Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote about the twilight of Willie Mays’ career in a 1973 column, when the future Hall of Famer was hitting .211 for the New York Mets. Murray wrote:
We all thought Willie Mays would just get younger. He was one of those touched individuals for whom time seemed to run backward. He was one of those guys in this life you smiled just thinking about him. You might have hated New York, the Giants, the rest of the team, the manager, or the owner. But you couldn’t hate Willie Mays. It was like hating a kid in a baby carriage, or Skippy, or Charlie Chaplin in his tramp costume on the lam from the cops. Willie Mays was everybody’s pal when he was in uniform and you were in the seats with a beer and a hot dog. Willie was Mr. Feelgood. Other people got old. Willie stayed 20.
By 1973, however, Mays was 42 and long-past effective. In fact, the image of him falling down in the outfield in his baggy Mets uniform, as if kidnapped from an Old-Timers game has become symbolic of the once-great athlete whose time has passed.
We see it often. Michael Jordan appeared mortal his final season, coming off the bench in a Washington Wizards uniform that never looked quite right (granted, washed up for Jordan meant averaging 20 points a game instead of 30.) More recently, Barry Bonds found himself mercifully out of work at 43, a felony indictment keeping him from hitting below .270 for some unfortunate club. Meanwhile, Brett Favre seems to be defying the odds, mocking them almost, as he compiles big numbers for the Minnesota Vikings this fall at 40, though he could hit the geriatric stage within a year or two if he keeps playing.
The latest legend ready for pasture may be Ken Griffey Jr. The Kid turns 40 this Saturday and if he has sense, he’ll make this next season his last.
Gone are the days where Griffey averaged north of 40 home runs and played crack defense in center field for the Seattle Mariners. Signed in a sentimental move to return to the Seattle last season, Griffey hit just .214, the worst designated hitter in baseball, by far and a weak point in a Mariners lineup that must advertise for .228 hitters (I’d like to see that Craig’s List post.) I half-expected Griffey to quit quietly after this season, but he signed another one-year deal recently. He probably will not be an everyday player next year, though he does win points with the fans and among his teammates in the locker room. He’d be wise to consider coaching.
I remember a different Griffey, one I cheered for. I have family in Seattle, and a few times during my childhood, I visited the Kingdome, a veritable playground for a 20-something Griffey. The last time I saw Griffey play, in June of 1998, he cranked multiple doubles to deep right center. He left Seattle for the Cincinnati Reds after the following season, and the rest of his career has been an injury-riddled mess. That being said, he’s still among the best of his generation.
Looking at pictures of Griffey this past season, I saw a weary, old man, not the ebullient, 25-year-old photographed under a dog pile of teammates, celebrating Seattle’s win over the New York Yankees in the 1995 divisional playoffs.
Then again, few people can stay 20.