Ken Griffey Jr. isn't the first athlete to confront ending his career before he's ready. Few have walked away at the top of their games.
Bill Bradley, former New York Knicks star and later U.S. senator, wrote in his autobiography “Life on the Run” that a professional athlete “approaches the end of his playing days the way old people approach death. Behind all the years of practice and all the hours of glory waits that inexorable terror of living without the game.”
Ken Griffey Jr. is hardly the first superstar to endeavor to stave off career mortality. In fact, it often turns melancholy for great athletes in their waning days. And for their fans, too, who must reconcile the desire to keep watching their heroes with the realization that the old guy is a dim facsimile of what made him a hero in the first place.
Rarely, of course, is the dilemma framed quite as starkly as it was with Griffey this past week. Already flailing at the plate, Griffey was rocked by the published revelation that he had been sleeping during a recent game. The image almost instantaneously replaced Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield during the 1973 World Series as the new meme for an athlete hanging on beyond his time.
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And now everyone waits and wonders what Griffey will do next: Stick it out, or hang it up? Each option has its virtues and its drawbacks.
If Griffey keeps playing, fans get to continue absorbing the joy of Griffey’s aura at the ballpark, which for many is enough. Any contribution at the plate is just a bonus. But there’s also the pain of watching an athlete whose calling card was his exuberant yet effortless grace, when those qualities have been all but stifled by the ravages of time.
If he quits, Griffey can leave before the sweet memories of his prime become more obscured by the current struggles. Yet the downside to that scenario is obvious: Once he walks away, there is no coming back.
Aging boxers may keep un-retiring, as does the occasional athlete in other sports (Michael Jordan and Brett Favre jump to mind).
But for Griffey, now 40 with his body worn down by injuries and the toll of a decade-plus on the unforgiving Kingdome turf, there is no turning back. And in that context, it becomes perfectly understandable why he wants to stave off “the inexorable terror” of retirement as long as he can.
Only a select few elite athletes have walked away while still on top of their game. Sandy Koufax was 30 years old, coming off a 27-9, Cy Young-winning season when he retired from the Dodgers in 1966. He was pushed to that decision by his ongoing battle with arthritis, which made each outing a supreme effort in pain management.
At his retirement news conference, Koufax said he didn’t regret “for one minute the 12 years I’ve spent in baseball, but I could regret one season too many.”
Koufax’s retirement came only four months after Jim Brown — still considered by many the greatest running back in NFL history — decided to forgo pro football to pursue an acting career. Brown was 30, like Koufax, and coming off his third straight rushing title as a Cleveland Brown.
“I got out before I ever had to be like so many guys I’ve seen sitting hunched over on the bench, all scarred and banged up, watching some hot, young kid out there in his place,” Brown said upon his retirement.
There was John Elway, winning Super Bowl XXXIII with the Broncos and then hanging up his cleats after being named the game’s Most Valuable Player. There was Bill Russell winning his 11th NBA title in 1969 as Celtics player/coach, ending his playing career by pulling down 21 rebounds in Boston’s decisive Game 7 win over the Lakers. There was Rocky Marciano retiring at age 32 as an undefeated heavyweight champ and actually staying retired. And there was Ted Williams, who in 1960 famously homered in his final at-bat at Fenway Park, and let that be his finale, declining to accompany the Red Sox for their final series at Yankee Stadium.
“He had met the little death that awaits athletes,” wrote John Updike in his legendary essay on Williams’ final game, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. “He had quit.”
But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Far more typical was Babe Ruth, whom the Yankees cast adrift after the 1934 season rather than accede to his wishes to manage the team. Ruth wound up with the Boston Braves, so out of shape at age 40 that Braves pitchers threatened to boycott if he played the field. Ruth hit .188 in 28 games, but mustered a majestic three-homer game at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field on May 25, including one that cleared the roof, something no one had ever done before. Ruth played his final game on May 30, and retired two days later.
That was reminiscent of the departure of another Hall of Famer, Mike Schmidt, who retired on May 29, 1989, at age 39. Schmidt, batting .203 for the Phillies, made the decision to quit after a series in San Francisco in which he compared himself to two Giants stars, and faced a hard reality.
“I went out on the field and looked at Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark and wondered if I could compete,” Schmidt said at his retirement news conference. “That’s the player I was. That’s the way I played the game, like Kevin Mitchell or Will Clark.
“It’s very hard to watch guys replacing you at the top when you’re fighting like hell to keep up. I watched those guys, and I felt very small. I felt like a shadow of those guys.”
Mays, at age 42, was clearly a shadow of himself in his parting 1973 season, hitting just .211 with six homers in 66 games for the Mets. In the World Series against Oakland, he had a game-winning hit off Rollie Fingers in Game 2, but later fell down in the outfield going after a ball, an image that has lingered. So has his quote on his waning days: “Growing old is just a helpless hurt.”
Here’s another quote from Mays about his final days in baseball: “I remember the last season I played. I went home after a ballgame, lay down on my bed and tears came to my eyes. How can you explain that? You cry because you love her. I cried, I guess, because I loved baseball and I knew I had to leave it.”
Try to forget about the napping furor, which will ultimately be viewed as a tempest in a zzz-pot. Have empathy for Ken Griffey Jr. as he contemplates how to handle the ending days of the game he deeply loves. The “little death” awaits him, as it does every athlete. But it’s only human to cling to life.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org