Inside MLB players' mindsets on playing all 162 games a season

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

FREDDIE FREEMAN PLAYED in 161 games last year. He does not like this fact. Were it up to the Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman and likely future Hall of Famer, he would participate in every game of every season, all 162, a number held sacred throughout the game. Freeman has partly agreed to a compromise since joining the Dodgers -- the day after they clinch a division championship, he'll sit, for one game and nothing more. When that day arrived last season, he still fought it.

"Until I'm told to sit down, I will fight you until you literally don't put me in the lineup card," Freeman said. "But that's just how I view life in general. That's my job, I'm gonna do it."

The task of 161 is every bit as trying as 162, but the allure is simply not the same. Even more in sports' load management era, the regard for playing all 162 has become almost mythic. Figuring out how to actually achieve it, though, remains elusive for nearly every baseball player. Since 1961 (when Major League Baseball expanded the schedule from 154 games), fewer than five players a year on average have played at least 162 games in a season. Of the 655 position players last year, just four -- Arizona's Eugenio Suarez, Atlanta's Matt Olson, New York's Juan Soto and Texas' Marcus Semien -- hit the mark.

It's not just the rarity that means something to this group. It's what goes into 162, the confluence of events that allow it to manifest. Baseball is the longest season in professional sports, a six-month endurance test in which the vagaries of life can waylay the goal of 162.

So what does it take to reach it? ESPN surveyed players present and past to understand how they weathered the roadblocks that prevent hundreds annually from joining the elite club, and a few elements stood out as universal. Already, just two weeks into this season, the potential for 162 has been winnowed from 414 position players thus far with at least one plate appearance to 124 who have partaken in each of their team's full slate of games.

Freeman is one of them.

"People don't go be a schoolteacher to just sit there and not teach," he said. "My job is to play baseball. ... Believe me, at least 100, 150 times my dad says take a day off, take a day off. And I go, 'Dad, you know that's not going to happen.'"

ANOTHER DAD ONCE gave his son advice on playing 162, and the words -- "When you're an everyday player," the father said, "you have a responsibility to be in there and meet the challenges of the day" -- still to this day stick with Cal Ripken Jr.

Nobody embodies 162 quite like Ripken, whose streak of playing in 2,632 consecutive games is among baseball's most unbreakable records. He's the king of the 162-game season, too, with 10 of them (and four more at 161, owed to games canceled and not rescheduled).

"The whole concept of 162 is so psychological," Ripken said. "You don't know you can play 162 until you do it."

This is the first tenet of playing 162: One must exhibit extreme mental strength. A player can be young (Delmon Young, age 21, 2007) or old (Pete Rose, 41, 1982). He can wear any uniform (all 30 teams have at least one 162-game triumph). For every difference, the commonalities include a willingness to play through the slog of a long season, the bumps and bruises that accompany it and the downturns impossible for even the best players to avoid.

Even for those staunch in wanting to play 162, the temptations to sit can be pervasive. Take a day. Let the body heal. You've earned it. To resist those urges 162 times a season, you need to have another goal.

"If I don't play today, I can't have that at-bat where something clicks and I get out of my slump," said Philadelphia Phillies super-utility player Whit Merrifield, who sandwiched a pair of 162-game efforts around a full 60-game season in 2020. "I can't do that if I'm on the bench. That's what ending up trumping those thoughts."

And some organizations have established a culture in which 162 feels like an expectation. Ripken knew Brooks Robinson did it four times and saw Eddie Murray pull it off once. In his wake, Rafael Palmeiro (twice), B.J. Surhoff (twice) and Miguel Tejada (six straight times, three of them with Baltimore) continued the tradition.

Sure enough, the Orioles lead MLB teams with 27 instances (37% of them Ripken's). In more recent years, the Atlanta Braves have picked up the mantle. Following Freeman's first 162-game season in 2014, he did it again in 2018. Olson played 162 in 2022 and 2023, joined in 2022 by Dansby Swanson.

