From any of you out there not waist-high in middle age or close to it, you stop right here; this isn't for you. Go read the golf. This is directed to those of you - those of us - who may still weigh pretty much what you did 10 years ago, but alas, the pounds seem to have arranged themselves differently. Does the phrase, "Damn, I can't button my jacket; the laundry must have shrunk it" ring a bell?
Sadly, this was a bad week for geezers.On Sunday, Kareem looked every day of 42. He played only 10 minutes against Phoenix, and one of his Sky Hooks was two feet short from eight feet out. A low line drive, it didn't even touch the net; it keened under. The shot looked like one of those Titan missiles they used to launch in the 1960s that fell straight off the pad and exploded. Mercifully, Kareem's basketball career only has seven games, at most, to go.
On Monday, Nolan Ryan got roughed up in Baltimore. That's not so awful, for it's apparent Ryan can still pitch effectively. But Monday was poison to two of his peers.
A weepy Mike Schmidt retired from the Phillies, and the Yankees told 46-year-old Tommy John to take a hike - or take a cart if the hike's too strenuous. "T.J. will probably be able to pitch until he's 60," Yankee Manager Dallas Green observed, adding sardonically, "whether he can get people out is another question."
On Wednesday, Jimmy Connors was given the bum's rush out of the French Open by a 22-year-old punk with a Rube Goldberg serve, a jammed knee and an earring, who buys his racquets at K mart. Jimbo's early dispatch recalled the fact that his former fiancee, Chris Evert, was so dispirited by her recent shabby efforts that she didn't even post at the French. All her official retirement awaits are last hurrahs at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow.
Thursday, Friday, I was too depressed to read the papers. I figured, what's next, Jack Nicklaus packing it in? Dave Butz retiring? (He did? When? Where was I? Does Beathard know about this? Him, too? Wow, I feel like Jim Ignatowski.)
The question that invariably comes up is: What is the right time to retire? Some guys do it better than others. (Ray Leonard simply does it more often than others.) Jim Brown left too early; Steve Carlton too late.
Sometimes you'll be fooled by an Indian Summer season. Ted Williams hit .388, with 38 homers at 39; Kareem averaged 23.4 a game at 39; Tom Seaver was 16-11 at 41. Look at Schmidt, he had 37 homers and 113 runs batted in two years ago. You have a big year like that, you start thinking you can have it again, that age isn't a factor.
Age is a prime factor. Your reflexes slow. You think you can overcome it through sheer hard work, but you can't - and even if you could, after so long at the same stand psychologically, you're no longer capable of the tunnel vision required to tough it out. Your body and your mind conspire against you. (Pitchers are most likely to delude themselves, believing finesse and experience can guide them safely to shore.)
In their hearts athletes know when they're through; they're just trying to keep everyone else from knowing.
Why don't they retire earlier? Money, surely. Who walks away from $750,000 a year? But by then, late in a superstar's career, money's just another way of keeping score. I suspect it goes deeper than that. For 20 years - all their adult lives - this is what they've been doing. Going to the arena early, staying late. They developed their bodies, not their minds; the bosses were paying off on 94-mile-an-hour heaters and sliders that dropped off the table, not the ability to analyze market trends in genetic engineering. Everything an athlete knows, he's learned on the field. The clubhouse is safe and dry. What's he going to do when they lock the door behind him?
The saddest thing I remember in sports was watching Willie Mays, my boyhood idol, stumbling around, literally falling down in the outfield, for the Mets in 1973. Shortly afterward, Mays retired, and his farewell speech broke my heart. He said the time had come to, "say goodbye to baseball, Willie, say goodbye to America." His words got softer and softer, like he was falling down into a mine shaft, disappearing from view.
Why don't athletes retire earlier? They're afraid to. They're 40 years old, they're first entering the real world - 20 years behind everyone else - and for all their trophies and acclaim, they don't have any transferable skills. What on earth are they going to do with the rest of their lives?
Say goodbye to America . . .
Whew, I have to stop this. This is so down it's getting me depressed. Let's switch the subject. Let's get happy. Let's talk about a geezer we can all cheer for. Remember big George Foreman? He's back, shaved-headed and bigger than Asia. Outlandishly fat, flabbed-out and 41, he's banging the gaboola out of people.