The stars at twilight
For professional athletes, knowing when to quit is the toughest task of all
STEVE MAICH | Oct 07, 2005
This season, baseball etched another chapter into its book of legends. It also wrote another, sadder story. But that one was largely ignored, out of deference for its subject, and because pro sports favours stories of achievement over frailty.
The story we all know is that of Roger Clemens -- the barrel-chested pitcher, who said goodbye to baseball two years ago and then decided, almost on a whim, to give the game one more shot. This year, Clemens tore through the major leagues. With just a few weeks left in the season, he carried an astonishing 1.78 earned run average. He turned 43 in August, and yet is arguably more dominant now than when he won his first Cy Young award 19 years ago.
To watch him throw, you can almost believe that age is irrelevant, as long as competitive fires burn. But we can't quite believe it, because we know the other story of this baseball season, the one not nearly so widely told: the story of Rickey Henderson.
On Labour Day weekend, while Clemens was on the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals, Henderson was playing in front of 1,018 fans in Long Beach, Calif., in the championship of the Golden Baseball League -- the most distant of professional baseball's outer colonies, where players make about US$1,000 a month and some come to the park straight from their day jobs.
That weekend, the all-time major league leader in stolen bases, was in the outfield for the San Diego Surf Dawgs, raging against the dying light of his once-prodigious talent. Against opponents who couldn't quite crack the lowest rungs of baseball's minor league system, the 46-year-old Henderson could do no better than a .270 batting average and five homes runs in 73 games.
Clemens and Henderson are opposite sides of the same argument -- the one that roils in the mind of every athlete eventually. When to quit? When to admit that whatever it was -- that thing that transformed you from a player into a legend -- is gone and it's not coming back? There are no easy answers, and freaks of nature like Clemens only make it harder for men like Henderson, lingering in the game, desperate for one last time at bat.
It takes pride and optimism to dedicate your life to sport, and quitting requires a level of realism and self-doubt that players must intentionally suppress to be effective. "I just want the same chance I had when I was 19 years old," Henderson told a reporter in August. "I just want a team to give me that chance. If I'm going to retire I want to take the uniform off my back." For those who watched in amazement as Henderson stole 1,406 bases over 25 seasons in the majors, his honesty was jarring. You'll rarely hear such a raw admission from an athlete: he was no longer in control, and it was eating him up.
Pathetic is a cruel word. But that's what Henderson had become: a hollow impersonation of his former self. It was tough not to feel sorry for him. And that's no way for a legend to end.
Lately, there have been a lot of athletes forced to face the twilight of their careers. Jack Nicklaus played his last round at The Masters this summer. A handful of NHLers -- Mark Messier, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, Ron Francis -- hung up their skates rather than face the gruelling task of getting back in shape after more than a year of inactivity. Jerry Rice, 43, the all-time leader in receiving in the National Football League, said a teary goodbye to the game last month when he couldn't earn a spot among the Denver Broncos' top three receivers.
But there's no shortage of others persevering, determined to get one more year, one more record, one more victory lap out of their game. Brett Hull, 41, is back with the Phoenix Coyotes. And after losing the 2002/03 season to reconstructive knee surgery, and having his face shattered by a puck 1 1/2 years ago, 40-year-old Steve Yzerman decided to return to the Detroit Red Wings. The man who was once Detroit's most prolific and dangerous playmaker is expected to spend the year on a checking line, shadowing the stars of opposing teams.
Their decisions weren't much of a surprise. It's the rare athlete that can resist the temptation of those elusive milestones -- 1,000 games, 500 goals, one more championship, one last whiff of stardom. Everyone wants to "go out on top", but few do.
Babe Ruth hit .181 in his final pro season, playing for the Boston Braves. Willie Mays got traded to the New York Mets when he was 41 and barely managed to hit .200. Guy Lafleur returned after three years of retirement for a sad comeback with the New York Rangers. And boxing history is littered with former champions humbled in their later years. Few who saw Muhammad Ali's devastating loss at the hands of Larry Holmes will ever forget it. Now history repeats itself with Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, and Tommy "Hitman" Hearns, returning to the ring at the age of 46. It's hard to tell if Hearns is a suicide in progress, or merely a sideshow -- like Gordie Howe, when he skated one shift for the minor league Detroit Vipers in 1997, to become the first man to play pro hockey in six different decades.
Ask psychologists why sports stars cling so desperately to the spotlight and they'll tell you money and ego play a part. But the real motivation, they say, is a dark, cold fear that haunts almost all athletes. Lloyd Moseby, the former outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, may have put it best in a 1996 interview with Saturday Night magazine. "Baseball was my God," he said. "The game made me alive. It made my brain work. It kept me up at night working things out. [After retiring] it was as if everyone in the world had died . . . watching those guys on TV, there's a void so big, nothing can fill it."
Ted Butryn, a sports psychologist at San Jose State university has helped hundreds of athletes face the depression and anxiety that comes with the end of their playing days. He says most go through a sort of "symbolic death" of themselves. To reach the elite level, they must push down every other aspect of their identity. Their sport made them rich, made them famous, made them respected, even loved. So, in the twilight of that career, almost all athletes go through the classic stages of emotional trauma: denial, anger, appeal to a higher power, depression, and finally acceptance. Those with unrealistic ambitions struggle most, Butryn says.
Jerry Rice, the greatest football receiver ever, once confided to his coach Mike Shanahan that he never wanted to see his achievements surpassed by the next generation. He spent his last three seasons scrounging for playing time with the Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks and the Broncos, consumed by the idea of setting records that could never be broken. By chasing sporting immortality, he ended up looking all too human.
Increasingly, the economics of sport encourage players to hang on too long -- the money is just too good to give up. Boxers keep fighting because, once they've established a name, they are a saleable commodity even long after their skills have faded. That reality has spread to other sports. With the era of expansion in hockey, baseball, football and basketball, merchandising and marketing are now as important as wins and losses. Prominent, "big name" players can be valuable attractions for sub-par teams, even if they can't produce victories. That point was clearly made when big crowds turned out to watch Michael Jordan's woeful Washington Wizards, even though Air Jordan was a distant memory.
Some may see nothing wrong with that. If a player can get paid, why shouldn't he play?
The answer lies in the nature of stardom, and the allure of sports: it's about being super-human. We're fascinated by athletes because they exceed the limits of mind and body that constrain the rest of us. It's like magic. And to watch someone grow old on the field is like hanging around after the show and seeing how they didn't really saw the lady in half. It ruins the wonder of what came before. When our heroes linger too long, they're revealed as being just like the rest of us -- vain, greedy, insecure and scared. And that's the last thing we want them to be.
Clemens tempted fate coming back. If he's wise, he'll walk away now with an unblemished legacy and no regrets. As for Henderson, he's bound to call it quits one of these days. In a few years, he will take his place in baseball's Hall of Fame. His many accomplishments will be extolled and no one will mention the San Diego Surf Dawgs. But it'll be hard to shake that memory, of a legend struggling through his last days, waiting for a call back to glory that never came.
Read Steve Maich's weblog, All Business
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