During a recent sports-talk show, I was asked my view on whther a certain veteran athlete should retire. The guy was coming off a mediocre season, one that fell far short of the all-World seasons he regularly produced at the peak of his career. The inference was that he should go out with “dignity,” or before he suffered some life-altering injury.
Without much thought I said: “Play on!”
Who are we to tell an athlete when he or she should retire? We do it all the time, typically wanting our icons to retire “on top,” or before we have to watch them perform like pitiable shells of their former selves. (Old guys, please let the Willie Mays thing go!)
We want New York Giants defensive leader Michael Strahan to retire after winning his first Super Bowl. (Please, the man has huge alimony payments.)
We wanted Michael Jordan to retire after nailing the NBA Championship-winning offensive foul/jumper against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Finals. (The body said yes, but MJ’s mind clearly said no.)
Most athletes retire quietly, disappearing before we know they’re really gone. Some leave in the wake of ignominious remarks that will live in infamy. (See: Latrell Sprewell’s “feed my family” diatribe for turning down $5 million three years ago, an amount his agent called “a slap in the face.” Just recently it was reported that Sprewell’s home was in foreclosure due to more than $200,000 in payments in arrears, and that he’d auctioned off his yacht to pay the $1.32 owed on it.)
Some athletes don’t really retire retire – i.e. the spate of NBA veterans that have been dusted off of late by teams either looking for wizened reinforcements for the playoff stretch (P.J. Brown) or someone to throw into a trade deal to make the numbers work (Keith Van Horn). (The lesson: Never sign those retirement papers!)
Back in the early 90s, I waxed on about how Jimmy Connors should retire. It was 1991 and the aging, injured champion had fallen to No. 936 in the world. Because of his petulant behavior (on and off the tennis court) I had never been a huge fan. I respected his achievements and on some level admired his up-from-nowhere fire. But as he pushed 40 his act had grown weary. I was adamant that tennis (and sports) would be better off if Connors and his tantrums just faded away.
He did nothing of the sort, of course. And that fall Connors put on what may have been the greatest show in tennis histor, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open and stirring all of New York in the process. On his 39th birthday, he defeated 24-year-old Aaron Krickstein 3-6, 7-6(8), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), overcoming a 2-5 hole in the final set, in 4 hours and 41 minutes of the most scintillating sports exhibition I may have ever witnessed.
An exhibition we would have missed had Connors retired, as so many were saying he should do.
After that, I’ve been loathe to judge whether any athlete should retire. Play on.
Yesterday, Brett Favre retired “on his terms,” as we like to say. He said simply that, after 17 NFL seasons, he was tired. He had nothing left to prove to anyone, including himself. Some lament that the certain Hall-of-Fame QB’s last pass was an ill-thrown interception in the NFC title game that led to Green Bay being eliminated from the Super Bowl Derby. Hogwash. The all-time everything QB will be remembered for far more than that.
What will we remember about Roger Clemens? I’m not sure whether he’s thrown his last pitch from a major-league mound. but it certainly seems unlikely now that he’ll stare down another batter. He’s too busy staring down the rest of us. He’s too busy telling us what few others believe to be true – that he did not take steroids, was not at Jose Conseco’s party, did not influence a caretaker about her potential testimony and did not tell Andy Pettitte his drug use.
And soon he may have to stare down a federal investigator trying to determine if he lied to Congress.
Right now, all the greatness Clemens displayed on the mound, the greatness that led us to debate whether he was the best pitcher ever, seems pretty insignificant relative to the ugliness that surrounds him now.
Definitely not a way to go out.