Why Can't They Say Goodbye?
by Glenn Dickey
Jul 26, 2006

SAYING GOODBYE is the hardest thing for star athletes to do.

The latest example is Barry Bonds, who has been saying he might play next year, when he’ll turn 43 in July. The decision will probably not be up to Bonds. The Giants won’t need him to sell tickets because they’ll host the All-Star game next year and season ticket holders will have first crack at those tickets. I can’t honestly see another team picking up Bonds, either.

But even if the decision were strictly up to Bonds, he shouldn’t do it. He’s moving better now that he’s in shape – he had to do so much re-hab on his knee in the spring that he couldn’t do his usual workouts – but he’s nothing like the hitter he was before the three knee operations last year. He can still crush the ball occasionally, but he gets fooled often and has trouble pulling the ball; he’s hitting the ball out to left-center, not into McCovey Cove.

Last year at this time, the story was Jerry Rice, who just couldn’t let go. Seattle released him, which should have been a sign to Rice because Mike Holmgren had worked with him with the 49ers and wanted to make it work with the Seahawks. He signed with Denver, coach by another former 49er offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan. But when it became clear in training camp that he would be so much on the fringe with the Broncos that there would be games when he wouldn’t even suit up, Rice finally retired.

Before that, many 49er fans had hoped he would return for one last season with the team with whom he had made his reputation, but Mike Nolan rightfully refused to consider that. Nolan has been trying to rebuild from the ground up, and he wanted to give his young receivers a chance to show what they could do. Rice would have been a distraction. The talk that he could be a mentor to the young receivers was a serious misreading of his character. He wanted to play, not to coach.

JIM BROWN is the only star I can remember retiring when he was still playing at a high level. After 10 years, when he was still the best running back in the NFL, he just quit. Nobody believed that would stick, but it did.

In contrast, O. J. Simpson hung around for two years with the 49ers when injuries had made him a shell of his former self.

Occasionally, there will be a star who goes out relatively strongly. The hero of my youth, Ted Williams, hit a home run on his last at-bat in 1960, when he had just turned 42, capping a year in which he had 29 home runs in just 310 at-bats, 72 RBIs and a .316 average.

Others, though, have been embarrassing in their final seasons. Those of us who saw Willie Mays in his prime cringed when we saw him misjudging a fly ball for the Mets in the 1973 World Series. There was a precursor to that in the 1971 NL divisional playoffs when Mays, still playing for the Giants, tried to bunt a runner in from third base because he didn’t think he could hit a fly ball to score him.

Some star quarterbacks, such as Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, have been embarrassing to watch in their closing days. Even Joe Montana probably stayed on for one more year than he should have in Kansas City, though Montana had much more left at the end than either Unitas or Namath.

WHY DO star athletes hang on long after their skills have started to diminish? In earlier times, it was money. At that time, athletes built up their salaries slowly and the stars – Mays is a prime example – actually got much more money at the end of their careers than when they were at their most productive. They had every incentive to squeeze out a last year or two.

Now, of course, that is not the case, because salaries are so high. That doesn’t mean that they can’t end up with financial problems, as Jose Canseco apparently has, but even in retirement, their names have value, so they can make money to just showing up at events. As a Giants executive once told me, “Willie Mays’ job is just being Willie Mays.”

Sometimes, they can’t accurately measure their loss of skills. In the mid-‘70s, Willie McCovey was pretty much written off, but McCovey was determined to show that his critics were wrong. He did, briefly, coming back to have a solid season in 1977, hitting .280 with 28 home runs and 86 RBIs in 478 at-bats.

That’s when he should have retired because that was his last gasp. But the determination that had driven him before made him blind to what was happening. Finally, a friend in the front office had a talk with him and convinced him to retire in mid-season, 1980.

The biggest reason they hang on, though, is because they love all the trappings of the sport, the camaraderie with teammates, the attention. Some of them stay close to the game by going into broadcasting, but every one I’ve talked to who has done that has said it’s not the same. They’re observers, like the rest of us, not on the main stage.

IN THE END, it probably doesn’t matter because what we’ll remember of these stars are the golden moments.

Though we talk briefly of Mays in the ’73 World Series, what we most remember are the great moments, the great catches, the incredible baserunning, the big hits. We remember Montana’s Super Bowl triumphs, not his final days in Kansas City. We remember McCovey’s towering home runs, not his futile at-bats at the end, and we'll remember Bonds' splash homers. When Rice gets his day at Candlestick this fall, we’ll remember all his great plays in the glory years, not his attempts to hang on long past his prime.

If they all stayed too long on the stage, so what? They all dominated that stage for a much longer period.


RADIO: I’m on two shows today (Wednesday), 11 a.m. with Marty Lure on “Right Off the Bat,” KYCY, 1550 AM, and 5 p.m. with Ralph Barbieri and Tom Tolbert on KNBR’s sister station, 1050 AM.

TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS!: Tickets will be available on this link for these hot concerts:
--Barbra Streisand, Oct. 4-November 20.
--Mariah Carey, August 5-November 10
--Aerosmith & Motley Crue, September 9-Octover 25.
--Red Hot Chili Peppers, August 18-December 17.
--Pearl Jam, July 29-November 5.
You can also get tickets to these hot football matchups:
--Cal at Tennessee, Sept. 2.
--Notre Dame at Georgia Tech, Sept. 2
--Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sept. 7
--Penn State at Notre Dame, Sept. 9
--Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, Sept. 10.
Just click on the links to buy or sell tickets to local or national sports and cultural events.

CRUISE WITH ME: I am organizing a sports-oriented cruise of the Panama Canal, Feb. 16 to March 3, starting in San Diego and ending in Fort Lauderdale, aboard Holland America’s Volendam. While we’re at sea, we will have sports seminars and discussions about your favorite teams. For further information and prices, please contact my travel agent, Janice Hough, at janicehough@yahoo.com.

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