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Scott Ostler

Hanging On or Hanging It Up: Why Do They Do It and When?

November 06, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has returned for one more season. And then, maybe, he'll play one more after this; then, who knows?

Sugar Ray Leonard is coming back for one more fight. And if he wins it . . .

Reggie Jackson wants to play one more time. Maybe he'll find a team that needs him, maybe he'll hit 30 dingers and decide to do it one more time . . .

"Some people," some people say, "don't know when to call it quits."

Fans and sportswriters say it. Even athletes say it. The younger ones, anyway.

"Willie Mays," some people say, and shake their heads.

Willie Mays, it seems, has become the patron saint of athletes who overstay their welcomes. Willie Mays at 42, stumbling under a routine fly ball in the 1973 World Series, is the symbol of tragic athletic senility.

"Why can't they just go away?" some people say. "Why don't they leave with dignity, quit before they embarrass or injure themselves? Why can't they let us remember them in their greatness?"

For a rebuttal, I call upon a higher source--Wilt Chamberlain, 7-1 1/16.

"We all have something inside of us that makes us want to do certain things," Wilt was saying one day not long ago. "What if someone said to Michelangelo, 'Hey, you've done everything, Mike, but you're getting older. What you should do now is sit down and enjoy that spaghetti factory you bought with all the money you made.'

"I guarantee you, 90% of these guys who retire are forced to retire by what people say. You still want to go out there and play, hit that baseball, it's what turns you on, just to be out there. Now you get to be 40 years old, people say, 'Why don't you give it up?'

"Why is it, if one time you're the batting champ, but you can't win the batting championship anymore, you're supposed to retire? I guarantee you Kareem could play another 5 or 10 years if he wanted to. Reggie might play until he's 50 if people didn't put pressure on him."

That might be stretching the point a bit, the idea of Kareem and Reggie still teeing it up at 50. But the point is well made. Why are we so eager to push these people out into the real world?

Why are we so offended that these geezers keep coming back for one more fight, one more season? It's as if advancing age and receding skills are symptoms of a terminal disease to which they are exposing us all.

I suppose money is part of the reason. Some people think these guys are motivated by greed. Willie Mays was forced to play beyond his prime because he was short of cash, or so it was said. Now there's a situation difficult for most of us to relate to.

But it's not money. Sugar Ray could bulldoze bales of his money over a cliff and into the sea for the next 10 years and never run short of cash. Reggie probably lends money to Gene Autry. Kareem, for all his publicized trouble, is down to his last estate and record company.

Does Pete Rose play on for the money? Do Bill Shoemaker and Arnie Palmer need more money?

They all stay around for a simple reason, unrelated to money. As Leonard said in Sports Illustrated, in a story where he was photographed with his Rolls-Royce and his mansion, "There is a burning desire in me now."

So Leonard will fight, and maybe he'll get hammered, but he won't regret his decision. Maybe he'll even fight again. The fire isn't easily controlled.

"Sandy Koufax quit while still in his prime," some people argue. "He's happy. That's the way to go out, on top. That's the noble way. Jim Brown didn't hang around. Neither did Jerry West."

Good for them. Maybe the fire was out, snuffed out by pride or injuries or the realities of aging.

For others the fire burns on.

If Reggie retired today, how many TV sets do you suppose he would have to sell to equal the feeling of hitting one monster home run, standing and watching it rise into the sky like a balloon?

"But these hangers-on, they hurt their teams," some people say. "They strike out with the bases loaded. They dog it on defense. They become a liability."

If so, that's up to the team to decide. That's why we have managers and coaches and general managers. The Angels sent Rod Carew packing. The Yankees showed Babe Ruth the clubhouse door. Reggie, too. If Sugar Ray Leonard really is washed up, Marvelous Marvin Hagler will let him know.

As for memories, which Willie Mays do you remember best? Willie Mays staggering at Shea in '73, or Willie Mays sprinting to the Polo Grounds wall in '54?

"Willie shoulda quit at his peak," some people say. "Why did he hang around?"

Some people will never know.

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