Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mariano Rivera is old, and wolves are after him.

One of the greatest canards in sportswriting is the ongoing concern for a player's "legacy", whereby the columnist suggests that an aging athlete retire in order to protect those misty-colored memories of the athlete at their best, instead of tainting them with images of a descent into mortality. The sad spectacle of Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield for the Mets is inevitably brought up, and for extra credit you get call-outs to Johnny Unitas in Chargers powder blue. And then comes the handwringing, and the inevitable conclusion that the player, whether it be Mike Schmidt or Mariano Rivera, ought to hang it up in order to preserve the narrative of their greatness.
From where I sit, that's an incredible act of chutzpah. To tell an elite athlete, one of the best in the world at what they do, that they should hang it up to preserve a nebulous "legacy" that's really nothing more than an ill-defined narrative, that they should walk away from the millions of dollars that they could potentially earn for a myth, that they should step away from the thing they have trained their whole lives to do and theoretically love doing just so no one in the press box haz a sad.
It is, of course ridiculous, as ridiculous as me walking up to you and saying that hey, you should quit your job because I don't want to spoil the memories of how good you were at unjamming copiers in 2008. It's their decision as to when to hang it up, theirs and the teams that might employ them, and no one else's. They get to be the ones to weigh how much they think their bodies can endure, how well they can perform, how much they still want to compete, how many weeks and months they want to spend away from their families, and what else they might do if they do retire. Me and thee, all we've got is a rooting interest - no skin in the game at all. And while we might think it helps our favorite team if an aging superstar hangs it up - Wallace Matthews' recent piece at at least makes a nod in this direction - wrapping that sort of analysis in the fuzzy logic of "he should quit to protect his legacy" is nothing but sentimental arrogance.
Maybe, as per Matthews' piece, Rivera will retire. Maybe he won't. I'm wagering "concern for his legacy" - already locked down as the greatest situational pitcher of all time - will be at the bottom of things he considers as he makes his decision.
Because, at the end of the day, everybody's memory of Willie Mays is The Catch and his cap flying off, and not of a middle aged man lurching around Shea. Everybody's memory of Steve Carlton is of a slider that sprained batters' knees, not of a nondescript Twins swingman. Everybody's memory of Unitas is of The Greatest Game Ever Played, not a Chargers part-timer.
The legacy takes care of itself. The players know this. We should, too.

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