This week's Poscast is with columnist, author and all-around great guy Ian O'Connor. Ian's excellent new book, The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter, has created some sparks. We talk about those, whether or not Derek Jeter is done as a good player, and so on.
The Poscast with Ian O'Connor.
We also talked at some length about Tiger Woods ... really the topic of age and sports was pretty prominent in our discussion. Which led to this little essay on getting old.
* * *
The more years pass, the more I respect the power of age. I was thinking about this the other day when, for incomprehensible reasons, I started to run a few sprints beside my daughter's soccer practice. I've been trying to get in shape, as you might know, and I've dropped a pretty good amount of weight, and I'm sort of, kind of, training for something or other. No idea what I might be training for -- a 5K run, a return to tennis (the world awaits!), an attempt to tackle the game of golf, a baseball comeback, River Dancing! -- but I know that I need something as motivation. For some reason, running sprints just seemed the thing to do.
Well, my left knee didn't think so. I have never, to my knowledge, had any trouble with my left knee. I've had plenty of trouble with just about every other part of my body, but the left knee has been good. On about my third sprint, the left knee announced that it was no longer part of the program. The unspoken conversation went something like this.
Me: I'm young! I'm fast! I'm ...
Left knee: Have you lost your mind?
Me: What? I'm running.
Left knee: You are 44 years old. You cannot just start running sprints out of nowhere. Are you crazy?
Me: I don't feel 44 years old. I still feel young.
Left knee: Trust me, you're not young. Just look at the music on your iPod, man.
Me: What? I've got some hip hop on there.
Left knee: Yeah ... The Sugarhill Gang. Dude, I'm not even going to argue with you. Stop running. Go do what you do best ... sit in a recliner, prop me up, and watch sports.
Me: No. I can still ...
Left knee: OK, sorry pal, you've left me no choice. This is going to hurt you more than it's going to hurt me.
This the trouble with age. Nobody tells you that you are too old to do something. It just happens. It's like Chris Rock told my friend Scott Raab in a typically brilliant line about Christian Slater: "I remember I used to see Christian Slater movies all the time. One day they just stopped making 'em. He didn't get a memo. No one passes you a note."
That's how it goes with age too. No memos. No notes. One day, you simply find that you cannot run as fast, cannot jump as high, cannot react as quickly, cannot sprint without sparks of pain flying off your left knee. There comes a day when you are in the car, going somewhere, and suddenly you think: "Wait, where am I going?" There comes a day for most of us -- not all of us, but most of us -- when the music starts sounding the same (and too loud), when the fashions stop making any sense to us, when the agony of the morning after outflanks the thrill of the night before. One minute you're singing how you hope you die before you get old. The next minute you're playing halftime at the Super Bowl. Nobody tells you it's going to happen.
Well ... no ... wait, that's not right. People DO tell us it's going to happen. People DO tell us we're going to get old. But we don't believe it. We can't believe it. Or even if we do believe it, we believe it in a vague and general way, the way we believe that we are going to die someday. If someone tells me I will someday be too old to do something or other, I will believe them. But I will not believe them if they say that someday is actually tomorrow.
Getting old is, of course, more stark in sports than just about anywhere else in life. This is because there is a constant influx of youth in sports. There are always new kids in sports. Our games do not get older. The average age of the players stays stunningly constant through the years. It's the players individually who get older.
Because of this we see those individual players age in fast-forward. It isn't fair. If Michael Jordan had played in an NBA that did not let in new players, a league that aged as the players age, I feel sure he would STILL be the dominant force in basketball. He's almost certainly the best 48 year old basketball player around. Willie Mays would not have looked diminished had he played in a league where the average age was 42 years old. In real life, we tend to gather around people our own age and so the effects do not seem quite so sharply defined. Your left knee hurts? What a coincidence my left knee hurts too!
But in sports, Roger Federer has to defeat players who are much younger, whose bodies are much fresher, men who grew up in a world where Federer's brilliance was not stunning and revolutionary but merely the new standard to be achieved. Federer's a young man in our world. He's an old man in his world.
And the older I get the more I bet on the years to win. It's a bit cynical, I admit -- it's a lot more fun to root for people to beat age for as long as possible. And I still do root for that to happen. But, when you start to feel yourself getting older, you realize that it's all about postponing the inevitable. Yes, maybe a guy will be successful at 36. But he won't be at 37. Or he might be an all-star at 37. But he will stink at 38. Sooner or later, age wins. Every time.
Which, of course, brings us to Derek Jeter. When I see Derek Jeter's horrible struggles, my younger self shouts what Jeter is no doubt thinking: That it's just a phase, that he will figure something out, that he will find a way to adjust. But the left-knee part of my brain tells me that Derek Jeter is done, and I think that part of the brain is right. It isn't just that Derek Jeter is hitting .250. It isn't just that he has two extra-base hits (both doubles) this year. It isn't just that he's coming off by far the worst year of his career.
Look at the breakdown of Derek Jeter's 25 hits this year:
Infield singles: 11.
Ground balls through left side: 2 (one a double).
Ground balls up middle: 4.
Ground balls through right side: 3 (one a double).
Looper to right field: 2.
Line drives: 3.
We're only talking about 110 or so plate appearances, and as Jeter says a couple of four hit games and he's right back in it. But look at that collection of hits. Almost half of Derek Jeter's all-to-rare hits were infield singles. Only five of the 25 were hit in the air. Derek Jeter is as smart a baseball player as any in his generation, and he's relentless, and he still runs hard on every ball, and I have little doubt that given enough at-bats that he will find a way to compensate for this inability to hit the ball in the air and hit at least SOMEWHAT better than this. For years, we had a giant bump in our driveway. We learned how to turn the wheel just so and the bump wasn't too bracing. Human beings adjust to their circumstances.
But the idea that Derek Jeter -- who is hitting .267 and slugging .343 since the beginning of last season -- will be a good hitter again, well, to be honest I'm just getting too old to believe in those sorts of miracles.
A couple of years ago, Ian O'Connor and I got into a little argument about Jeter. Ian thought that Jeter would make a run at 4,000 hits. I told him there was no chance of that happening. We talk a little bit about this on the Poscast, and to be fair, Ian admits defeat and makes the point that he made his prediction in the glow of Jeter having his marvelous 2009 season (which I believe is the best for a 35-year-old shortstop in the last century). Ian's feeling was that Jeter took such good care of himself and he was so driven (at the time, Jeter privately was telling people that he planned to play well into his 40s) that he would sustain his game for a long time.
That all made some sense, sure. But sense doesn't have much to do with getting old. Logic doesn't turn back the years. Willpower doesn't stop the clock. Ty Cobb burned with a hunger for baseball perhaps unmatched. He stopped hitting. Babe Ruth stopped hitting. Ted Williams stopped hitting. Stan Musial stopped hitting. Willie Mays stopped hitting. Hank Aaron ... George Brett ... Rod Carew ... Frank Thomas ...
No, I don't bet against age, not anymore. I didn't think Jeter would get anywhere close to 4,000 hits. Now, I'm older, and I don't even see how he's going to finish his contract as an every day player. I don't think Alex Rodriguez is going to break Barry Bonds home run record -- or Hank Aaron's. I don't think Tiger Woods is going to break Jack Nicklaus' record for professional majors.
I absolutely could be wrong. I hope I am wrong. I hope that Derek Jeter has a renaissance where line drives jump off his bat again. But, hey, I hope that my left knee won't hurt the next time the urge to sprint hits me. I think it will hurt. I'm actually pretty sure about that.