By training minds and bodies, aging athletes defer 'old' rule

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SEATTLE -- If they dared to ignore Satchel Paige's counsel and looked back, they'd see that something indeed is gaining on them.

Age.

Yet, by training their minds and bodies, and simply by enduring, Nolan Ryan and Carlton Fisk have remained hares in the race against time.

Early last season, Ryan was on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his lower back. Five days after his return, he pitched his sixth no-hitter. He has returned to the DL twice more this season with nagging problems in his pitching shoulder, but at age 44 he remains in the Texas Rangers' starting rotation, again among the American League leaders in strikeouts and with a seventh no-hitter in the bag. And he already is talking about next season.

Fisk, who makes his living on bended knees, had arthroscopic surgery on both of them before this season.

As long ago as 1986, the Chicago White Sox balked at Fisk's request for a three-year contract and sought to push him from behind the plate into the outfield. Three months ago, still catching for the White Sox at 43, he became the oldest player to get a hit in the All-Star Game.

About two months earlier, on May 1, Ryan got his seventh no-hitter, striking out 16 Toronto Blue Jays along the way. Before taking the mound that night, Ryan told his pitching coach, "My back hurts, my heel hurts and I've been pounding Advil all day. I don't feel good. I feel old today. Watch me."

Yes, watch them.

For years, 30 was considered the crest of the hill, the peak year of an elite athlete's career. On the other side, it was believed, waited the free fall toward retirement.

It is tempting to dismiss Ryan and Fisk as freaks of nature. However, they merely are president and vice president of baseball's burgeoning fortysomething club, numbering as many as nine players this season and growing every year. Plus, their routines have emerged as a blueprint for prolonging the careers of athletes in team sports.

Year-round conditioning, a surprisingly recent development in professional team sports, widely is considered the key to longer careers. The well-conditioned player avoids injuries better and can postpone some types of physical deterioration and better maintain skills.

Today's athletes also know more about eating right and handling stress. And they benefit from improved surgical techniques, particularly arthroscopy, which has accelerated recovery to near-miraculous rates.

"We can't stop the aging process, but we can defer it," said Tom House, the Rangers' pitching coach, who has a doctorate in exercise physiology. "There's no reason why more people, and not just athletes, can't do at 45 what they were able to do at 35."

Perhaps most significantly, professional athletes are breaking the time-honored cycle of conditioning during training camp and falling out of shape during the off-season. Year-round conditioning helps alleviate stress on the body. It helps prevent early season injuries and leads to quicker recovery from injuries.

Frank Furtado, longtime trainer for the Seattle SuperSonics, has seen -- and felt -- the change.

"During my first years as a trainer, it was hoped that you'd take a summer job to supplement your income," he said. "It was thought that there was nothing to do all summer. Now, we get two weeks of vacation like most anybody else."

A workout used to entail little more than running. Now, weight training is considered essential, to stir up testosterone -- the strength-conferring hormone that begins to abandon males in their mid-20s -- and counteract the force of gravity on the body.

Combining weight training with stretching -- even yoga or martial-arts training -- helps keep the body flexible, the muscles supple.

Ryan and Fisk have gymnasiums in their homes. But they are better known for their postgame sessions with weights and stationary bicycles.

"Just playing a sport does a lot to break down the body," said Pete Shmock, the Seattle Mariners' strength and conditioning coach. "An athlete has to do something to counteract this deconditioning process. That means working out during the season, as well as the off-season."

When Ryan started working with weights in 1972, he was considered a heretic.

"Baseball didn't believe in weights back then," he said. "Players felt like it was bad for them. But I felt something had to be done to maintain my strength throughout the year. So I started a program for myself and developed it through trial and error."

Trial and error has evolved into a science. Sport-specific weight training has become widespread. Merely building muscle can be harmful, because of the stress the added weight places on the joints. The aim is to add strength that enhances mechanics.

Ryan is a classic example.

"Nolan is a better pitcher than he was 15 years ago," House said. "He has lost less over 25 years than most athletes lose in five."

For ages, it was believed power pitchers fizzled out because they simply wore out their arms. Now, throwing is seen more as a function of forces generated by the rotation of the pelvis and trunk than of arm strength and speed.

Ryan, who threw 96-mph fastballs during his most recent no-hitter, focuses on building the muscles in the back of his shoulder, lower back and legs.

"Weight training should be specific to areas under the greatest abuse," Shmock said. "Instead of staying away from those muscle groups, as has been the tendency, you want to go right to them."

Even before the increase in weight training, baseball players had advantages over other athletes in trying to prolong their careers. The game simply isn't as hard on the joints as football, hockey and, perhaps, basketball. It's a game in which strength and speed are nice, but skill is paramount; if you can hit line drives, you can play.

Most experts agree that quickness is the first to go in an athlete because the so-called fast-twitch muscles deteriorate over time. The shortstop loses the quick first step. The power hitter doesn't quite get around on that good fastball. Loss of coordination, aerobic capacity and strength are not as inevitable.

"They don't really decline during an athlete's career," said Dr. Bill Evans of Tufts University, who works with the NHL's Boston Bruins and NFL's New England Patriots. "They only decline because an athlete doesn't work at it."

Today there is a good reason to work at it. Money.

A decade ago, sticking around for another season might have meant an extra $100,000 or so in salary. Today, it could mean millions.

"This sport will change dramatically in the next 10 years," Shmock says of baseball. "With the sort of payoffs now available, players will be willing to work harder."

It helps to have a special gift, too. Before he was sidelined as a result of a bulging disk in his neck, the result of a spring-training auto accident, 41-year-old Ken Griffey Sr. was cruising along with a .286 batting average for the Mariners.

The display by Griffey, considered one of the best fastball hitters of his time, prompted the Mason Clinic's Dr. Douglas Nikaitani to say, "It's amazing he can still pick up a fastball."

With age, Nikaitani said, comes a loss in the ability of the eyes to change their speed of focus. To a hitter, that means a decreasing ability to follow a pitch.

If Griffey has lost some eye-focus speed, he has counteracted it with an ability to read pitches almost at the point of release. It was a trick, Griffey said, he learned while in Little League.

"I look at how a pitcher's holding the ball, how it's coming out of his hand, and the spin he's putting on it," he explained. "I know how to look for one particular pitch and make adjustments on the others."

Like Ryan and Fisk, Griffey is rewriting the rules. And that affects everyone.

"Societally, there is a difference in what we perceive as being older," said Kay Porter, who used to study the aging process and now practices sports psychology in Eugene, Ore. "They [older athletes] are helping to form that new image of aging. They just keep playing, and nobody's telling them they have to stop."

Ryan says that when he was 32, he asked the Houston Astros for a three-year contract "because I'd then be 35, and that's about how long power pitchers lasted, if they were lucky. I thought I wouldn't be any different."

It was a different game then. In baseball today, 35 can seem downright young.

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