It's time to go
These guys should hang 'em up before they wear out their welcome
Posted: Friday December 17, 2004 1:04PM; Updated: Friday December 17, 2004 1:45PM
It is a good time for the old guys. Yankees boss George Steinbrenner is obsessed over the lefty ace atop his winter shopping list, 41-year-old Randy Johnson. Not to be outdone, the rival Red Sox snagged old-timer David Wells with a two-year deal. Wily veterans are in -- from Steve Finley and Omar Vizquel to Al Leiter and Woody Williams.
Over in the NBA, the ageless Karl Malone is talking about a comeback. Jeff George is back with the Bears after an extended hiatus from the NFL. And, so it seems, every ex-heavyweight champ is a mere phone call away from a return to the ring.
If you can make a good dime and still play, why not? Only it's hard sometimes for great athletes to know when to say goodbye. Do you walk away in your prime or hang around till the gas tank is dry?
As a kid, growing up a New York sports fan, it was painful watching Willie Mays stumble around in center field for the Mets. Just as sad catching Joe Namath's final act with the Los Angeles Rams. With those images in mind, here's a list of sports figures we're pulling for to call it quits in the new year.
1. Alonzo Mourning: One of John Thompson's favorite players deserves high-fives coming back from a kidney transplant last December, but his old coach as well as fellow Georgetown alum Patrick Ewing are urging 'Zo to call it quits. Mourning's play isn't the problem; he's averaging 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds in 25 minutes a game. Nor is the kidney. But at 34, Mourning admits his "body is breaking down,'' and a sore hip and torn tendon in his right pinkie finger may send him back to the injured list. The issue is compounded because he can't take any painkillers due to his kidney illness. So what reason is there to hang around as new owner, Bruce Ratner, goes about dismantling the Nets? None.
2. Jerry Rice. How the mighty have fallen. This is the best wide receiver in NFL history. It is sad watching Rice, a shell of his old self, parading around first with the Oakland Raiders and now the Seattle Seahawks. It's worse than watching Tim Brown cashing his last paychecks in Tampa or Junior Seau in Miami.
3. Roger Clemens. OK, the Rocket is coming off a seventh Cy Young season, National League hitters genuflected at every stop during his maiden tour of the Senior Circuit (18-4 record and 2.98 ERA) and now Houston ownership is poised to give him near 10 million reasons to keep chucking. So why walk away? Because there's something to be said for the rare birds who go out on top: Jim Brown, Lennox Lewis and John Elway. At 42, it's hard to image Clemens riding the crest much longer. The Astros' magic figures to wane, especially with centerpieces Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio another year longer in the tooth and Jeff Kent departed for Los Angeles. And the life is really sucked out if Carlos Beltran inks a megadeal elsewhere, like New York. The Rocket says he's leaning toward retirement, but, hey, we've heard that line before.
4. Joe Paterno. Only a handful of coaches have influenced college football to the same degree, putting Paterno in the company of Bear Bryant, Bud Wilkinson, Tom Osborne and Bobby Bowden. Now if Paterno only could hatch an escape plan before his name joins the growing list of coaching casualties. The guy is too classy for anyone to wish that. His players graduate at ridiculously high rates. And there's nothing like seeing JoePa lead the nameless blue jerseys into Beaver Stadium. But, unfortunately, he isn't bringing Penn State back to a national power. Not at age 77. Come recruiting time, his age matters to teenage prospects, the affects of which can be seen in the Nittany Lions' dried-up NFL pipeline. Here's hoping Paterno can step down on his terms with grace and dignity.
5. The former heavyweight champs -- Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. Let's pray the madness stops before one of the tired, aging ex-champs gets hurt. Unfortunately, even some of the more professionally run state boxing commissions can't stop them from climbing in the ring. New York officials recently set up a roadblock for Holyfield, but chances are he'll get through the medical tests. So that puts the onus on those closest to the pugs speaking some sense to them -- the wife, girlfriend, minister, lawyer, manager or whomever. The sad truth is Holyfield ranks as the most competent of the lot, which isn't a glowing endorsement. He claims to be on a mission from God to unify the heavyweight title, while Bowe and Tyson -- both coming off hard financial and personal times -- need the cash. As Tyson told reporters this week in reference to his desire to get back in the ring, "Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. I think I don't more than I want to.''
Enough said, old champ.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.