Comeback tries occur frequently but rarely succeed
Pettitte, Sandberg made good in returns, which are usually fueled by desire to compete
Javier Vazquez appears set to become the latest ballplayer to cover The Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye." Intensely scouted in the Puerto Rico Winter League playoffs, during which he had a 1.23 ERA in four starts, Vazquez is weighing offers to come back to the game from which he walked away 16 months ago.Interested teams are serenading him with the siren song, and the 36-year-old right-hander will probably hum along. As many before Vazquez have found out, and many others after him will come to the same realization, leaving is easy but staying away is hard. It sometimes seems like everyone but Shane comes back. Hardest of all is coming back and making an impact, bringing game, not just name. Andy Pettitte just did it, contributing to another Yankees division title after a year in ... retirement? Let's just call it a sabbatical. Pettitte's emotional and competitive U-turn traced a well-worn path. People leave, repelled by the all-consuming grind and attracted by family; they are drawn back by the flame of clubhouse camaraderie and competition. As John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, noted to MLB.com a year ago upon Pettitte's return, "Players retire from baseball for any number of reasons. And when the itch comes back, it is sometimes emotional and sometimes financial." Rarely is it successful. Who have authored the best resurrections after willingly hanging up their spikes? Separating them, thus, from the true heroes of interrupted careers, guys who donated part of their primes for military service like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller. Also excluded are those who popped back in after less than a full season out -- such as Pedro Martinez, who gave the Phillies an arm for the last six weeks of 2009, and Roger Clemens, who made midseason revivals a habit with the Astros and then the Yankees. Ryne Sandberg could belong atop the list -- because his return to the Cubs after a year-and-a-half absence very well may have engraved his Hall of Fame plaque. Sandberg, 34 at the time, walked away from the Cubs two months into the 1994 season because he was stinking and because he knew why he was stinking: His heart wasn't in it. "I am certainly not the type of person who can ask the Cubs organization and the Chicago Cubs fans to pay my salary when I am not happy with my mental approach and my performance," he said, later elaborating in his autobiography, "I lost the desire that got me ready to play on an everyday basis for so many years." Funny thing, in time he felt that tingle while watching games from the stands: He wanted to be on the field, in the middle of them. So he returned to full-time play in 1996-97, adding 37 homers and 156 RBIs to what in 2005 became a Hall of Fame resume. Sammy Sosa walked into undeclared, but understood, retirement after his 2005 season with the Orioles (.221-14-45) didn't elicit any Major League offers, with his agent, Adam Katz, declaring, "I can say, with reasonable certainty, that we've seen Sammy in a baseball uniform for the last time." Until 2007, that is. That February, Sosa accepted from his original team, the Rangers, the exact same Minor League deal he'd rejected a year before -- and went on to have a productive season in Texas, with 21 homers (including No. 600) and 92 RBIs. Jim Edmonds put his eight Gold Gloves into storage after the 2008 season, because none of the offers he heard approached his $8 million salary. One inactive year later, Milwaukee's $850,000 was enough to bring him back, and Edmonds posted a respectable OPS of .846 for the Brewers and, following an August deal, for the Reds. Sean Burroughs, a former No. 1 Draft pick, lost his zest not only for baseball but also for life by 2006, when he was released by Tampa Bay and began a well-documented spiral. Eventually, he found the inner strength to climb out of the gutter and, amazingly, get back into a big league uniform. He returned with the D-backs on May 19, 2011 -- 1,841 days after his last Major League appearance -- and helped Arizona to the NL West title by batting .273 in 78 games. Jim Palmer seriously embarked in 1991 on what he hoped would be an unprecedented comeback, the first by someone already in the Hall of Fame, in which he'd been inducted a year before. Why? Not even a successful transition into broadcasting had given his life enough purpose. The hard work going into pursuing a return to the mound gave him, he said, "a glimpse of the old Jim Palmer, the one who has to get up in the morning and think about what he has to do that day." Palmer, entering that Spring Training with the Orioles at age 45, might have also been inspired by Nolan Ryan, who had gone 13-9 in 1990 at age 43 and still had three years, 22 wins and 406 strikeouts in him. But Palmer's express jumped the tracks when he pulled the plug, ostensibly because of a hamstring injury, after one ugly Grapefruit League outing against Boston. The distinction of springing from Hall of Fame ballot into big league box scores thus belongs to Jose Rijo, part of a special category of players, predominantly pitchers, who returned from retirements that were voluntary only in the sense that they chose not to endure the rigors of rehabbing from injuries. Many years later, they want a do-over. Five years after being the 25-year-old pitching hero of the 1990 World Series-champion Reds, Rijo gave in to a sore elbow. He decided to give it another go six years later, and posting a 2.12 ERA in 13 games with the Reds in 2001 convinced everyone it was a good idea for him to come back for more; Rijo went 5-4 in 31 games, including nine starts, in 2002. Rijo is the only player ever to return to the big leagues after receiving a vote for Cooperstown. He had gotten one vote in 2001, therefore falling off the ballot, but his resurgence qualified him to reappear on the ballot in 2008 -- when he got zero votes. Rijo's 2,195 days between Major League appearances -- from July 18, 1995-Aug. 17, 2001 -- very likely is a bona fide record (as opposed to promotional feats, like Minnie Minoso briefly suiting up with the Chicago White Sox in the 1970s and '80s). The man second on that list didn't fare quite as well in his comeback. Three years of arm problems made Dave Stieb throw in the towel in early 1993. Five years later, he was back on the mound for the Blue Jays, pitching on 1,853 days of rest. He got into 19 games, even winning one of them, and was quite competitive with a 4.83 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 50 1/3 innings. He probably enjoyed those few mediocre weeks more than all the glory years before. "It's just fun playing again competitively," Stieb had said. "You take it for granted when you've been doing it for a while."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.