"It's a mental commitment," said Swanson, now with the Chicago Cubs. "No matter how you feel, it's a commitment to play and perform each and every day. You wake up and it doesn't matter if you're sick, doesn't matter if you're hurting, doesn't matter what's going on in your life. It's your job."

BASEBALL IS NOT the world's most strenuous sport by any means, but consider a major leaguer's life. Every day, for more than 2½ hours, a ballplayer standing on metal spikes repeatedly goes from standstill to full sprint. Among swings in batting practice, batting cage work and in-game hacks, he torques his body with unbridled explosiveness upward of 100 times a day. Compound that with the hundreds of throws and the daily weight training deemed a necessity to maintain strength, and suddenly one day off sounds like heaven.

"I never thought I would be able to play 162," Soto said. "One day, you don't feel right. Or you're in a little slump. Or your manager wants you to take a day off. That's all it takes."

The physical fortitude to play 162 comprises the second tenet. Not only must players be good enough -- or their team bad enough -- to warrant inclusion in the lineup every day, they require fast-healing bodies to ensure the opportunity to perform.

"I had a good set of genes," Ripken said. "I could foul a ball off my foot and I wouldn't have a lot of swelling. I was a good healer."

Said Freeman, in a perfect summation of life as a 162er: "I think I can play baseball with a little owie."

It's about finding where the line is for every individual. Freeman knows his body isn't the same as Shohei Ohtani's, whose isn't the same as Mookie Betts', and on it goes. A stretch that might work for someone else might not be right for him. One player might need 200 swings as part of his process while he limits his work in the cage.

"If you're doing too much, and you're not achieving what you need to do at 7 o'clock, then no one's going to care what you're doing at 3 o'clock, you know?" Freeman said. "'Oh, look at you, you dead-lifted, you did this, you swung 700 times. Well, you're tired and you can't perform.'"

In the back of every player's mind, of course, is the sport's ultimate cautionary tale. On June 2, 1925, the Yankees' manager, Miller Huggins, suggested his first baseman, Wally Pipp, take the day off to nurse a headache. A 21-year-old named Lou Gehrig replaced him. Gehrig played every Yankees game for the next 14 years and Pipp was unceremoniously traded to the Reds after the season.

"I know the Wally Pipp story. I had no interest in that happening to me. I've always wanted to play, and it took me so long to get to the big leagues," said Merrifield, who debuted at 27 years old. "I didn't want to give up a day as a big leaguer."

THE THIRD TENET of playing 162: intelligence. It takes someone self-aware to formulate the sort of plan that can maintain health. Olson, who first played 162 as a 24-year-old with Oakland, only later in his career reconciled what it takes to cajole an aging body through a full season.

"You're not going to feel good every day," he said. "The older I've gotten, the more honest you have to be with yourself. Maybe you don't need to hit BP that day. Maybe you need to get a massage. You find these little things."

Merrifield learned that playing hard and playing smart are two entirely different ideas. For all the times he heard the importance of running hard, he recognized the limitations he needed to put in place to avoid the sorts of injuries that come when a player can't differentiate between false hustle and real hustle.

"If I hit a fly ball during the regular season, I shouldn't run 100 percent to second base," Merrifield said. "I should run as hard as I need to in order to ensure I make it to second base."

For Soto, who had never played more than 153 games before last season, knowing when to take a break during the course of a game proved essential. In more than 10% of his games last year, Soto's then-manager, Bob Melvin, pulled him in the late innings for extra rest. It worked so well that by late August, Soto said, he felt fresh enough to strive for 162, even with 27 games in 31 days to end the season.

"My body felt great," Soto said. "As long as I can be healthy, I want to be out there every day. At the end of the day, you never know when you're going to be able to do it. If I have the chance, I'm going to do it."

