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It is a warm Tuesday night in a nearly empty high school gym, and I am in trouble. The opposing team's 20-year-old point guard advances upon me. He is quicker than I am, can jump higher and, based on how fresh he looks, isn't feeling the heat. Once upon a time, back when I played in college, I would have owned this kid. Not now. Now I cannot guard both the shot and the drive. Instead, I pick one and hope. That is what I rely on now: hope.
I should be way too young for this. Last fall I turned 37. By any empirical standard I am not old. In most respects my future is limitless. I could still write novels, father dozens of children or sail around the world if I chose. And yet, in athletic terms, I am ancient.
Day by day my body degrades, like some unstable isotope. It happens to all of us. Perhaps you followed Derek Jeter's sometimes agonizing trek to 3,000 hits, which ended in such joyful, surreal fashion at Yankee Stadium last Saturday. If so, then maybe you read the June 23 New York Times Magazine cover story about how, no matter how many magical moments Jeter has this season, from a scientific standpoint he is still doomed: destined to regress as a shortstop, his power and bat speed diminishing, his muscle mass shrinking, his reactions dulling. He has become, in sports world terms, a walking corpse. All because he is 37.
What is it about this age and sports? Thirty-seven is when Reggie Miller turned into a role player, when Joe Montana became human, when Muhammad Ali retired for the first—and what should have been the last—time. Thirty-seven is where expectations go to die. Fans don't expect fortysomethings to be All-Stars; if a 41-year-old is even playing, we glorify him. Look at that lovable codger; he's still going! But at 37 the athlete still carries a whiff of greatness. When he doesn't perform, we are disappointed. He is not yet lovable. He is letting us down.
And yet, when the sun shines just right upon him, he is still capable of the sublime. How else to explain Jeter, who spent all season hitting impotent grounders and then, on one glorious afternoon in the Bronx, had not just a good day but the best day of his 17-year career. Last Saturday was the first time that Jeter finished a game with five hits, a home run and more than one RBI. His 3,000th hit came on the homer. His second RBI beat the Rays 5--4. It was remarkable. It was epic. And, eventually, once all the good feelings fade and the groundouts pile up again, it will also lead fans to wonder: Why can't he do that more often?
Believe me, he wishes he could. That is the most frustrating thing: Wedged between bad days and sore days and frustrating days, there comes that afternoon when it all comes back, when the legs feel springy, the shoulder is loose, and you really can do what you once could. Perhaps, as with Jeter and his desire to reach the milestone before the home crowd, you ride a welcome wave of adrenaline. You feel invincible again. And yet, inevitably, the feeling slips away, like a dream lost in the early morning hours.
Oh, what we will do to hold on to that dream. I have become the guy I used to mock. Like an old quarterback who arrives late to training camp or an aging center who skips shootarounds, I ration my exercise. I eat healthier, engage in long and goofy stretching routines, religiously ingest a preemptive cocktail of Tylenol and Advil two hours before rec league games. My wife thinks it's ridiculous; my 39-year-old brother, who also played college basketball, does not. He recommends yoga.
Of course, those older than us don't want to hear it. "Wait till you're 47!" says Darryl from the Y noon game, gray of hair yet still flying around the court. "Hey, man, I just turned 50. Fifty!" retorts Rich Lo, a regular at the Sunday outdoor run who's still draining threes. "That really is too bad," my 72-year-old father, with his two metal knees and dead right shoulder, says when I complain about my latest nagging injury.
They're on the other side, though. They've regrouped and retrenched, soldiering on. Others hang in by finding ways to adapt. Jason Kidd just won an NBA title with the Mavericks at 38, playing an entirely different type of game—the fleet point guard made over as a half-court, spot-up shooter. As future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux got older, he relied even more on deception and control. Same for lefty Jamie Moyer, who hopes to make a comeback in 2012 at age 49 and once said he'll keep playing until "the game" tells him he can't.
Well, what is the game telling Jeter now? Does it tell him he's the guy who can go 5 for 5 or the guy who went 1 for 4 with two strikeouts the following afternoon? If it's the latter, should he listen? Because there are many nights these days—more than Derek or I care to admit—when the game has unkind, if not downright cruel, things to say. When it suggests it is time to join the Senior tour of our lives. And then: 5 for 5. How can one concede after that?