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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Most Sports Shouldn't Have a Seniors Tour

I read a headline on this morning that said "Hearns Ends Five-Year Layoff With Win." Because it's baseball season, I figured that there was some pitcher named Hearns who escaped my radar screen and had somehow made a pretty amazing comeback. Not as wonderful, say, as Jim Morris's all-time story that made its way to the silver screen ("The Rookie"), but still pretty good. I mean, win against major-league pitching after a five-year layoff? Wow.

But my radar screen for things baseball is not that weak, and the only pitcher with a similar name was Jim Hearn, a journeyman pitcher with the Cardinals, Giants (when they were in New York and Willie Mays was playing) and Phillies -- in the 1940's and 1950's. Of course, if the headline were a typo and this was Jim Hearn who made a comeback, then "five-year" should have read "fifty-year", and, well, that story would have warranted a front-page headline in national papers, with the silver screen movie not far behind. While I knew, of course, that Jim Hearn couldn't have been the subject of the headline, I subsequently checked out Jim Hearn's career stats after having this initial thought rift, and there's one important detail that was missing -- Jim Hearn died in 1998.

Then again, that fact would have made the story even bigger and made us wonder whether the late John Henry Williams was in fact out of his mind when he wanted his father's body cryogenically preserved. You could see the headline now, "Cryogenically Reserved Journeyman Resuscitates Ailing Yankees' Mound Corps."

The headline, regrettably, wasn't a typo. It was about Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns, the one-time welterweight champion who fought epic battles with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler about half his age ago. He made a comeback last night and beat some relatively middle-aged fighter, an anonymous thirty-five year old.

Comebacks by old boxers are nothing new. George Foreman made himself a national celebrity with his shaved head, girth, appetite, more sons named George than in the Windsor line in England and his fortune in putting his name on a nifty cooking appliance. Former heavyweight championLarry Holmes tried to do the same thing. And, who knows, perhaps in ten years after he shakes the cobwebs out of one of the most unique fighting brains in our era, Mike Tyson might make a comeback soon (if not, look for him to play a Sith Lord in whatever Star Wars movie that George Lucas and his minions might come up with in the future, should they decide to make a comeback; he has the right face for it).

They aren't pretty either, these comebacks. Sure, the men have the same names, but the bodies these names are attached to aren't the same as they were in their prime, and the abilities that these bodies have aren't what they used to be. No one liked to see Willie Mays at 43 chase fly balls in center field for the New York Mets -- he wasn't even half the player he was at half his age when he chased down fly balls for the New York Giants. Golf purists winced at watching Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer tee it up in the past several years at the Masters, where they had the right, as former champions, to return every year and contest the championship. You wouldn't rush out to see Bill Russell and K.C. Jones play competitive hoops today, and it wouldn't juice fans to watch Joe Montana and Dwight Clark to suit 'em up one more time for the 49ers (although a wag might argue that they could hardly fare worse at their advanced ages today than the current crop of 49ers' players would).

It would be nice to hear the legends talking about the games they played and to watch those gifted enough to entertain and teach to give clinics. Many do and simply don't enjoy the limelight, so they do so in relatively private settings. I do recall a great interview that Ahmad Rashad did on NBC years ago with Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain on the state of the NBA today and how they would play against Shaquille O'Neal. When the latter question was posed to them, you could see the competitive juices flowing in their eyes. Both agreed that they would run Shaq to tire him out, and the discussion was most compelling. Neither would have backed down, and neither was about to concede that Shaq could do anything that they couldn't answer.

Oral histories are one thing.

Oral surgery is another.

I don't want to see Bob Clarke trying to whack Phil Esposito today, when both are in their late fifties anymore than I want to see Thomas Hearns in the ring. Those greats generated great experiences for fans when they were in their prime, and by fighting today Thomas Hearns only can tarnish his image. Yet, I can see why he did it. I recall the scene in "Friday Night Lights" where Boobie Miles, the injured running back, cries in the car of his uncle asking what he would do in life because football was the only thing he was good at. My guess is that for some pro athletes, the combination of missing the competition and limited talents at other endeavors leaves them itching for a return. Some have nothing else to turn to.

Douglas MacArthur said "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away." That's what happens to many old athletes, who find different and lower-impact ways to compete. For those who still need the contact, the end product isn't always a pretty sight.

The difference between boxing and most other sports is the chance for a gate and the evolution of team sports. The need to play the best players prevents gimpy forty-two year olds from making returns after three year layoffs in the major team sports. Boxing, in its sad state of play, makes its money off headliners -- who can fill an arena, who can bring in the cable TV revenue. Until the state of play changes (and there are consolidated titles as opposed to approximately five different organizations who crown champions), old fighters will still get their chances, precisely because of the memories that they evoke and not usually because of the reflexes they can summon.

The end product can be nostalgic, sad and dangerous at the same time.

Here's to hoping that "The Hit Man" doesn't become "The Frequently Hit Man."


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