Wrigley Field’s organist played “My Way” while Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood walked off the mound for the last time. The song suited the occasion well enough. Wood probably came as close as any professional athlete could to retiring on his own terms, which says a lot about the reluctant endings of most careers.
Laboring for a last-place team, Wood, 34, walked away less than two months into his 15th season because his overworked arm couldn’t take the heat anymore. Still throwing 96 miles per hour, he punctuated his injury-punctured career in an almost ceremonial final appearance with a strikeout. That, USA Today informed us, was a “storybook ending.” There’s no such thing.
We want Michael Jordan frozen in the follow-through from his Chicago Bulls game-winning shot in the 1998 NBA Finals, not shuffling through a self-indulgent vaudeville shadow of himself with the Washington Wizards. We want an exclamation point — although a simple period will do — and never the dreaded ellipsis (we’re looking at you, Brett Favre).
Aside from the former Green Bay quarterback’s egregious hostage situations, it’s hard not to empathize with the long, ambivalent goodbyes. The defiant refusal to surrender to time or the physical toll is woven into who athletes are, a reflection of the competitive character that forged professionals from raw talent. And no matter how long or decorated their careers, they all take an early retirement.
Mariano Rivera, the victim of a freak knee injury while shagging batting-practice fly balls, seemed to have retirement thrust upon him. He’s 42, in the last year of his contract with the Yankees, the consensus best-ever relief pitcher with the most saves in major-league history. There’s nothing more he could do to endow his legacy beyond carving his own statue. But even in the face of surgery and months of intensive rehab, Rivera said, “I’m coming back. Write it down in big letters. I can’t go out this way.” An accidental ending is an indignity worse than the inevitable decline for someone of his age and, now, his infirmity.
In contact sports, increasing awareness about the threat of long-term brain damage complicates the decisions. After his senior season, former Ohio State linebacker Andrew Sweat experienced dizziness and confusion, even feelings of depression — symptoms he attributed to three diagnosed concussions. But he began to feel better and signed a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns. Before he joined the team, he hit his head after slipping in the shower and the symptoms returned. Sweat retired before he ever really had the job.
Hockey star Sydney Crosby, at the other end of the talent and celebrity spectrum, has played only 22 games since January 2011 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, with on-again, off-again symptoms from blows to the head. He’s given no hint that the injuries might jeopardize his professional future. Not yet 25, Crosby already has won Stanley Cup and Olympic championships, scoring the gold-winning goal for Canada in 2010. His legend could not be enhanced if he played another 15 years. But given his status as the heir to Wayne Gretzky — “The Next One,” they call him — the question seems to be, how could he not try?
Assuming Crosby understands the risks and decides for himself, that’s exactly what he should do. The same goes for Sweat and Rivera and Wood and Jordan (but maybe not Favre) in their disparate personal decisions. When it’s finally over, we don’t remember Jordan the Wizard any more than the effects of a fatal illness make us forget the rest of a loved one’s life. And while they waver, maybe stumbling through an unfortunate twilight in an unfamiliar uniform, it’s worth remembering that walking away feels like pulling the plug to the athlete retiring young.
Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at email@example.com.