Miranda’s Lambert’s song “The House that Built Me” begins by invoking the old adage “You know they say, you can’t go home again.”
While most of us recognize the veracity of this statement, recalling with a certain degree of alarm Nick Carraway’s admonition to Jay Gatsby that “you can’t repeat the past,” for some inexplicable reason, many professional athletes seem to have missed that lesson and, consequently, fancy themselves impervious to the constraints implicit in such a statement.
This is sad.
There was a time when grace and dignity were just as much a part of sport as on-field exploits. It mattered that you possessed enough self respect to know when it was time to say goodbye, and it mattered even more that once you managed to utter those difficult words, you did not relent and come back.
Many great athletes in the history of professional sports not only acknowledged when it was time to go, a good number of them actually did so before their skills had eroded to the point of embarrassment; more importantly, once they made that arduous decision, and left the life of privilege and adulation to which they had grown so accustomed, they did not vacillate—not even for a second.
But alas, everyone is different. Not everyone possesses the ability to see themselves the way others do, especially the pampered athlete, and some are so mired in a state of arrested adolescence and pathological narcissism that they fail to recognize that time has moved on without them, rendering their former glory all but a fading memory.
It does not take a PHD in psychology to figure out the reason for this “wolf phenomenon.”
Many athletes retire at a relatively young age. With many productive years ahead of them, the prospect of what comes next is daunting. Some players will have a future in coaching or game analysis. etc.
However, many of these athletes lack the formal education or skill set to pursue other endeavors or other careers. Panic sets in.
What do you do when the money that supports the lifestyle to which you have grown accustomed runs out?
Then, of course, there's the sense of loneliness that creeps in as the limelight begins to wane. At first, the pomp and circumstance attenuating a player’s exit from the game is more than tolerable, as the media spends significant time rehashing the player's career and accomplishments.
Soon, however, a new season begins and new stars capture our interest and the spotlight.
The retired athlete is then marginalized, reduced to an occasional public appearance or a casual mention on a Saturday afternoon broadcast. Many players claim that their retreat to their family life will be enough to fill the void—the reality is that the more notoriety they enjoyed during their heyday, the harder that void is to fill.
And what is the quickest antidote to depression? Rejoining the game and finding that thrill that fed you, both literally and figuratively.
Those who follow sports closely can provide the names of those who embody the aforementioned prototype, the most notable being Brett Favre, who turned his retirement into a media circus that was as much an embarrassment to him as it was to those who got swept away in all the inane hoopla.
This happened to a much lesser degree with athletes like Deion Sanders, Roger Clemens and Ricky Williams when they too reneged on their proclamation that they were leaving the game, never to return.
And now New York Yankee Andy Pettitte is the latest psychological casualty, as he prepares to make his comeback for a team that admittedly is in need of another arm or two.
Yes—Andy Pettitte. The same Andy Pettitte who retired after the 2010 season. The same Andy Pettitte who said tearfully at a press conference "It just didn't feel right for me anymore. I didn't have the hunger, the drive that I felt like I needed."
We all felt for Andy that day.
Passages are never easy, for any of us, and we empathized with the angst and ambivalence that was eating away at the Yankee great as he spoke. But I guess we should have been a little more cynical and incredulous in the wake of the Favre debacle—and we certainly should have interpreted his other words that day as a harbinger of things to come: “"I can tell you one thing: I am not going to play this season. I can tell you that 100 percent. But I guess you can never say never."
I also cannot help but think of other athletes who, despite the temptation to recapture lost glory and the nagging reality that they never won that championship, resisted the temptation. Dan Marino and Barry Sanders are just two names that come to mind. But there are others. Kudos to them for placing their self respect above any unflagging neuroses.
In retrospect, Pettitte was far more cagey than his mercurial predecessors, who issued very declarative statements upon retirement, stating unequivocally that this is it.
However, I wonder if Petite has considered whether or not he can really have an impact. Equally important is weighing how his potential ineffectiveness might forever sully his legacy as a Yankee great.
Pettitte did leave the proverbial door open for a return—so technically, we cannot call him a liar or question with the same critical vivacity his integrity. However, despite the crafty disclaimer from a year ago, I still have a bad taste in my mouth. My father used to always say “you’re only as good as your word.”
I hear Pettitte loud and clear.
But the words are not his. They belong to a little shepherd boy running through a village screaming at the top of his lungs.
P.S. Do these pseudo-retired athletes have to give the lavish retirement gifts back once they return???
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