Going Out on Top: the Difficulty of Making a Graceful Exit

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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.

 

Cubs and Sox Fans: Be Careful What You Wish For

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Certain years ring bells for Cubs and Sox fans. For the South Siders, it’s 2005 and before that, 1959.

Make a note of the year: 1959. I’ll get back to it shortly.

For the Cubbie faithful, the remembered years cause pain: the twin failures of the last two, 2003, 1998, 1989, 1984 and too many others to mention. Years when the balloon of faith and hope got punctured in the playoffs by grim reality; years that brought tears and anger and much gnashing of teeth.

As Chicagoans know, but outsiders might not, you are not supposed to be able to be both a Cubs and a Sox fan. It is essential to make a choice, usually early in life; this is done by some combination of parental persuasion, family example, and geography. Most locals don’t want to break faith with family tradition and root for a different team than their neighbors root for.

And so, not surprisingly, I was a Cubs fan. So was my dad, so was his dad, etc. And for most of the aforementioned lives, I and my recent ancestors have been living on the North Side of the city or in the northern suburbs. You’ve heard the story before, how you get imprinted on the team when your dad first takes you to see them in a tender moment of your youth. After that, no amount of pain inflicted by the ball club’s failures can separate you from the attachment. Like certain wild animals, you have mated for life.

Thus it was in 1959, the year of the first White Sox pennant in 40 summers, that I discovered the meaning of the phrase “Be careful what you wish for.”

I was a little boy, of course, but not so little that I didn’t want the White Sox to fail. Like nearly all my friends, I hated the White Sox. It was something like a religious obligation, almost an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt hate the Chicago White Sox.” Just as religion required me to honor my father and my mother, so did it ask that I root for the Cubbies only: “Thou shalt have no team before the Cubs.”

My Uncle Sam was an exception to the family allegiance to the Cubs. He was my mother’s brother, was raised on the South Side, and breathed the air of other Sox loyalists. He also had a friend who was a White Sox scout and minor league manager, Frank Parenti. Frank would get Sam tickets for some of the games and occasionally I got to see American League contests played in old Comiskey Park as a result. But that didn’t mean that I had to like them or like the White Sox! No, I went out of curiosity, as a sort of scientific observer, and to see what the draw of the Sox was to my uncle; not to mention getting to watch Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, and other American League greats close up.

Thanks to Mr. Parenti, both my uncle and my dad got to see the second game of the 1959 World Series. Back in those days, the games were all played in natural light, so school required that I miss seeing most of the weekday action on TV. But I was more than happy when the Sox returned to Chicago for the sixth game down 3 games to 2. Only one more loss and the World Series would be over! The sooner, the better, I felt.

I came home after school on the afternoon of the 6th game, October 8th, to find the White Sox down by a score of  8 to 3 in the 7th inning. It was clear to me, as it must have been to every other Chicago baseball fan, that the World Series was effectively over. The Sox had a relatively weak hitting team staffed by the likes of Luis Aparicio, Nelson Fox, Sherman Lollar, and Al Smith; and had won the American League Championship by dint of excellent pitching and defense, and a surprising off-year from the Yankees. The South Siders would have needed a miracle to reverse their fortunes. I was feeling good!

Along about the 8th inning, still 8-3, my mom strolled into the living room where I was parked in front of a large Muntz TV. “What’s the score,” she asked?

“Eight to three,” I replied, “the World Series is pretty much over.”

Then the words I have not forgotten, will never forget; more indelible than a tattoo on the heart they were about to break:

“Oh, that’s too bad. Your dad had a World Series ticket for you tomorrow.”

I don’t have much recall after the trauma of those words. I think I started rooting feverishly for the White Sox, but I can’t really remember any detail. All I know is that my life changed forever. I had learned a hard lesson.

As Oscar Wilde put it many years before: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.”

In the succeeding 50 years, I have yet to see a World Series game except on TV. And I have become that rare Chicago sports fan who hopes for the best for both the Cubs and the Sox.

I know, all too well, the danger of doing otherwise.

The above image is by Kalel2007, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.