Athletes know, perhaps better than the rest of us, the difficulty of a graceful exit. They must leave the playing field one last time while most of them are still reasonably young. It has been said that an athlete dies twice — once when his career ends and, of course, a second time when his life ends. Not an easy thing. As A.E. Housman put it in his poem To An Athlete Dying Young,
“…Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honors out,
Runners whom renown outran,
And the name died before the man…”
The loss of that renown, the fortune and fame, the heady access to everyone and everything, and especially to the cheers — that must be a very tough thing indeed for the famous person to give up. Lots of names come to mind, the names of those who stayed on stage too long.
Start with Willie Mays, a meer shadow of his youthful speed and grace when he played his last games for the NY Mets at age 42, hitting .211 in his final season, well below his .302 lifetime average. Or Frank Sinatra, croaking out the oldies well past his prime.
Then there were the twin titans of symphonic conducting in the first half of the twentieth century, Wilhelm Furtwångler and Arturo Toscanini. The former continued to direct symphonic concerts even though he knew his hearing was failing, while the latter famously went blank and stared into space during his very last concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1954 at age 87.
But every so often we have a different sort of model, someone who walks off stage with his head held high, at or near the peak of his performance, and so our memories of him in his youthful prime stay in tact.
Think of Sandy Koufax, the great Dodger lefty, who won 27 games in his last season of play, deciding at age 30 no longer to endure the pain that his left arm exacted as the price of pitching excellence. Or Ted Williams, who hit .316 for Boston in his final season and hit a home run in his final at bat at age 42. Or Joe DiMaggio, hobbled by injuries and not at his best in his last year, ending his career before he embarrassed himself and let down his teammates.
It is always difficult to give up something you love, all the more if you are paid handsomely (in adulation and dollars) to do it. Indeed, we are at risk of holding on to lots of things too long: our children, a dead love affair, a common stock, a job, perhaps even a hair style or an old suit, and sometimes (a few would say) life itself.
They also say that timing is everything and, whoever they are, “they” are often right. “Going out on a high note,” or “knowing when to quit” — there are lots of phrases that emphasize the same point. And now the Baby Boomers, especially the teenagers of the 1960s who were advised not to trust anyone over 30 and thought they were the universe’s center, find themselves about to collect Social Security.
When I’m Sixty-Four is no longer just a song title, but a place just around the chronological corner for a bunch of aging flower-children. And even though most of them are not great athletes, heros, or symphony conductors, the timing of the retirement process may still be full of challenges — leaving with enough money, while you can still do the job, before you lose that ability and risk the humiliation that comes with letting down your colleagues.
I suppose it is easier if you realize at some early time that nothing is permanent, except perhaps, the Earth itself — at least if we don’t screw it up. In a sense, an occupation or even a life is a little bit like an apartment — something you rent, according to the late violinist Nathan Milstein, who, by the way, was still playing wonderfully at his very last public concert when he was 82.
Seneca said it a little bit differently, suggesting that a man should live “as one who is on loan to himself and intends to return everything without complaint when the debt is recalled.”
Clearly, the way to leave the stage is with a smile and a bow — saying, in effect, “thanks for your attention, your applause, and the chance to perform for you, to do something I love.” We all have our share of chances to do this, whether it is quitting a job or a relationship or any other time when there is an ending and we say “goodbye.”
So, if “practice makes perfect,” perhaps there is hope to do it right.
Good luck for those times when it is, inevitably, your turn.
The above image is The Photographer by Joaquim Alves Gaspar sourced from Wikimedia Commons.