“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”–Orson Welles
My dad tells this story of his friend’s big night at the craps table in Vegas. It was one of those scenes that generally doesn’t exist in reality–the casino’s population all concentrated around this one table, my dad’s friend spurred on by the rallying cries of everyone around him. He was holding court, throwing more and more colored chips on every space of felt left on the table, which at that point looked like the streets of New Orleans at the height of Mardi Gras. The story is legendary, as the entire table was up thousands of dollars.The thing with craps that I never understood is the feverish disappointment when the hero tossing dice inevitably rolls a 7 and everyone craps out. What did everyone think was going to happen? What if he leaves the table when he was still hot and setting the world afire? Would we nod understandably or reproach his cowardice?
An athlete like Jamie Moyer, for example, can either watch his team record the final out to capture their first World Series title in 28 years, get all his teammates to write down their email addresses so he can stay in touch, and drop off his 2008 World Series Champion uniform at the dry cleaners before heading home to watch “The Shield” on DVR.
Or he could parlay the glory of capturing a title into next season, and maybe for as many seasons as it takes him to rack up another 54 W’s. Maybe October 29, 2008 handed Moyer the ideal opportunity to cash out his chips. But it also could have reinforced everything he loved about the sport, enough to make him let his winnings ride.
At 46 years old, Moyer is teetering on the brink of Kevin Brown-status. Although I can’t speak with any authority (barely an educated guess, really) on what’s going through Moyer’s mind right now, the issue of whether to return next season most likely is making some kind of cameo.
To assist him, I’ve sifted through some case studies on athlete retirement and unretirement, assigning each impressive instance of career waffling with a highly coveted award to commemorate it.
The winners are…
The Britney Spears “Gimme More” Award for Juggernaut Comeback that Flatlined at Mediocrity
Michael Jordan. He should have stopped after comeback #1, when he shed he minor league baseball pipe dreams in favor of leading the Bulls to 3 straight titles. Did anyone think anything good was going to come out of comeback #2? Seriously. Besides the Wizards, anyway.
The Melvin Udall Redoing his Kiss to Waitress Carol at End of “As Good As It Gets” Award for Leaving Retirement to Finish Career the Way He Wanted To
George Foreman. Came back from second retirement to reclaim the heavyweight title at age 45, the one he had lost to Ali 20 years earlier. “I know I can do better!”
The Bill Clinton’s Second Term Award for Unretiring only to become Mired in Controversy and Scandal
Roger Clemens. Ugh. Told us all he was retiring after the 2003 season. Then the back page of New York papers were reading “What an Astro!” I don’t even know how many times he announced retirement since then. A lot, though. He comes back to the Yankees, pitches about as well as Aaron Heilman, and then becomes the center of a media steroids circus. And throws in some adultery charges for good measure.
The Michael Myers Award for Continually Resurfacing to Torture the Sports World
Jose Canseco. I used to love this guy, too. My first baseball hat was an Oakland A’s hat. Now look at him. He’d have been better off skipping the Juiced tell-all and just going straight to center square of Hollywood Squares. If I were an active player, I’d live in fear my name would be the one that the peg landed on when Canseco did his daily spin of the Steroid Accusation Wheel.
The Michael J. Fox Award for Unretiring with Flying Colors After Medical Hardship
Mario Lemieux. Retired because of lymphoma, then later returned to re-establish his dominance, netting the 2nd highest number of goals that year. Also saved the Penguins from bankruptcy and now remains the team’s principle owner.
The Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls” Award for Bold Comeback that Ended in Humiliation
Muhammad Ali. Comeback #1: Marked by the epic Joe Frazier fights. Comeback #2: Came back only to be handed his ass and dignity back to him by Larry Holmes
The J.D. Salinger Award for Consistent Success With Every Re-emergence
Phil Jackson. Called it a day in 1998 after topping off the 2nd of the Bull’s two 3-peats. Returned to the game a year later to coach the Lakers, taking them to their own 3-peat before calling it quits again. Returned to the Lakers the following year and brought them to the Finals 2 years after that.
The Paul McCartney Award for Playing Well After His Body Had All But Given Up, Making Fans Collectively Plead at the TV to Just Put Himself Out of His Misery
Patrick Ewing. By the end of a dominant career with the Knicks, he was dragging his leg around like Kathy Bates had had a go at it. He had been tough, formidable, and obscenely talented. His fans could recognize he was physically done and just wanted to fast-forward to the number-retiring ceremony.
The Bill Cosby Award for Retiring and Unretiring With Immunity on Account of Good Guy Status Combined with Lifetime Achievement
Lance Armstrong. Good for him. He beat cancer. He won the Tour-de-France a record-breaking 7 times. But tread lightly, buddy. They’re gunning for you.
The ESPN Sports Guy Bill Simmons Award for Converting Innocuous Charm into Self-Important Irritation so That Fans Gave Up Hoping He’d Retire and Just Flat Out Ignored Him
Curt Schilling. Please go away. Please, please, please. Or at least get fitted for one of those metal plates that Beetlejuice threw over Geena Davis’s mouth to keep her from talking.
