The boys of summer

May 21, 2004

THE LEGS ARE SHOT. The vision's gone. The belt needs to be loosened a notch -- or two. Memory seems to be hanging in there (but did we mention the legs are shot?). The baby boom is not so babyish anymore. The oldest are staring at 60. The rest? Let's just say they're deep into retirement planning.

So it is with overwhelming generational pride that baby boomers can rejoice in the athletic feats of Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson. The rangy left-hander tossed a perfect game Tuesday. He faced 27 Atlanta Braves batters. Not one reached first base. Mr. Johnson is 40 years old. His was only the 17th perfect game in the history of the sport.

Take that, all you twentysomething fastball hurlers out there.

But wait, it gets better. Have you been paying much attention to Major League Baseball's box scores this season? Mr. Johnson's 81 strikeouts lead the majors. His earned run average is a mere 2.43, sixth-best in the National League.

A lot of teams would kill to have a starting pitcher that good. The Houston Astros don't have to. Their ace is 41-year-old, briefly retired Roger Clemens, whose 1.72 ERA is tops in baseball. Oh, and his 7-0 won-loss record isn't too shabby either.

Then there's Barry Bonds. He's 39 years old and may be the best hitter in the game. His slugging percentage is an astronomical .818. He walks seven times more often than he strikes out. He has hit 10 home runs and is batting .351.

Future Hall of Famers Clemens, Johnson and Bonds were born in 1962, 1963 and 1964, respectively. Those are the last three years of the baby boom. These players represent the last gasp of athleticism for a generation entering its golf, billiards and stress-test years. And they are dominant in their sport. Is baseball great or what?

True, there have been 40-plus professional athletes before. Pro football's George Blanda, Jimmy Connors in tennis, Gordie Howe in hockey. But have middle-aged men ever proved themselves so simultaneously exceptional in a single sport? And that doesn't even take into account some other elite (but mature) baseball players, such as the Orioles' 39-year-old Viagra pitchman Rafael Palmeiro, whose .393 on-base percentage is the team's second-best.

Maybe better diets, better training and the incentive of multimillion-dollar paychecks have something to do with this trend. That doesn't diminish the pleasure of watching these oldest boys of summer kick some firmer butts. Boomers will hang up their spikes for good soon enough. For a little while longer, let's play ball -- vicariously.

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