NEW YORK — Lorenzo Cain unlocked his iPhone and scrolled to the reminder on his calendar. Only four days separated him from reaching 10 years of service time in Major League Baseball, a triumph for any player, let alone an ungainly kid who had never played organized baseball before high school, a 17th-round pick who had nearly been overrun by injuries in his 20s.
“If you had told me I was going to play 10 years in the big leagues, I would have thought you were just messing around with me,” Cain said. “I wouldn’t have thought that was possible.”
This milestone — which a representative from the Major League Baseball Players Association confirmed will be reached by Cain on Saturday in Cincinnati — may also be his last in baseball. At 36, in the final season of a five-year, $80 million contract with Milwaukee, Cain understands his career is coming to a close.
“It’s gotten to that point where I’ve worked so hard, for so long, that I’m just tired,” Cain told The Athletic on Tuesday. “It’s almost that time. I know a lot of people are wondering if I’m going to retire this year or not. I haven’t given a direct answer yet. Still going to wait to the offseason to see where I’m at — but it’s most likely a good chance (of retirement).”
Some players earn the privilege to walk away on their own accord. The overwhelming majority get retired by the game. Cain, a two-time All-Star and one-time world champion, is striving for the former while confronting the likelihood of the latter.
He is not the hitter he once was. His batting average had dipped to .168 and his OPS to .449 before Tuesday’s game against the Mets. He had lost his place in Milwaukee’s starting lineup. His defense in center field was still strong, but the Brewers could no longer stomach his ineffective at-bats.
“It’s hard, especially when you’re not playing well,” Cain said. “It sucks.”
Cain did not protest a demotion when manager Craig Counsell broached it last month. His roster spot may be at risk if the Brewers pursue upgrades at the trade deadline. Until then, Cain has continued to search for his swing in the batting cage. He has tried to provide an ebullient presence for his teammates.
From the diamond to the court; Lorenzo Cain spent the offseason coaching youth basketball in Oklahoma before heading off to @Brewers spring training.
“The offseason allows me to be more of a father, and just watch them go out and have a good time.” pic.twitter.com/VXcyxojblw
— MLBPA (@MLBPA) March 18, 2022
“A guy who has been there, done that, won the World Series, done everything you can do as a player — that is so valuable,” pitcher Brandon Woodruff said. “I know some of his playing time has decreased this year. But he still brings so much to the clubhouse.”
Woodruff considers Cain one of his closest friends on the team. When Woodruff shuttled between the majors and the minors in 2018, Cain offered a welcoming presence. He appreciated how Cain has maintained his optimism despite dismal results.
“He knows he’s toward the end,” Woodruff said. “Of course, when he’s out on the field, he wants to do well. But I don’t think he’s dwelling on it.”
Cain wasn’t in the Tuesday lineup. His enthusiasm remained palpable. He gave up with a few teammates about the pregame dining options in New York. In a hallway outside the clubhouse, he squared up with first baseman Rowdy Tellez.
“Spin move!” Cain said.
Tellez, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound boulder, set his feet. With his shoulder, he delivered the lightest of love taps. Cain splatted face-first into a nearby partition.
“Oh, that’s a wall there,” Cain said.
He picked himself up and went about his day.
Cain had played a similar role last decade in Kansas City. He was a jovial spirit and a vital contributor. He finished third in the American League MVP voting in 2015, the year the Royals won it all. He scored the decisive run in the American League Championship Series by scampering home from first base on a single. His three-run double in extra innings broke open the final game of the World Series.
At Cain’s apex, few other players offered similar thrills. He could scale walls in center, gallop into stolen bases and leverage his legs into homers. Only his balky legs and inconsistent swing kept him from becoming a perennial All-Star.
The package was still enough to entice Milwaukee when Cain reached free agency after 2017. On a recruiting call, Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns stressed how Cain could help the franchise return to the postseason after a six-season drought.
“As I look back on his time here, we’ve been to the playoffs four years in a row,” Stearns said. “So the four years Lorenzo Cain has been a Brewer, we’ve been to the playoffs. And I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Cain was an All-Star in 2018, when the Brewers finished one victory shy of the World Series. He posted an .813 OPS and stole a career-best 30 bases. In a regular-season playoff to determine the National League Central champion, Cain delivered the go-ahead knock to down the Cubs.
“I’ll always remember that hit he got off (Steve) Cishek in Game 163,” outfielder Christian Yelich said. “Just how tough an at-bat that was, him just coming through in that situation.”
The subsequent years featured fewer highs. Cain finagled his first Gold Glove in 2019, but his offensive production decreased. He opted out of the 2020 season due to concern for his children. A variety of leg ailments limited him to 78 games last season.
By then, with his contract set to expire, Cain figured 2022 might be his last season. The game has appeared to agree with him. He described his swing as “all over the place this year.” He found himself unable to generate power through his legs, despite maintaining his grace in the outfield.
“I’ve never had one of these elite swings,” Cain said. “It really took a lot of work to get my swing to where it was, to be consistent, on a day-in, day-out basis. I think a lot of things are catching up to me. I’ve gotten older. Some guys can keep it longer than others.
“I always told myself: If I got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t compete at a high level, like I want to, then I would definitely call it quits, for sure.”
Cain insisted that moment has not yet arrived. Stearns suggested Cain’s defensive utility “buys you more time” to see if his bat will revive. “At some point, we’re going to need him,” Counsell said.
But Cain understands his time to exit the stage is drawing near. He has plans for his next act. He underwent what he described as a spiritual awakening in 2020, and re-devoted himself to his church. He has invested in strip malls and other properties near his home in Norman, Okla.
“I’ve got a lot of stuff in the works for when I do retire, so I’ll be busy,” Cain said. “And I’ve got three kids, so that’s enough, on its own.”
Cain maintains a group chat with several of his former Royals teammates, a thread that contains Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Jarrod Dyson, Alex Gordon, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. The bonds between them are strong. They refer to themselves as brothers, even as they exit the game. Gordon went home after 2020. Davis retired last year. Dyson did not sign with a team in 2022.
Last year, Cain watched from afar as his friends reached the 10-year mark for service time. Hosmer, Moustakas, Perez and Dyson all got there. This weekend, Cain will join them. “It shows you what hard work can do, and dedication to your craft,” Cain said. “That’s what I did.”
He intends to save the day. Only so many more of these await him in baseball.
(Photo: Sam Navarro / USA Today)