Retirement: Hang on or hang ’em up?

Our favorite athletes are shooting stars. Young at 25, over the hill at 30, their prime years are brief. For the rest of us, it only seems so, as we look back.
Most athletes retire involuntarily and prematurely at 18 or 22, when their school days are over. They have to reinvent themselves, forge new identities, figure out who they are in order to remain relevant and alive.
We want our athletes to retire on top, go out a winner. We remember Willie Mays stumbling around third base for the Mets at age 42, and we were saddened by the spectacle. We don’t understand why they hang on, past their prime.
Somehow, by being human, they tarnish their legacy in our eyes. Not to me. I wish there were a senior league in every sport, like in golf.
As this is written, Pedro Martinez prepares to defy time tonight in Game Six of the World Series. I’ll be rooting hard for him, all guts and guile. I hope he sends a “Tex-Message” to Teixeira, an 88 mph strike-three fastball on the hands. But I won’t love him less if the Yanks light him up.
Brett Favre wants to keep playing football at age 40. Go right ahead, I say. Can you blame him? How much fun did he have the other night against his old team?
Retirement at any age, from any consuming enterprise, is fraught with misgivings and mixed emotions. Any new stage in life is met with trepidation. Expertise built up over a lifetime is hard to relinquish.
How much golf can you play?
For some, retirement is a minefield. Pete Rose in a baseball uniform on the field of play made sense. Off the field, he’s a mess.
Brooks Robinson, Baltimore’s great third baseman, said as his acrobatic skills declined, “They will have to tear the uniform off my back.”
Remember Larry Bird, near the end, lying on the floor to rest his ailing back during lulls in the game, and Kevin McHale playing on his bum ankle?
“Hanging on” defined: See Michael Jordan’s comebacks.
Muhammad Ali, who convinced us at the time that he was too fast and too pretty ever to get beat up, got beat up by a fighter named Trevor Berbick. Those punches Ali endured near the end, the source of his debilitating Parkinson’s, were punches we all felt.
Now we watch the inevitable deterioration of our Red Sox heroes, Papi, Lowell and Tek. Will they hang on or will they exit gracefully? Will they leave angry and embittered like Nomar and Mo? Probably, sad to say.
John Updike wrote about Ted Williams’ last game in “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”: “He had met the little death that awaits athletes. He had quit.”
What do you think Lou Gehrig, his death in the prime of life a foregone conclusion, meant when he said he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth?” Just caught up in the moment?
The boy in A.E. Housman’s poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young,” is considered a “smart lad,” lucky enough “to slip betimes away/from fields where glory does not stay.” He doesn’t have to hang on as the “name died before the man.”
Broadcaster Vin Scully once described the playing status of a player with a sore knee as “day to day.” Then he added, “Aren’t we all?”
The athlete in our literature is always a symbol of youthful innocence and mortality. His mortal enemy is time.
Roy Hobbs, the Natural, hears a train whistle when there is no train. In one of his greatest moments, he hits a mighty blast that destroys the clock on the field, stopping time. Buffeted by time, he makes bad decisions, based on fear.
My favorite fictional character is Babe Ragland in Jerome Charyn’s “The Seventh Babe.” Ragsy gets kicked out of organized baseball and joins up with a barnstorming black team, the Cincinnati Colored Giants, where time and seasons don’t count — and he thrives, because he loves the game.
In the last scene, he is springing his octogenarian teammate, Garland James, from a nursing home in Holyoke, Mass., and together they go out and whip a team of Amherst College undergraduates in a baseball game.
But we can’t all be Babes, in our dotage, leading a team of wild men in “magic pyjamas.”
Retirement is an acknowledgement of the inevitable. We are all athletes of one kind or another, once vibrant and young, then asked to negotiate the passage of time with grace or resignation or denial till we get to this penultimate stage.
Thoreau wrote, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.”
Our lives are grains of sand, yet every day is a lifetime, too.
Ernie Banks, a sage, stood on the top step of the dugout and surveyed the field. “It’s a beautiful day for baseball,” he said. “Let’s play two!”

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