Graceful exit tough for aging athletes

October 04, 2005|By RICK MAESE

Roy Jones Jr. was up on the podium, unshaven, unhappy and unaware about what lay ahead. He looked like a Survivor castoff, not one of the most dominant boxers to ever lace up a pair of gloves.

The next day, he lost to Antonio Tarver for a second time. After the bout, he read from boxing's worn-out cue card. "I'm a true champion," he said. "Being the champion I am, I may come back."

Of course he'll come back. And that's too bad. This week, we mourn the passing of the legacy. They just don't seem to be as interested in preserving legacies like they used to. There was a time when superstars walked off into the sunset. Today they prefer to simply walk off a cliff.

The final day of the 2005 baseball season was Sunday. The Orioles were playing the Devil Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sammy Sosa wasn't in the lineup or the clubhouse or the box score.

At least he was in the same state as the Orioles, presumably at his South Florida home, where he's been since the Orioles deemed his toe injury too catastrophic to continue playing earlier in the month. Rafael Palmeiro left the Orioles last month and went to his home in Texas. After he split town, an injury was concocted to help explain his absence, too.

The day's games went off and clubhouses cleared. The show was over. Palmeiro, Sosa and their careers were long gone.

There was no curtain call or roses scattered across the stage. We didn't get to celebrate 588 home runs or 3,020 hits. Legacies had been tarnished. Baltimore will not remember either fondly. From hero to shadow in less than a season.

Past superstars walked away from the game with pride. Even those whose declining skills stained their final years could still leave with a sense of achievement.

Today the spotlight can't shine through the dark clouds. Fallen heroes hang their heads and sneak away.

Remember when Brooks Robinson retired? Sept. 18, 1977, was Robinson Day. More people showed up at Memorial Stadium (51,789) than for any other Orioles regular-season game in the club's then-24 seasons.

The pre-game ceremony honoring Robinson lasted an hour. The Orioles gave him a new car. Some area businessmen gave his family a week in Hawaii. The team threw him a party that night after the game.

Or what about Art Donovan? Do you remember old No. 70 for the Baltimore Colts? When he was finished with football, the Colts retired his jersey in front of 54,000 fans before the first home game of the 1962 season. The team gave him a Cadillac, two new sports coats, 70 pounds of potato chips and 70 pounds of pretzels.

That's what you're supposed to lug off into that sunset. What do you give Raffy and Sammy? Twenty-five sets of earplugs? Twenty-one corkscrews?

There are no more Cadillacs at the 50-yard line. Graceful goodbyes are becoming rare.

Roy Jones Jr.'s legend isn't as tarnished. Controversy doesn't compromise his accomplishments. But everything he does from this point on will smear the image we have of an unbeatable champion.

The pundits this week will tell you that he shouldn't fight again, and that's true. But Jones actually should have quit fighting two years ago, after the first Tarver bout.

His record then was 49-1 with 38 knockouts. He was an Olympic medalist, the best light heavyweight ever. He moved up in weight class and even won a heavyweight title. He played in a semi-pro basketball game and won a title match in the same day. Jones Jr. was a living fable, and he was writing every word.

The champ has lost interest, though. A man who once knocked out 17 consecutive opponents has now lost three consecutive fights. He could have left the sport with a record that rivaled that of Rocky Marciano or Joe Louis.

Jones Jr. is forsaking his legacy for his bank account, giving us a new lasting memory every time he sets foot in the ring.

It's too bad. We prefer to remember the moments that define greatness, not those that erase it.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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