Kill Your Idols

Who among us didn't get choked up while watching the news from Colorado several weeks ago? The tears flowing, the sentences that trailed off, the disbelief that this was actually happening.

But it did happen.

John Elway retired from the Denver Broncos.

And as he did, the piano bar that is sports television cranked up the montages we've all come to expect each time a sports legend calls it quits, which, these days, is pretty much every other month. Whether it's Elway or Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan, they all say their goodbyes to the soft dissolves of sweating faces (determination), downcast eyes (disappointment), raised fists (triumph) and family moments (staged). Just as common is the spiel that accompanies it: these guys "played for the love of the game, not the money." They weren't great only for the way they played but also for the manner in which they chose to stop: going out "on top."

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Quitting while on top is very important these days. God forbid you should not go out on top. God forbid anyone should possibly "tarnish their legacy" and end up like Willie Mays, who, as we all know, "stuck around too long," stumbling around the Shea Stadium outfield. Better that a professional athlete leave too early than too late, better to be like Jim Brown, who left football as a young man leading the league in rushing.

This is stupid, of course. First, you can never stick around too long—not when it comes to professional sports. Anyone with half a brain would stick around until that last day, until that last team tells them they can no longer get paid to play. If you truly play for the love of the game, doesn't it figure you would stick it out until the very end, like Dave Winfield with the Twins or Joyce DeWitt with Three's Company? The Harlem Globetrotters had already won, like, 10,000 straight games when they faced that robot team on Gilligan's Island. Did they quit? I can't remember.

Anyway, the point is so what if you're not as good as when you were younger? It doesn't seem to bother David Letterman. And if you were good when you were younger, sticking around is not going to change how anyone considers your career. Willie Mays stumbling as a New York Met did not diminish his standing as one of the five greatest ballplayers any more than George & Leo darkened Bob Newhart's similar sitcom standing. No one goes out on top. Jim Brown? Yeah, he retired early—and then spent the next 20 years of his retirement making crappy movies and seething about all the records he could have set had he continued to play. His spleen had not emptied until he badgered Pittsburgh Steeler running back Franco Harris into a race—and lost.

Did going out on top—having gotten his 3,000th hit in his last professional at-bat—give solace to Roberto Clemente as the DC-7 he was in plunged into the Atlantic? Did going out on top satisfy Michael Jordan the first time he retired on top? Or Magic Johnson? Or Ryne Sandberg or any of the others who bought into the ideal of the Dramatic Exit only to find out later, like Herve Villechaize, that real life sucks.

How did we get to this point? I blame television. Not sports television. Sports television long ago morphed Manimal-like into television when sideline reaction shots became every bit as common, expected and necessary in developing a game's storyline as what was happening on the field. High-priced tickets, all-sports channels and network reliance on sports programming has meant most people experience sports almost exclusively as a television show now. It has always made good theater, of course. The arc of a season mirroring dramatically and succinctly the highs, lows and unexpected turns of life. As much as we say we love the action, it's the classic story constructs that hold us. Without them, sports has about as much dramatic pull as calisthenics.

And so characters are found, developed and presented: Mark McGwire's Ralph Kramden to Sammy Sosa's Ed Norton. Latrell Sprewell's Sue Ann Nivens to Michael Jordan's Mary Richards. Kobe Bryant's Punky Brewster to Shaquille O'Neal's whoever it is on television who doesn't play defense. But we also need—and television delivers—the happy ending: our heroes winning championships with the last jump shot of their career, heroes once counted out coming back to win the big game everyone said he could never win.

And then leaving. Getting out like Seinfeld, not like Home Improvement. (Interestingly enough, while top stars are badgered to quit on top, run-of-the-mill players are allowed to play forever since no one really cares about their stories—a Gavin McLeod Effect if you will.)

That is the way the game is played today. And to a certain extent, it's the way we've always actually wanted it. We want to remember our heroes in their prime, not plump and drunk at a trading-card show. Not sick. Not hosting a talk show. In that way, we're not that much different from those ancient people who gave everything to their athletes and then killed them in their prime. Or was that an old Bette Davis TV movie?

Anyway, it happens. In fact, the tinkling of ivories is set to start again, this time when Cal Ripken retires. And sure to be discussed will be whether Ripken missed his chance to go out on top when his consecutive-game streak ended last season. Inevitably, he'll be compared to the previous record holder who ended his streak, retired and then died virtually simultaneously. Some guys just have a deeper understanding of the game.

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