By training minds and bodies, aging athletes defer 'old' rule

October 13, 1991|By Glenn Nelson | Glenn Nelson,Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- If they dared to ignore Satchel Paige's counsel and looked back, they'd see that something indeed is gaining on them.


Yet, by training their minds and bodies, and simply by enduring, Nolan Ryan and Carlton Fisk have remained hares in the race against time.

Early last season, Ryan was on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his lower back. Five days after his return, he pitched his sixth no-hitter. He has returned to the DL twice more this season with nagging problems in his pitching shoulder, but at age 44 he remains in the Texas Rangers' starting rotation, again among the American League leaders in strikeouts and with a seventh no-hitter in the bag. And he already is talking about next season.

Fisk, who makes his living on bended knees, had arthroscopic surgery on both of them before this season.

As long ago as 1986, the Chicago White Sox balked at Fisk's request for a three-year contract and sought to push him from behind the plate into the outfield. Three months ago, still catching for the White Sox at 43, he became the oldest player to get a hit in the All-Star Game.

About two months earlier, on May 1, Ryan got his seventh no-hitter, striking out 16 Toronto Blue Jays along the way. Before taking the mound that night, Ryan told his pitching coach, "My back hurts, my heel hurts and I've been pounding Advil all day. I don't feel good. I feel old today. Watch me."

Yes, watch them.

For years, 30 was considered the crest of the hill, the peak year of an elite athlete's career. On the other side, it was believed, waited the free fall toward retirement.

It is tempting to dismiss Ryan and Fisk as freaks of nature. However, they merely are president and vice president of baseball's burgeoning fortysomething club, numbering as many as nine players this season and growing every year. Plus, their routines have emerged as a blueprint for prolonging the careers of athletes in team sports.

Year-round conditioning, a surprisingly recent development in professional team sports, widely is considered the key to longer careers. The well-conditioned player avoids injuries better and can postpone some types of physical deterioration and better maintain skills.

Today's athletes also know more about eating right and handling stress. And they benefit from improved surgical techniques, particularly arthroscopy, which has accelerated recovery to near-miraculous rates.

"We can't stop the aging process, but we can defer it," said Tom House, the Rangers' pitching coach, who has a doctorate in exercise physiology. "There's no reason why more people, and not just athletes, can't do at 45 what they were able to do at 35."

Perhaps most significantly, professional athletes are breaking the time-honored cycle of conditioning during training camp and falling out of shape during the off-season. Year-round conditioning helps alleviate stress on the body. It helps prevent early season injuries and leads to quicker recovery from injuries.

Frank Furtado, longtime trainer for the Seattle SuperSonics, has seen -- and felt -- the change.

"During my first years as a trainer, it was hoped that you'd take a summer job to supplement your income," he said. "It was thought that there was nothing to do all summer. Now, we get two weeks of vacation like most anybody else."

A workout used to entail little more than running. Now, weight training is considered essential, to stir up testosterone -- the strength-conferring hormone that begins to abandon males in their mid-20s -- and counteract the force of gravity on the body.

Combining weight training with stretching -- even yoga or martial-arts training -- helps keep the body flexible, the muscles supple.

Ryan and Fisk have gymnasiums in their homes. But they are better known for their postgame sessions with weights and stationary bicycles.

"Just playing a sport does a lot to break down the body," said Pete Shmock, the Seattle Mariners' strength and conditioning coach. "An athlete has to do something to counteract this deconditioning process. That means working out during the season, as well as the off-season."

When Ryan started working with weights in 1972, he was considered a heretic.

"Baseball didn't believe in weights back then," he said. "Players felt like it was bad for them. But I felt something had to be done to maintain my strength throughout the year. So I started a program for myself and developed it through trial and error."

Trial and error has evolved into a science. Sport-specific weight training has become widespread. Merely building muscle can be harmful, because of the stress the added weight places on the joints. The aim is to add strength that enhances mechanics.

Ryan is a classic example.

"Nolan is a better pitcher than he was 15 years ago," House said. "He has lost less over 25 years than most athletes lose in five."

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