George Herman Ruth Jr., the pride of Pigtown, stayed in the game too long. In his last season and playing for the Boston Braves in 1935, the legendary Babe batted .181, could barely trot around the bases and stuck around mostly because he thought he'd be offered the manager's job, which he wasn't. The greatest baseball player in history retired just two months into his worst season playing for one of the losingest teams in the modern era.
The sporting world is filled with cautionary tales of athletes who retired too late or staged unsuccessful comebacks. Brett Favre as a New York Jet, Michael Jordan as a Washington Wizard, a 40-year-old Sugar Ray Leonard losing his last bout, Jim Palmer in 1991. And here's one often forgotten: In 1992, nine-time Olympic swimming champion Mark Spitz tried to make the Barcelona team but came up well short of a qualifying time.
Michael Phelps is not 41 years old, as Mr. Spitz was in 1992, but as thrilling as it was to learn this week that after much speculation the most decorated Olympian in history is returning to the sport of swimming, it's difficult for Baltimoreans not to be a little wary, too. At age 28 and having accomplished so much in the pool, will Michael have the drive, commitment or even the physical tools to compete at the highest level, presumably to make a fifth Olympics?
Physically, he's probably capable of doing it. The average age of the U.S. Olympic swimming swim team has been getting older over the last several decades. For men, it was 21.1 years in 1984 but 25.8 in 2012. The average male medalist was 26.2 years at the London Olympics two years ago. Michael will be just five years older in 2016. Dara Torres won silver medals at age 41.
But will he have the burning desire needed to push himself through those endless hours of training? Swimming is a truly solitary sport, one built on hours upon hours upon hours going back and forth across the same narrow lane of chlorinated water that you swam the day before and the day before that and the day before that. Even runners get to see a bit of scenery. Swimming competitively requires a mental toughness and dedication, an immunity to boredom and distraction and perhaps a comfort with water that most of us land-dwelling mammals can't even imagine.
For those who have watched this young man since he was the wonder kid of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, who cheered him on at his first Olympics in Sydney 14 years ago (or at the World Aquatics Championships the next year when he set his first world record — at the tender age of 15 years and 9 months), this is intensely personal. He is still the kid from Rodgers Forge, the son of a middle school principal and the youngest of her three children, the guy who can eat three fried egg sandwiches, an omelet, a bowl of grits and a stack of French toast and chocolate chip pancakes at Pete's Grille for breakfast, easily.
The last thing his fans want is for Michael to fail and for an unsuccessful comeback to cloud his legacy. Not that it will change what he accomplished in his sport. Those records won't be wiped from the books. Babe Ruth is still considered one of the all-time greats, too. But there's also something a bit dispiriting about the great athlete brought low by that combination of aging and hubris, a discordant coda attached to the end of a brilliant symphony.
Perhaps we will know considerably more next week when Michael competes at the Arena Grand Prix in arid Mesa, Ariz., surely an unlikely venue for a swimmer to return to water. If he succeeds, there will likely be other events in his future. The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are no more than speculation at this point, but it's hard to believe that it's not the ultimate goal.
Good luck, Mr. Phelps, as the recorded voice use to say on "Mission: Impossible" (the TV show, not the movies). The mission you've chosen for yourself will not be easy. But nobody should underestimate what the impossibly fast man from Baltimore can do with Coach Bob Bowman at his side and 50 meters of water in front of him.
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