Timeless: Seemingly Ageless Athletes Defying Father Time
This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.
If you are an avid reader (as I am) of classic literature, or perhaps an enthusiast of fantasy films, you might recognize this as a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 classic The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins has gotten separated from the dwarves and is lost in the deep darkness of the goblins warren. He stumbles upon a ring and then meets Gollum, a denizen of the dark who engages him in a game of riddles to determine if he escapes or comes to dinner. Of course, he would be the main course at said dinner. This particular riddle is one that Gollum asked of Bilbo, and it is one that has meaning to every person who walks the earth. The answer, of course, is time.
Particularly in sports, time comes to call upon all who play. A time comes when our body simply cannot perform at a level that we have grown accustomed to, and we must face the facts.
I read an online article wherein Justin Verlander, pitcher for the Houston Astros, has said that he would like to play in Major League Baseball until he is 45 years of age. Most players are finished by their mid-30s, maybe closing in on 40 if they are unbelievably fit and fortunate health-wise. Mid-40s is difficult, to say the least. This got me thinking of others who have battled time and won, at least delaying the inevitable for a bit longer than most of us.
George Blanda of the NFL
I suppose we should begin this celebration of the oldies but goodies of major sports with George Blanda. Blanda played for 26 years in the National Football League (NFL) and played under such Hall of Fame coaches as Bear Bryant, George Halas, and John Madden. Taking the field as a quarterback and a kicker, when he finally retired at age 48 in 1976, he held the record for most points by a single player in football history with 2,002 points. As a quarterback, he definitely held his own in an age where they threw far less often, passing for almost 27,000 yards and over 230 touchdowns. But he didn't stop there; he also kicked extra points (943 out of 959) and field goals (335 out of 641) while running for another 9 touchdowns on the ground.
But that's not all he did. In addition to his offensive stats, he also punted, had a couple of kickoff returns, and recovered 23 fumbles. He even had a pass interception! Elected into the Hall of Fame in 1981 on his first ballot, Blanda and his longevity may never be equaled in football again.
As a side note, do not think that as an "old man" of 48 he was just a window dressing, someone on the roster to lengthen his record but not play. In his final game, the 1975 AFC Championship game on January 4, 1976, he kicked a 41-yard field goal as well as an extra point, accounting for 40% of the Raiders total points that game.
Robert Parish of the NBA
Robert Parish, aka The Chief of the Boston Celtics, was a warrior. Seemingly silent, rarely saying much of anything, I remember watching him play for those championship teams Boston had, alongside Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, and of course, Larry Bird. Although Parish is technically not the oldest player in NBA history (Nat Hickey of the Providence Steamrollers activated himself for two games in 1948 holds the record at 48, and Kevin Willis was older as well at 44)
I prefer to think of Parish as the one I look to as a man defying time, playing on into what should be his retirement years in a sport that is filled with high school and college-aged boys going against the Old Man of the Courts. Finally retiring at 43 years of age and elected into the NBA Hall of Fame, The Chief played on four championship teams (Celtic's three times, Chicago Bulls once), and when he retired, he held the record for most games played at 1,611.
Parish came to the Celtics due to coach Red Auerbach's trade (theft?) with the Golden State Warriors. Trading the number one pick for Parish and the Warrior's first round pick (number three overall), he chose Kevin McHale with that pick and paired these two big men with second-year player Larry Bird. Together, as the Big Three, they dominated the East in the NBA for years to come, forcing the road to the playoffs through Boston most years.
I enjoyed watching Parish play the game, for he played it the way I played my neighborhood pickup games: hard-nosed, tough defense, and teamwork. He hustled, he gave no quarter and expected none. He was a true gamer.
Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe
Often considered the most complete player to ever play the game of hockey, Gordie, or Mr. Hockey, played for a staggering 33 seasons (!), playing 80 games in his final season of 1979-80 while scoring 1,767 goals as an NHL player. He did play an additional game in the 1997-98 season for the Detroit Vipers but failed to score. He began his career as a fresh-faced 18-year-old and played virtually constantly until the age of 52. Along the way, he was a 23 time All Star, was among the top ten in scoring for 21 seasons and became the inaugural recipient of the NHL Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
Fun fact: He became the namesake of the "Gordie Howe Hat Trick," which consisted of a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game. Also, he had the amazing opportunity to play with his sons Mark and Marty in the World Hockey League from 1973 through 1977, winning two championships alongside them.
Oldest Players in MLB History
The list of players making well into their 40s is long and storied, so for Justin Verlander to say he wants to play until age 45 is a good goal to be sure, but not all that uncommon really. Both Hoyt Wilhelm and Jamie Moyer played until age 49, Phil Niekro knuckle-balled opposing hitters until he finally retired at age 48, and Satchell Paige didn't even become a rookie until he was 42 years old, playing his final professional game at the unbelievable age of 59.
The list of 46-year-old players includes such luminaries as Randy Johnson, Tommy John, Jesse Orosco, and Charlie Hough. To join the 45-year-old list, Verlander will be in the company of Roger Clemons, Tim Wakefield, Gaylord Perry, and the seemingly ageless Bartolo Colon.
But the one I will speak of here today is my all-time favorite Nolan Ryan. Ryan pitched until he was 46 years old, and when he retired, it wasn't because his skills had left him or deteriorated. No, he left because one night in September of 1993 he tore a ligament in his pitching elbow.
Nolan Ryan had announced that the 1993 season would be his last, his 27th season. Along the way, he struck out 5,714 (MLB record), had seven no hitters (another MLB record), is first in fewest hits per nine innings with 6.56 (another record) and struck out no less than seven pairs of fathers and sons (including the Bonds boys (yet another record).
He also has the dubious record of most walks in a career (2,795), wild pitches (277), and is one of only two pitchers to give up ten grand slams over a career. His tenth slam came on his next to last batter, and on his final batter he felt his tendon snap. Shaking it off, he went on to throw one more pitch, at 98 mph. With what amounts to the Tommy John ligament snapped and at age 46, he threw faster than the vast majority of pitchers in the game could throw. But that was enough, and he walked off the field for the last time that night.
46-Year-Old Nolan Ryan Kicking 26-Year-Old Robin Ventura's Hind End
So, Good Luck, Justin Verlander!
I wish Verlander good luck in his quest to pitch until age 45, which will be another decade or so. He has been healthy for the most part, which is the first prerequisite for pitching that much longer. He is an efficient pitcher, throws heat, and has a good assortment of pitches. He has been a very good pitcher over his career and reminds me a bit of Ryan with the "You know what I'm gonna throw, so let's see if you can hit it" attitude, daring hitters to hit his best offering.
Perhaps the most important piece of the longevity puzzle is the belief in oneself, and he definitely has that, along with the desire to succeed and work ethic a long-term player needs to be successful. But to declare at age 35 that you plan on playing another decade is a bit presumptuous to me. If you want to do it just do it, that way if something happens along the way and you change your mind for whatever reason no big deal; but by doing it this way you have told the world what you want to do and if you don't or can't...
Justin, if you can make it another couple of years beyond 45, you and I can retire together, you to your millions and me to my Social Security.
Ain't life grand!