Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Respect Your Elders

I play church league softball this time of year, usually "B" league, which is safer for those of us edging further into middle age. I was forced into emergency pitching duty last night, which was a bit distressing for me at the time. The game was a rematch with the first team we had played this season.

Coincidently, this was the same team I had pitched against previously, in my only outing of the season. I gave up 16 runs in two innings before the coach pulled me and came in himself (in blue jeans, no less—he hadn't planned to play at all). It's slow pitch softball, but I've been fighting tendonitis in my right arm since the beginning of the year. It was a frustrating experience.

Last night I had better results. I still gave up 15 runs, but it took them all seven innings to score that many, and we won the game 19-15. On the still brighter side, I went 3 for 3 at the plate, all three solid singles with a couple of RBIs (I still like the "s" on the end of that—I'm old school).

I was a bit sore last night, but this season hasn't been nearly as painful for me because I've finally accepted the fact that I'm almost 37 years old and weigh 250 pounds. I'm not stretching singles into doubles or doubles into triples anymore. I'm not legging out grounders unless the infielder boots it.

I didn't want to accept my age last season, so I pushed myself and always paid the price the next day in sore feet, ankles, knees, shoulders...well, basically everything. This season, playing more relaxed and accepting that I'm not a kid anymore, well, I can get out of bed relatively pain-free even after pitching seven innings and running the bases three times.

Now that I'm the same age as many older veterans, it amazes me that so many of them are able to perform at a professional level in their late 30s, and in some cases, into their 40s. Reggie Sanders (cousin Reggie) and Deion Sanders (cousin Deion) are both the same age as me—37. Reggie's doing yeoman's service in left field for the NL-best St. Louis Cardinals, and Deion's planning on playing another season in the defensive secondary for the Baltimore Ravens.

There is a tendency in the national sports media to denigrate the older players for having lost a step, a swing, a bit of arm strength, to start writing their professional sports obituary before they're ready to step out of the limelight. Some, like Brett Favre, may still have a good season or two left in the tank. Others, most notably Jerry Rice, generate comments about "damaging his legacy."

Please. Rice's legacy is rock solid—he's the best receiver to have ever played the game. Did Michael Jordan damage his legacy by playing for Washington in his 40s? Not at all—just say MJ, and all you think about is Chicago and the six rings. Say Rice, and you see him catching TD passes from Montana and Young.

The thing is, sports are games, and games are fun, and men are grown boys, and boys like to play games, and we don't like to come inside and stop playing the games even when it's dark outside or even when it's raining or even when we're probably too old to play as well as we used to. I can afford to slow down and take it easy to play—it's just a local church league. For the older players in the pros, they fight the inevitable tide of time and the treasonous unwillingness of their bodies to move and react and heal the way they did a decade ago, and yet, they still have the will and the ability to play. Gentlemen, I salute you all.

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