Let Palmer have his fling nobody will be hurt by it

BOB MAISEL

February 24, 1991|By BOB MAISEL

Over the years, we can think of any number of athletes in all sports who didn't know when to quit, who had to have it forcibly driven home to them that they couldn't cut it anymore before they finally called it a career.

Sugar Ray Leonard and Jim Palmer are merely the latest examples, along with Bjorn Borg, Mark Spitz, on and on.

It is easy for the rest of us to sit back and criticize them, because we never have really stood in their shoes. It seems to me there are a number of reasons they keep coming back. In the first place, they have always had the skills to do something better than just about anybody else. Those skills are the things that kept them out front and earned our applause in a sort of glamorous setting. It has to be tough to give that up.

But, it probably goes a little deeper than that. The thing that sets the great ones apart from the journeymen, even above their ability, is an attitude. Down deep, they have always believed they were better than their peers, and they had that inner drive that helped them prove it. They set high goals and achieved them. It's that confidence that they can do just about anything they set their mind to within the framework of their profession that makes them believe they can continue producing indefinitely. So, they keep coming back until something finally convinces them.

In most sports, there is no great harm done when they hang on too long. So, it is sad to see a Willie Mays stagger around under ordinary fly balls, or make pitifully weak throws, but there is no physical damage. Unfortunately, in boxing, the nature of the sport is such that you get the heck kicked out of you when you hang on too long. Everything points to Leonard being among the lucky ones. He took enough of a licking to make him realize the skills are no longer there, but apparently not so much as to cause him any permanent damage.

It would have been nice if Muhammad Ali had been so fortunate. Through the years, Angelo Dundee set up several one-on-one sessions for me with Ali. Angelo and I had become friends while he was training or managing some dozen or so champions in various classifications, including Ali and Leonard. Since he lived and worked out of Miami, and the Orioles trained there, we'd get together each spring.

Occasionally, he'd call and say: "Ali just came in to work out. Come over in a hour or so and I'll work something out." After the workout, Ali and I would wind up in his dressing room, just sort of kicking things around. He was fun to be around in that setting.

At one of these times, when he was getting ready for another of his later comebacks, I said: "You have to be crazy to do this. Look at you. You're handsome, not a mark on you, still have all your smarts and you must have enough money. If there is one thing I've learned in a lifetime of being around sports, it is that nobody, NOBODY, beats Father Time."

He thought about it and said, "You're right. Nobody beats the father. But, the father gets different ones of us at different times, and I'm gonna stall him off just a little while longer."

He didn't of course, and it is sad for me to see him now, the mental wheels turning much slower, the voice raspy and halting, the gait something of a shuffle. At least, that's the way he was the last time I saw him, and it doesn't give you a good feeling to see such a great athlete come to that because he tried to produce more than his body would allow. If Leonard makes this latest retirement stick, he will be spared that.

Palmer? I've never thought Jimmy's latest comeback would ever see him actually take the mound in a regular major-league game. Something will happen to make him come up short of that. Even if it doesn't, and he gives it a whirl, unlike boxing there will be no physical damage.

Personally, I don't see the point in it. If he makes it, how long can it last -- part of a season, maybe a whole season? But, we have to remember, no Hall of Famer has ever come back to play again. It would be important for Jimmy to be the first. He has always known he was special, and could do things others couldn't. That's one of the things that made him great.

The way I look at it, if he wants to try, let him. It's a good story, and there is no great harm in it. Anyway, I agree with the guy who said, pitching in the majors at 45 isn't as impressive an accomplishment as still being able to pose for underwear ads at 45. Now, that's really something special.

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