Before this season began, Soto spoke with his new manager, the New York Yankees' Aaron Boone, about the benefits of Melvin's approach. Soto said he made it clear that designated hitter duties were undesirable -- "If I'm playing," he said, "I'm playing right field" -- and after getting a taste of 162, he wanted to validate an axiom that applies to baseball as much as any job: The greatest ability is availability.

"Some guys are more equipped to handle that than others," said Boone, himself a 162er in 2002. "Whether that's body type, athleticism, whatever it may be. Some people are cut out for it."

IN ANY GIVEN game, a batter can foul a ball off his foot. He can wear a fastball to the ribs. He can tweak a muscle running, turn an ankle on the bases or strain a forearm making a throw. Throughout the course of baseball history, players have pulled an oblique sneezing, wrecked their hands playing Guitar Hero, sliced their finger on a drone, thrown out their back carrying luggage and missed games because of frostbite due to leaving an ice pack on for too long.

The road to 162 is paved with potholes. And it's why the fourth element, Olson said, is the most important.

"I feel like luck is the biggest factor," he said. "There are just so many little ways that something can go wrong on a baseball field. You take one swing. You step on a base weird. There's a lot of preparation that goes into your work, but sometimes things are out of your control."

Ripken understands this acutely. Toward the end of his career, after the streak had ended, he underwent back surgery that limited him to 83 games in 2000. Before the 2001 season, he vowed to return to spring training feeling like someone closer to 30 than 40. Part of his offseason training included high-intensity pickup basketball games in the gym at his home. Less than two weeks before spring training, he invited a group of Baltimore Ravens players to the gym, and as he intercepted a pass, Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister crashed into him and broke one of Ripken's ribs. For well over a decade, Ripken had played pickup hoops without incident. And then his luck ran out.

Those turns of fate happen all the time. In 2020, Semien -- the closest thing to a baseball iron man today, having played every game in the four full seasons since 2019 -- missed seven games when the same pesky side soreness he played through in previous seasons proved too trying to withstand. If not for that week, his consecutive games played streak would be at 800.

He's one of only 14 players this century who have joined Olson in booking back-to-back full seasons. Just four players have done it three or more consecutive years: Tejada (six in a row), Juan Pierre (five), Prince Fielder (three) and Hideki Matsui (three).

Swanson comes close: He played in 160 of the Braves' 161 games in 2021 before hitting all 162 the following season, one in which his foot was stepped on at the beginning, threatening his attempt in its infancy. Luck wound up on his side, as he missed no time.

"With all of it," Swanson said, "there is a lot of good fortune that goes into it."

DESPITE ALL THE hoopla and fanfare that came with passing Gehrig, Ripken never truly appreciated his streak until years after. For a player to match it, he would need 16-plus seasons without missing a game. In the course of baseball history, only 49 players have participated in more than 2,632 games period.

"It seems like more of an accomplishment looking back on it than it felt going through it," Ripken said. "Some people think that it was an obsession to play all those games in a row because I wanted to break Lou Gehrig's record. That wasn't it. I'd rather have had more hits than Pete Rose or more homers than Hank [Aaron].

"But I'm glad I did it."

Because, as Ripken said, there's something special about the ability to be out there for every game -- to master the mental, withstand the physical, embrace the intelligent and bask in the luck. Everything needs to align for just one season of 162.

When something happens infrequently enough that since 1961 there are more 40 home run seasons than it -- 286 to 277 -- its scarcity speaks for itself. At the same time, it wouldn't be right to give the final word to a statistic. Playing 162 is about so much more than the bold number on a player's Baseball-Reference page. It's about being part of a special fraternity whose members deeply respect one another and bathe in the admiration of those who simply can't fathom what it takes to play all 162.

"The thing I take the most pride in is that over the course of my career, I've never been on the IL and never been scratched from a game and always been available," Merrifield said. "When I haven't played, it hasn't been my decision. I just hope it continues that way."

Jorge Castillo, Alden Gonzalez and Jesse Rogers contributed to this report.