Every time an Alex Rodriguez postseason at-bat dies with a feeble strikeout, 10,000 possible headlines are born in the minds of copy editors at New York City tabloids. Each Rodriguez plate appearance becomes a referendum on his career — whether or not he’s a true Yankee, the definition of a true Yankee, his ability to hit in the clutch, whether there’s even something called clutch or is it just sample size, his bizarre, continuing ability to break a series of unwritten baseball rules — yelling “Ha” during a popup, hitting the ball out of the glove of a fielder — his failed marriage, his girlfriends, his steroid use, whether he’ll get into the Hall of Fame, that ridiculous contract he signed with the Rangers a decade ago, the contract he signed with the Yankees and just how bad is he going to be at the end of it, and his relationship with Derek Jeter. A lot going on.
When I see him flail I see a 37-year-old, a guy born on July 27, 1975, a month after I was born. A-Rod — I can remember seeing stories about him when he was the top high school player in the country — is now at the end of his career, even if the actual end is still a couple of years, a few homers and a bunch of strikeouts down the line. He’s 37 and looking old. I know the feeling.
Ray Allen. David Ortiz. Warrick Dunn. Brian Griese. Mike Vrabel. Allen Iverson. Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Jacque Jones, Jake Delhomme, The Barber Twins. Tiger Woods.
Those are some of the athletes born in 1975. Ilguaskas? He has the feet of a corpse and if you asked the average NBA fan to guess how old he was, the numbers would probably range from those who said, “I guess early 40s,” to people who’d rub their chins for a few seconds and finally say, “He has to be 50 now, right?” No, he’s my age — actually, 15 days older. These are my peers now.
It shouldn’t bother me, really, as it’s not like I’m forced to confront my own declining life as an athlete, because that stage basically ended 17 years ago. When I play old man hoops I’m maybe sporting 10 more pounds than a decade ago but I feel the same out on the court and still feel like I play the same as I always have, aided in part by the fact I usually play against guys who are older than I am. Always be one of the youngest in the room. So it’s not like I watch Ray Allen sit out game after game with sore ankles and contemplate my own physical demise, especially since in the face Allen still looks like he did when he was running off screens while wearing a Connecticut uniform. It’s the fact these guys are at the end of the road, and I can remember when they were just beginning. Their athletic milestones occurred during my life ones. Now these athletes are aging, over the hill, hanging on, washed up, should-have-quit-six-years ago, embarrassing themselves. I can feel the phantom sympathy pain from my couch.
No one wants their heroes to grow old, but I don’t have as much problem with seeing the players I loved and watched as a kid grow old as an adult. For these athletes — Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Tony Dorsett, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — I feel worse when looking back and realizing how much older I am now than they were when they dominated sports.
Magic is 53 right now, an age few thought he’d see after the terrible day in November 1991 when he retired from the NBA. I have no problem with Magic being 53. I’m happy he’s 53. What’s jolting is knowing he retired at 32. Thirty-two. He seemed older than that when he left the Lakers, perhaps because he was no longer the same guy who could run up the middle on the fast break for 40 minutes every night. The Magic who hit the court in his final seasons with the Lakers was a bit bigger, a bit slower, but as effective as ever, a killer in the low post, a better shooter and still the best passer in history. But going in to that 1991-92 season, I remember thinking, Magic’s getting up there a bit. He’s… old. Old at 32. What was I thinking?
Jordan retired for the second time after winning his sixth title at 35. People practically demanded he leave the game after dropping the winning shot in Game 6 against the Jazz, lest he risk ruining his legacy. I’ve always hated any argument that asks any athlete to retire so he doesn’t ruin our memories of him. Did seeing Emmitt Smith in a Cardinals uniform really take away from what he did as a Cowboy? Even the cliched example doesn’t hold up, unless there truly are people out there who think seeing Willie Mays with the Mets wrecked everything he did as a Giant. But people wanted that with Jordan too. You’re 35, Michael, you have nothing left to accomplish. Quit! You’re done. If you come back you’ll be a limping caricature (and they were right about that, a few years later). Done at 35. Oh for the days when I was 35. Come back, 2010.
Tiger Woods isn’t actually 37. With his December 30 birthday, he barely qualifies as a Class of 1975er. But we still accept him, even after all that business with Perkins employees and his poor Ryder Cup performance. Any 2,000 word feature on Tiger is now legally required to use the phrase “he’s an old 36.” The knee surgeries, the Achilles injury, the mental wear and tear — the candles on his there’s-probably-a-stripper-inside-it birthday cake might be numerically accurate, but they don’t tell the whole tale. So maybe that’s why I still pull for Tiger, whether it’s in a meaningless event or another major that slides out of his shaky-with-the-putter grasp. I don’t want a 23-year-old bullying him on the course, not because it reminds me of what Tiger was like at 23, but because I remember when I was 23 and watching Tiger. Fourteen years and feels like yesterday.
Next year they’ll say Tiger’s an “old 37.” Of course maybe that’s not a bad thing. By adding the qualifier, it makes it seem like other 37-year-olds are actually young, or at least not old. I agree. Even if the baseball playoffs don’t.