Sunday, July 09, 2006

Retirement Not Always Attractive To The Career Athlete

In Norman Rockwell’s world, the aging, fading star athlete would hit a homerun, score a goal, run for paydirt, or hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer, then announce after the game that he is now going gently into the good night.

That’s why Norman Rockwell was a painter of canvases. He wasn’t a manipulator of fate.

Sometimes it’s true. Star athlete sends one more rush of chills down his adoring faithful’s spine in a mother of all swan songs.

Teddy Williams fit inside Rockwell’s framed canvas. He knocked one last pitch out of the park – in his final at-bat – to close his career in 1960.

Raymond Bourque, loyal employee of the Boston Bruins for over 15 seasons, spilled blood and dropped sweat in pursuit of hockey’s Stanley Cup. Many times there were playoffs, and a couple times there were Finals appearances. But never did Bourque, the greatest Bruins defenseman not named Bobby Orr, get the opportunity to raise the Cup over his head. Until he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche – a mercy offing by the Bruins. In his final game, Bourque’s Avalanche beat New Jersey and the Cup was his.

Most of the time, however, the storybook ending has more of a gothic nursery rhyme flavor to it.

Steve Yzerman last week sat before the bright TV lights and the whirring cameras and cache of microphones in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena and announced he wouldn’t be subjecting himself to anymore training camps, exhibition games, regular season games, and – worst of all – playoff games. He decided to take the 22 years-and-out plan, three less than Gordie Howe’s 25-and-out package. But then Gordie kept going, after all, and it became 32-and-out.

“I think I’ve done my best, and always tried to do what’s best for the team,” Yzerman said – dressed in the business suit of the non-hockey playing hockey player.

“It’s great to be a Red Wing.”

Well, yeah – once Steve Yzerman joined them, that is.

That Yzerman didn’t take a final lap around the ice with the Stanley Cup in tow after his final game as a player doesn’t mean that his retirement didn’t have some Rockwell in it after all. Been there, done that, frankly. But he left on his own accord, listened to his body, and has comfort in knowing that, in his heart and mind, he’s leaving the ice with the energy gauge squarely on “Empty.” Gobs of athletes would long for that kind of an exit.

Plus, it happened during the offseason, Yzerman’s announcement. Tormenting is the midseason retirement, which generally means that either something catastrophic has occurred, or the body has shut down – the skills vanished like something from a David Copperfield trick.


“Do you know how Norm Cash found out he was being released? … He was driving to the ballpark.”


The midseason quitting – now that’s a toughie. Athlete calls a press conference, in the environs of his trade, but wearing those street clothes of surrender. He’s not in uniform today. The tears flow, the weeping real as he describes how he’d like to keep going, but his being on the team is actually hurting, rather than helping.

I remember watching Mike Schmidt presiding over such an event.

It was May, 1989. The Phillies were scuffling along, and Schmidt, who would be a first ballot Hall of Famer, wasn’t having an impact. He was becoming a part-time player, only seeing action at all out of deference to his past accomplishments. Folks looked at themselves in Philadelphia and wondered when the greatest third baseman in franchise history would call it quits.

He finally did it, the kids still in school, the baseball season not really even warmed up yet.

“It’s becoming obvious that I can no longer do what I’ve once been able to do,” Schmidt forced through tears and shaking sobs. “Therefore, I am retiring as an active player, effective immediately.” Schmidt, 39 going on 40, had five hits in his last 57 at-bats. Tank empty.

Even the great Schmidt couldn't make it thru the 1989 season

Bill Laimbeer, Pistons Bad Boy extraordinaire, threw his last elbow early in the 1993-94 season. The team going nowhere, his 6’11” tank running on tired fumes, Laimbeer called one of those “uh-oh” press conferences, the season droning on. No tears – not that any of us expected any – but the message was clear enough without them for added emphasis: I’m done with this game, even if we do have over 60 games to play this season.

The announcements issued by the players are one thing, but those that are team-generated, ending up in agate type in the Transactions section of the sports page are quite another. Athlete is getting fired. The club has determined that his skills are corroded beyond repair. Athlete has to clean out his locker. No press conference. No dignity.

“Do you know how Norm Cash found out he was being released?,” former Tiger Jim Northrup bellowed into a phone to me last week. “He was driving to the ballpark. He was in his car!” Cash, 39, was let go by the team in August 1974. “I tell you, he was the best teammate I ever had,” Northrup said.

Sometimes athlete overstays his welcome. We say he is “hanging on.” He offers his services, but there are few interested takers. He is a shell of his former self. We watch him play with one eye open, the other closed.

Willie Mays. Steve Carlton. Tony Dorsett. They are names enshrined in their sport’s Hall of Fame. Names that should be cherished. But each of them became the hanging on athlete. They are, sadly, sometimes more remembered for their wobbly exits than their peaks.

Whenever I’ve talked to the retired athlete, and have asked him what he misses most about the game, the common denominator is this: I miss the camaraderie. I miss the togetherness of the lockerroom. I miss the team meals. The team flights.

It’s a powerful narcotic. Golf and travel and even family aren’t always enough of an antidote.

What else are some of these guys going to do, anyway?

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