Sunday, September 04, 2011

I Am Too Old (and a lot of other things) To Play Baseball

My dad gave me a copy of the New York Times magazine a couple months ago with a picture of Derek Jeter on the cover. I kept flipping through the magazine thinking that there must be an article that wasn't about the Yankees that he wanted me to read. But no, the cover story, the one with the Giant Jeter Bobble Head on the front, was actually the point. I sucked it up and read it- and learned that there are good lessons to be learned, even from the enemy Yankees. You can and should read the whole article here. Basically, Jeter just turned 37 in the biggest baseball market there is, and no one can stop counting the seconds until he retires. Or dies. Because he's just that old. On the flipside, he has also just reached an amazing baseball milestone, 3,000 hits, and is the revered captain of a team that has flourished since he joined 15 years ago. (They've only missed the post-season once since then. Can you see why I hate Jeter AND the Yankees?)

But baseball lifespans, Michael Sokolove explains, are "foreshortened versions of a human lifespan." Baseball players (not just Jeter) are exciting to watch because they're exaggerated versions of what we wish our physical selves could be: how many times have we told ourselves we could hit that pitch that the lame pitcher threw and the lamer pitcher missed, and been awed when the awesome hitter took the awesome pitcher deep? Baseball players (and all athletes) just like us, try to compensate when their bodies start to fail them- they eat better, maybe they exercise more or differently. But baseball players' bodies aren't failing them at 75 and getting arthritic. They're failing them at catching up with that awesome pitch, and they can only hit weak grounders instead of awesome liners or homeruns. Sokolove knows: there's just no compensating that even the best athlete can do. Even Jeter. It's just that the best ones were so good to begin with, they can play longer. So Jeter is not quite dead yet. Me? I'm already too old to play.

The reason I'm too old, and you better sit down for this, is that the prime of a baseball players' life is 26-30 years old. My dad, when talking about upside of a recent call-up or trade, used to say "Well, he's an old rookie," and I'd think 23 or 26 isn't old! And we're both right. In the real world, 26 isn't old at all. But the changes that start happening in the body around 30 coincide with the skills most needed to make baseball players successful. It's depressing, but Jeter is dying. He's in the old folks home of baseball. He probably is in assisted living. Part of me, the Yankees hater in me, is gloating. The young person in me is having a heart attack and joining him there. Physically, the things that you need to hit a ball just start to deteriorate: "fast-twitch" muscle reactions, eyesight, and visual processing. The time of pitch-leaving-pitchers hand to decision-about-swing is so miniscule that these things are key to success, and you just can't make them last, even if you work out every second like Roger Clemens. (Read the article to understand what they are and how they actually work.) Roger Clemens is famous for his workout routine (and possibly also his performance enhancing drug use), but according to Sokolove, you just can't work yourself into a younger person.

Getting old is touchy. Sokolove got himself banned from the Yankees clubhouse for proposing this article, which was being written for the New York Times- quite something. In baseball, the take-home message is, if you start out great, you can stretch your career till you're 40, or maybe a little longer. You'll still be good, but people will think you're washed up, and heckle you mercilessly and wonder why you didn't retire sooner. If you're good, you better get to the Majors when you're young- like real young- like by 25, and better get out before you're 35 to salvage any dignity. And if you're mediocre (by baseball standards, which is, of course, tremendous), you better STILL get up early, and get out early, before you're the laughing stock of people like me. The other way to think about this is that if you're a fan, taking age into account is vital when evaluating new additions to a team or judging a players' performance. Hideki Matsui isn't just bad, he's old: he's past his prime, and his body is hurting his chances. The A's younger players should be playing at the top of their physical abilities- if they're not, they're not going to get any better. And me? I guess it's not bad enough that I'm a girl. I'm too damn old.