Chief of Naval Operations
Not so golden oldies
An article that talks about athletes playing past their prime and why they do so. Money can play a part and there are other reasons. Kind of sad to see some guys hold on/come back and know they have lost it. Also applies to other professions.
The sights of Joe Namath in Los Angeles Rams' blue and gold and John Unitas wearing San Diego Chargers lightning bolts on his helmet, both nearly crippled, linger as tawdry memories. Veteran New York Mets fans are still torn over whether getting to see an aging Willie Mays playing for the home team was worth having to endure watching him falling down in center field and struggling at the plate.
Too many athletes would not or could not know when to say when: Babe Ruth, a 40-year-old caricature of himself, batting .181 for the Boston Braves despite hitting three home runs in a game. Mickey Mantle hanging on with the New York Yankees and batting .255, .245 and .237 in three of his final four seasons, falling below .300 for his career. Home run king Hank Aaron returning to his Milwaukee roots and playing two abysmal seasons with the Brewers, another homecoming gone awry. Franco Harris in a Seattle Seahawks uniform, averaging 2.5 yards a carry.
Jim Thorpe, who was voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, could run fast and far, but he could not walk away. After playing long past when he should have stopped, he finally retired from the NFL. But then he came back for one game with the Chicago Bears. This is how it went: "Jim Thorpe played a few minutes but was unable to get anywhere," a reporter wrote. "In his 40s and muscle-bound, Thorpe was a mere shadow of his former self."
For every Rocky Marciano or Jim Brown or Barry Sanders who quit while on top there are a dozen who hung around too long, trying to squeeze out another year or two. Did anyone enjoy seeing the vague replicas of Ernie Banks (.193), Mike Schmidt (.203) or Willie McCovey (.204) in their final seasons? Before calling it quits in 1988, Steve Carlton gave up 18 runs in 9⅔ innings. But it never should have come to that. He was 9-14 and 6-14, with ERAs of 5.10 and 5.74, for five different teams in '86 and '87.
Six years after he retired from the Boston Celtics, complete with a tearful ceremony, Bob Cousy came back to play seven games at 41 with the Cincinnati Royals, the team he was coaching. He was terrible, and many Celtics fans still haven't forgiven him. "I did it for the money," Cousy later admitted.
When he played for the New York Knicks, Patrick Ewing once won (or lost) an ESPN poll on which athlete should immediately retire. The merits of Michael Jordan's second comeback, with the Wizards, likely will remain a topic of debate.
Washed-up boxers have their own club. From Jim Jeffries coming out of a long retirement to be humiliated by Jack Johnson, to Jack Dempsey to Joe Louis to the Sugar Rays, Robinson and Leonard, to, of course, Muhammad Ali, who suffered permanent damage. It seems that anyone who ever laced on the gloves has tried to defy time and collect one more paycheck. Sometimes it works out. After all, people do win the lottery. George Foreman was able to fool them. Now it's Evander Holyfield trying to fool himself.
Unlike athletes who compete in team sports and are subjected to salary caps and the whims of owners and general managers, boxers almost always act alone. Absent a waiver wire, they are on their own, and there always seems to be a promoter willing to offer a purse to a faded legend. When Larry Holmes was asked why it was so hard to retire, he replied, "I like the game, the competition, the challenge." But in another interview he said, "Because people keep offering me money."
A savvy businessman, Holmes seems to be in the minority among boxers. Mike Tyson isn't the only fighter to lose it all (although he is the first to blow through $400 million); others have squandered their resources, or had it squandered for them. Louis, the heavyweight champ during the 1930s and '40s, had to keep fighting (and even tried pro wrestling) after running afoul of the IRS. Robinson, whose extravagant lifestyle rivaled that of any current athlete with his and her Escalades, went broke. In 1965, at 44, he fought five times in 36 days.
Some athletes say they cant let the game go because its the only thing they've ever done. I think the fear of the unknown scares them into playing well past their prime.
Other guys like Ricky Henderson keep going because it makes his records even more uncatchable. No one in this day in age will catch his stolen base record and his numerous other stats as a player. Then again Ricky might want the huge sendoff some athletes get when they visit road stadiums. He never did the recognition he deserved for being the greatest leadoff hitter ever. His combination of speed, power, and patience is legendary when put in context of every other leadoff hitter.
Even coaches have trouble letting go of the sports they've always been associated with. How many times has Bill Parcells retired but to coach again? You always seem to see the same retread coaches trying to catch one last chance to win a title. Maybe its the money since coaches years ago never earned the money they do today.
It is hard for people who are so competitive to just quit. For boxers it is a little easier to know when to hang it up as a good ass whooping can serve as a wake up call. But in other areas these guys have a hard time coming to grips with that reality. How likely do you think you would be to walk away from something you were always good at?
And as good as it is to see Rickey Henderson still in uniform, I know he'll keep putting that uniform on until someone takes it away from him.
The competition is like an addiction I guess. They need help to get away.