The “Sister Act” Award for Unretiring to Coach A Bunch of Unguided Misfits into Glory
Bill Parcells. After spinning the mess of the Giants into 3 division titles and an 8-3 playoff record, Parcells retired.
Comeback #1: Coaxed out of retirement. Within 2 years, led New England to first playoff appearance in 8 years, then 3 years later led them to first Super Bowl. Left to coach Jets and similarly whipped them into shape.
Comeback #2: Was lured out of retirement again to coach Cowboys who were coming off 3 straight seasons of 5-11 play. Led `Boys to 3 winning seasons.
Comeback #3: Unretired for the ultimate challenge–the Miami Dolphins. Good luck.
The Al in “Step by Step” Award for Retiring Off the Scene So Inexplicably Early
Barry Sanders. After 10 years playing for Detroit, he decided it was time to retire. And by retire, I mean fax a letter to hometown newspaper announcing he was done. One of the best running backs in NFL history, he left with 15,269 rushing yards, 2,921 receiving yards, and 109 touchdowns (99 rushing and 10 receiving)–just inches from breaking the all-time rushing record. It’s a little like how my dad will stay up with me to watch an extra-innings game. And then in the 16th inning, with bases loaded and 2 outs, he’ll get up and announce he’s going to bed.
The Samuel L. Jackson in “Snakes on a Plane” Award for future HOF-er Joining a Comedic Mess
Brett Favre. After retiring in 2008, Favre unretired only to discover he was persona non grata in Green Bay. He got traded to the New York Jets who, as per usual, straddle the fine line between fortifying momentum and frantic disarray.
The New Kids on the Block Award for “This is gotta be a joke, right?” Improbable Return that Still Makes My Head Spin
Ricky Williams. Retired because it was easier than having someone else pee in a cup for him every time he got randomly drug tested. Unretired and apologized profusely to all his fans…only to fail drug test #29,108 less than a year later. This back and forth of reinstatement-drug policy violation went on for the better part of a decade. And now he’s back on the Dolphins. Hey, why not?
“The Bob Newhart Show” Series Finale Award for The Ultimate All-Time Retirement Swan Song
Michael Strahan. After the Giants won the Super Bowl, I remember saying to my friend Rob, “I’m scared that I’ll be at the altar of my own wedding someday and think, `Yeah, still not even close to as happy as I was on February 3, 2008.'” I couldn’t even fathom a situation that could manufacture the same degree of euphoria I felt that night. And I have to assume Michael Strahan felt the same way when he announced his retirement shortly thereafter.
* * *
I can’t presume to know what goes Jamie Moyer’s head or any other athlete who’s confronted with the issue of retirement. The only thing I can compare it to is when I’ll go to the park and shoot the old b-ball around.
Of course, after about an hour of this, my arms are about as strong as the inflated tubemen outside a car dealership. So it’s really anyone’s guess where the ball’s gonna land. That’s around when I start saying to myself, “Ok, hit this 3 and then call it a day.” (Which soon becomes, “ok, just bank in this layup…”) Eventually, I’ll hit some nothing-but-net beauty, and instead of making good on all my deals with myself, I’m overly encouraged by this one shot and mistakenly think I’ve hit my stride.
The only thing I’ve ever hit is a number of deadened nerve endings from forcing my body to toss up what now feels like a watermelon.
If I multiply that sentiment by about infinity, I can begin to come to terms with athletes who refuse to give up the game, who won’t just throw in their cards, tip the dealer, and leave.
Deciding when to leave the table is about as critical decision as there is. It’s looking at the Jager shot on the bar after 5 hours of drinking, knowing that it could either make or break you.
It’s a decision that forces the athlete to consider who exactly he’s playing for: himself or the fan who financially supports him. Whose opinion is more compelling? We rally around our heroes and pride in their successes, as if we have a degree of equity in their glory, in exchange for the high price of emotional investment.
So when they crash, our anger is palpable, draining, and unforgiving. But how far can they take us, or will they take us? And what’s worse–when our heroes abandon us by choosing to retire…or when they stay at the party too long and go from star karaoke singer to the clingy, helpless drunk?
These aging heroes may not even consider what unretirement will potentially do to their legacy. They’ve seen their images go every which way in the course of their careers, so the threat of it being tarnished is eclipsed by the draw of once again suiting up.
Why do we return to our alma maters for alumni weekend? How often do you pass a little league game and think what you wouldn’t give to be the one playing instead of the one on the other side of the fence.
The vise grip of competition keeps us clamped to the table so securely that the win/loss chip count isn’t as important. When my dad comes back from poker night, he’s not giving us the rundown of how up or down he went. He’s going a mile a minute on his buddies Reilly and Danny and Harold and Dorey. He’s swearing off the game or singing its praises. He’s just happy.
So maybe when it comes to retirement, the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Leave the table too early, and you’ll always feel cheated. Leave too late–well, at least you’ll have the stories.
Everyone’s gotta crap out eventually. Except my dad’s friend in Vegas, who actually was escorted from the casino before his legendary roll ended…once cameras caught him urinating in the cup ledge. No one could figure out why he didn’t just use the nearby bathroom, until he explained it:
“You NEVER leave the table when you’re hot.”