Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Nonsense Of Over-The-Hill Superstars

I have been a sports fan all my life but concede in the twilight of my existence what once was fiery passion has turned to embers. I'm not really jaded, bored or turned off because of steroids or performance enhancing drugs.

No. What bothers me are the superstar athletes who don't know when to call it quits. I'm undecided whether it's the money or a severe ego problem. Probably a lot of both. Toss in the possibility they spent only minutes wondering what the devil they would do once forced into retirement.

In my youth, Johnny Unitas was my hero quarterback for the Baltimore Colts. His performance in that sudden death championship game against the New York Giants I will cherish to my grave. But to see his hunchback posture masquerading as a San Diego Charger was embarrassing, pathetic, in his final season.

Today it is Brett Favre, a sure-fire first ballot candidate for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Heading into his third decade in pro football, a sore arm, age and interceptions have plagued his legend. In one final shot at the Super Bowl, Favre will earn $6 million after he takes his first snap in his new Minnesota Vikings regular season game.

He could still do it for he is a marvelous athlete, knows the Vikings offensive scheme, is blessed with the best running back in the NFL, a great offensive line and the best rushing defense in the league. Fans in Green Bay where he set every offensive record that means anything, consider him a traitor for joining division conference rival Minnesota.

No, that doesn't bother me.

What does rattle my cage is his on-again, off-again "retirement" announcements that have become a joke. Two weeks ago he told the Vikings his orthopedic surgeon recommended the stretched tendons in his right throwing elbow were shot and he shouldn't play. He reported to camp Monday after a miracle recovery that just so happens coincides with the closing of training camp and two-a-day drills. He pulled the same thing with the New York Jets at the end of last year's training camp.

Favre has never displayed such fickleness on the field. Why doesn't he fess up and admit he's earned the right not to go to training camp. If his coach and owner agree to Favre's demands, why play this cat-and-mouse game. He's hurting himself and his new teammates by not being forthcoming.

Brett, cut the image crap and be a man.

That is the reason I consider Jim Brown the greatest running back of all time. He played nine spectacular seasons for the Cleveland Browns and "retired" when owner Art Modell was too cheap to grant him a massive pay raise and he opted to become a movie star in "The Dirty Dozen" and playing the love interest to Rachel Welch in a horrible western.

That is why I also admire Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale who were exploited by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both retired at the top of their careers. Koufax because his left arm might have had to be amputated if he continued pitching. Drysdale because of arm injuries, and, well, because he was Don Drysdale.

It must be said that Jim Brown, Koufax and Drysdale never made the millions athletes in today's market earn.

But the list of superstars clinging to the past of great careers is endless. The latest is John Smoltz, dropped by the Red Sox and now praying to make it as a St. Louis Cardinal.

Michael Jordan flirted with embarrassment in his final season with the Wizards.

Roger Clemens is accused of taking performance enhancing drugs to extend his magnificent career with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros. Even the proud and profane Nolan Ryan admits he should have retired a season before his final one.

I witnessed Luis Tiant, the hero of the Boston Red Sox in their losing effort to the Big Red Machine in the 1975 World Series, pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates five years later against the San Diego Padres. He was terrible, his once unhittable fastball now floating towards the plate at 69 mph on the radar gun. Bob Gibson, hobbled by a gimpy knee and old age, brought tears to my eyes in his final season with St. Louis. Same goes for Tom Seaver in his last season with the Chicago White Sox. Even Babe Ruth couldn't quit the game.

What is it these guys don't get? Quit embarrassing yourselves. Let us fans remember you the way you were in your prime. With the exception of a few such as Seaver who wanted to notch 300 wins in his career or reach specific sports milestones, the spectacle of their former selves is ridiculous but we still pay good money to watch them.

The thing is, their inductions into their sports halls of fame will still occur.

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