a difficult transition for athletes in all sports.

"No one relates to what we are going through," former LPGA tour member Penny Pulz said.

The Australian born Pulz has worked for the past 20 years as a focus/recovery life coach for athletes transitioning from the world of sports to the real world.

A two-time winner on the tour, Pulz knows first-hand the struggles athletes face and how unprepared they can be for life after they stop playing a sport they've trained for since before they were teenagers.

"We love what we did," she said, "and trying to recreate that love for something else is impossible."

•••

It came down to family for Wheeler. Same with former Rays reliever Grant Balfour.

The kids get older and the goodbyes before spring training get harder. The kids are bigger the next time you see them.

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For Wheeler, the end came in spring 2013 in Omaha, Neb. He was almost 35. He had a 9.00 ERA in 11 appearances with the Royals' Triple-A team.

"I don't know if I was completely there," Wheeler said.

Physically, yes. Mentally, no. He wanted to be home with his wife, Stephanie, and their children — Gabe, now 11, Zach, 8, and Evie, 5.

"I had three kids. I was missing them like crazy," Wheeler said. "For me, it was time to go home."

He appeared in 589 big-league games across 13 seasons. He pitched in two World Series. Financially he was set for life. He officially retired that October.

Still, Wheeler said, it wasn't an easy decision, particularly when spring training began the following year.

"It was one of those things where the middle of February was a big part of my life," Wheeler said.

And now it wasn't. It was a decision he willingly made, but still, "It felt strange," he said, "and it didn't really hit me until spring training."

•••

It was the thought of leaving his family in February that sealed Balfour's retirement plans.

Like Wheeler, Balfour's career ended on a minor-league contract. It was certainly not the ending Balfour envisioned when he signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Rays before the 2014 season. But he lost his job as the closer in June 2014. After a rough spring training in 2015, one that saw him return to his native Australia for the death of his father, Balfour lost his spot on the team.

He did sign a minor-league contract with the Rays and headed to Triple-A Durham to get back on track. But the Rays never called, and he asked for his release in August.

Balfour said he thought this past offseason of giving it one more shot, but wasn't thrilled with the idea of signing a minor-league contract and chasing a spot on the major-league roster during spring training. Besides, the prep work during the offseason would mean time away from his wife, Angie, and their two daughters.

"I looked at my kids," Balfour said. "I want to see them grow up."

Balfour officially retired in May. The Rays gave him a small sendoff when they invited him to throw out the first pitch before the May 15 game against the A's.

•••

Waechter's six-year big-league career basically ended in August 2011 after he had surgery on his right shoulder and elbow. He rehabbed for a year then played winter ball in Puerto Rico after the 2010 season. He hoped to show teams he was healthy. He said several teams asked to see his medical records. They never called.

"That was hard," he said.

Waechter was 30 years old. He and his wife, Kristin, had two children — son Kayden, now 8, and daughter Karsyn, now 6.

"It was the four of us at home, and all of a sudden we didn't have a check rolling in," he said.

It was time for Plan B. But Waechter invested so much of his time and energy into Plan A, which was making it to the big leagues, that he had no time to consider life after baseball. Besides, he didn't think the end would come so soon. He planned on pitching at least three more seasons.

Waechter said the decision to officially retire was not an easy one, even though he knew it was time.

"When I said I was done, it was really scary," he said. "There were some long nights those first two years."

He didn't have a college education to fall back on, having signed with the Rays out of St. Petersburg's Northeast High.

Like Wheeler, Waechter said he found it hard to watch games on TV.

"I basically shut out baseball for a year, a year and a half," he said.

Waechter said his love for the game was rekindled when he began coaching Kayden's T-ball team.

Then the Rays called and asked if he would be interested in doing the pre- and postgame TV shows.

"That brought it back full circle," Waechter said.

Waechter eventually found a job selling medical devices used in orthopedic surgery. He is often in operating rooms with surgeons in case the surgeon has any questions about the plants or screws used in the procedure.

"It's a lot of fun," Waechter said of his Plan B. "It can be a thrill. Just a different thrill."

Rays V.P. of public relations Rick Vaughn called and asked Waechter if he was interested in joining a Rays alumni group that Vaughn was organizing of former players still living in the area. The former players would be asked to make appearances on behalf of the organization. They would receive Rays jerseys with their names on the back.

Waechter jumped at the opportunity.

"It gives us a chance to get back together," he said. "Like we're part of a team. Only I don't have to ice my arm down after I pitch and there are no road trips. Perfect."

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