When a Minor League Baseball player retires, does anyone notice?
The answer, in the overwhelming majority of cases, is a resounding "no." Players lead unpredictable and transitory existences, coming and going at a moment's notice after yet another promotion, demotion, trade or release. The opportunity to make a lasting impact with a particular ballclub is rare indeed.
But an impact is exactly what Chris Richard had as a member of the Triple-A Durham Bulls, hitting a franchise-record 84 home runs over four seasons while establishing himself as a year-round resident of the community. The 36-year-old announced his retirement last week, officially ending a career that spanned 15 professional seasons. This included 280 games in the Majors, most notably a 136-game campaign as a member of the Baltimore Orioles in 2001.
But it was in Durham that Richard truly made his presence felt, and despite his relatively advanced age his output remained impressive to the end. In 2010, the San Diego native hit 20 home runs and drove in 79 while hitting an even .300. Nonetheless, Tampa Bay (Durham's Major League affiliate) declined to offer him a contract for the 2011 season.
"If I kept going for another couple of years I might have gotten an opportunity for a call-up here and there," said Richard, whose final Major League experience was a 13-game stint with the Rays in 2009. "But I understand this business -- the team's looking toward the future and wants to go with younger guys. It seemed like now was a good opportunity to step away, to get some more stability in my life."
So, though Richard seems at peace with his decision, he admits it's a strange feeling not to be in the midst of yet another Spring Training.
"It's been a little bit surreal, but I went through a year out of baseball in 2004 rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and that prepared me for this." he said. "I contemplated retirement then, but I was able to return, and that made me really enjoy my last six years of playing. I was able to look at things from a different perspective."
The final four of those years were spent in Durham, a city that Richard has come to love.
"I've made great connections with the Bulls front-office staff and the fans, which has made playing baseball here really enjoyable," he said. "I felt fortunate to keep getting asked back, and if I had been offered a contract this year, I would have signed it."
Richard plans to stay active with the Bulls even in retirement, doing radio commentary during home games and appearing at community events such as last week's Fan Fest. He's currently giving one-on-one baseball lessons at the Bulls' Durham Athletic Park and is in the midst of establishing his own baseball academy.
"I work with ages 8 to 18 but primarily focus on the 10-14 range," said Richard, who also hopes to one day coach in the college ranks. "That's a good age to work on getting rid of bad habits and correcting mechanics. ... I have a passion for teaching, and it's something that I really love to do."
Richard's retirement has also provided the opportunity to reflect on a long career that included many memorable moments. He spoke of the "surreal" feeling that accompanied hitting a home run in his first Major League at-bat with the Orioles in 2001, and called his two-grand slam game for the Bulls in 2009 "something special."
Richard's final stint in the Major Leagues occurred later that season, and in his second game back in "The Show" he found himself in the midst of a historic moment. On Sept. 9 against the Rays, Derek Jeter collected a base knock that tied him with Lou Gehrig for the most hits in Yankees history. Richard dove for the ball, but it just eluded his grasp.
"He hit the ball right by me," he said, laughing. "When Derek got to first he looked at me and said, 'Thanks, I owe you one.'"
As is so often the case in baseball and in life, it's the little things that matter most.
"I think what I'll really miss is the camaraderie that comes from being part of a team -- playing cards in the clubhouse, watching a movie on the bus and just talking with teammates," said Richard. "It's not until those times are gone that you realize how important they were."