Some years ago I was in Las Vegas to write about a boxing match and staying in a hotel just off the city’s Strip. Sugar Ray Leonard, then-recently retired from the ring and doing a TV stint, was in the same hotel. One morning around 10 I left on my pre-fight reporting rounds and saw him on the place’s tennis courts, hitting balls spit out by a machine. He was still out there when I returned four hours later, causing me to conclude that he was seriously bored and not likely to stay retired for long. Sure enough, after a couple of months he announced his intention to fight again.
The recollection was stirred by Derek Jeter’s recent announcement that he’d be leaving the baseball fields at the end of the season just ahead. Jeter has had about the perfect baseball career, with lots of hits (3,316), World Series rings (five) and individual honors in his 19 big-league seasons so far. He’s also survived the New York news-media cauldron without being scalded, no small feat for a single man with a reportedly active social life.
It would be nice to say that the Yankee hero is going out on top, but it wouldn’t be true. He could have done that after breaking an ankle in the playoffs of his remarkable 2012 season, in which he challenged for Most Valuable Player honors at age 38, but he returned for what would be an injury-plagued 2013 during which he appeared in just 17 games, and probably will do only part-time duty this time around. The fact that he was paid $17 million last season and is due to receive $12 million in this one—on top of the more than $200 million he’d previously earned-- no doubt figured into his calculations. Hey, a guy’s got to pay the rent.
Quitting at the peak of one’s game is an ideal in sports, but it’s rarely realized. I can think of only four men who’ve done it—Rocky Marciano, Jim Brown, Sandy Koufax and Pete Sampras-- and Koufax deserves an asterisk because while he won 27 games and had a 1.73 earned run average as an L.A. Dodger in 1966, the last year he played, the great lefty’s pitching elbow was so sore he had to scratch his left ear with his right hand for many years thereafter.
The truth is that most athletes struggle to continue as long as they can in their sports, at any level. Contrary to popular belief, big-time pros on average have short careers, ranging from about 3 1/2 years in the National Football League to about 5 years in Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, and the baseball minors and their hoops counterparts abroad are littered with ex-big leaguers trying to hang on for another season, and another.
Even some of the greats aren’t immune to the “keep on keepin’ on” syndrome. The above-mentioned Leonard abandoned and returned to his brutal sport three or four times depending on how you counted, and Michael Jordan twice “retired” from the Chicago Bulls (in 1993 and ’98) but had to give basketball one more try with the woebegone Washington Wizards (2001-03) before hanging it up for good. I’d bet that he’d give it another shot if the phone rang today.
The money the big-timers make these days is mighty motivation for sticking around as long as possible, but the reluctance to leave the sporting life preceded that. Ask an old jock what he misses most about his playing days and he’ll probably tell you it’s the camaraderie he enjoyed with his fellow athletes, but the loss of applause and status certainly are other reasons. Perhaps more important, playing either team or individual sports means sticking to strict regimens of workouts, practices, games and travel, and while active jocks might chafe under their requirements they usually miss them when they’re gone. The question “What shall I do today?” is one most of us quickly learn to answer for ourselves, but for many ex-athletes it’s confounding.
Athletes usually are on their way out by their mid-30s, the time when most people’s careers are gaining steam. That puts them weirdly out of synch with their contemporaries. The idea of going back to school to continue the educations sports careers interrupted can be off-putting for a similar reason; would you like to sit in classes daily with people about half your age?
Given today’s salary levels for even fledgling major-leaguers (baseball’s minimum annual salary is $500,000, the NFL’s is $420,000), one would think that a few years in the bigs would set up someone for life, but, sadly, that’s often not the case. Young jocks tend to be unsophisticated financially and, thus, easy marks for dubious get-richer-quicker schemes. Wishing to be good guys, they’re often eager to share their good fortune with friends and relatives, a ruinous practice when indulged in to excess. And—oh, yeah—they tend to spend big, with the Mercedes dealer their first stop after their initial bank deposit.
In a way, athletes might have had it better in the old (pre-1975) days, before the salary explosion. Most jocks then understood that the game-playing would be brief, and planned accordingly. I once did a piece on Sonny Hertzberg, an early NBA star (1946-51) who, as an executive with the Wall Street firm of Bear Stearns, conducted league-sponsored investment classes for later-day NBAers. “Everybody in my day had an off-season job or sideline because we knew we’d have to go out and earn a living sooner or later,” he told me in 2001. “It may sound funny but I think we had fewer fears about our futures than players now do.”