Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lopez Wants To Tee It Up Again? Fine With Me

It was embarrassing to watch, no question. The wobbly outfielder had no business being in a spring training game, let alone a World Series match. Unable to run the basepaths with any competency, nonetheless he was in centerfield, and now a long flyball was hit in his general direction.

I can still see the image of 42-year-old Willie Mays, once the Say Hey Kid, stumbling in the outfield grass of Oakland's Coliseum during the 1973 World Series. He wasn't Say Hey anymore; he was Hey Lookout!

Mays was terribly past his prime when his Mets tussled with the A's in a thrilling seven-game series (the A's won), and thankfully retired soon after. I was a tad too young to see Mays perform in his prime, so unfortunately my lasting impression is of him fighting a losing battle with Father Time.

Others, too, I've watched perform when the calendar has been less than kind, and I've wished that they were in street clothes, watching from the stands, rather than in uniform, trying to participate.

Still, I must disagree with the Free Press's Carlos Monarrez, the paper's golf writer, who is against Nancy Lopez making an LPGA tour comeback of sorts, at age 50. Monarrez is afraid, and maybe justifiably so, that Lopez, who hasn't broken par since 2002 and finished dead last in her only tour event in 2006, will embarrass herself as she plans to play six events this year, beginning with the Ginn Open on April 12.

I feel where Carlos is coming from, I really do. But I've never been comfortable with sportswriters, fans, talk radio mouths, or even bottom feeding bloggers and magazine editors deciding when it's time for an athlete to hang 'em up. That's a decision that is theirs and theirs alone.

Here's the deal: these folks have been performing in their sport since they were barely out of diapers, in some instances. Even a ballplayer at the relatively young age of 35 has probably been playing organized ball for nearly 30 years at that point. So it's not so easy to walk away sometimes. The retired athletes I've spoken to have repeated the reason: they miss the camaraderie, the togetherness of team, the spirit of competition. Once it's in your blood, it's awfully hard to remove.

So who's to say when it's time to say "when"? Only the athlete him/herself. Only the person who's putting their body thru the rigors of training, dietary changes, and other physical sacrifices in order to try to recapture past glories. True, often the comeback bids are failed. Often they don't come close to materializing in games that count. But at least the athlete has left it all out there, and can ease back into retirement comfortable that there wasn't anything left in the tank -- the nagging feeling of which can haunt for years.

Lopez epitomizes this premise, and said so to Monarrez.

"I think this time I'll know if it's really the time to walk away because of your body and because of your age and what your body is telling you more than anything," she says.

Monarrez closes his piece by saying that Lopez deserves to remain "atop the leader board of our memory as a youthful, vigorous champion untouched by the passage of time."

I can empathize with Monarrez here, I really can. But his words, and those of others who feel the same way about the aging, once-great athlete, are terribly selfish. They are words spoken and written by the person who wants no memories tarnished, even at the expense of the peace of mind of the very same athlete they are admiring.

Only the athlete knows when to say when. We have no business making that decision for them.

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