We always want them to go out on top, to leave our memories polished to a gleaming shine, with no trace of tarnish. Occasionally it happens with a note of perfection: Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat for the Boston Red Sox in 1960; quarterback John Elway winning the 1999 Super Bowl in his last game as a Denver Bronco.
One of those notes was hit last week when Pete Sampras took his final bow on the stadium court at the U.S. Open tournament.
Sampras first took center stage in the tennis world in 1990 when at age 19 he beat a much-more ballyhooed teen-ager, Andre Agassi, to win the U.S. Open. After a spectacular decade of play -- he is perhaps among the top two or three people ever to play the game -- Sampras seemed in decline. But a year ago he again showed his greatness and returned to the final of the U.S. Open. Again he was facing Agassi, whose career had been as erratic as Sampras' has been steady. And again Sampras won, for his 14th Grand Slam title. No one has won more.
On Monday, he came back to that tournament on its opening day and told the New York crowd that he was retiring.
Leave-takings don't often come in packages so neatly wrapped. For every one of those, there are other images: of an aging Muhammad Ali fighting some kickboxer, of Brooks Robinson getting cut while the Orioles were on a road trip, of Johnny Unitas playing out the string in San Diego, of Richard Petty driving in the middle of the NASCAR pack for eight years after winning the last of his record 200 races, of basketball great Michael Jordan making one too many comebacks.
You wonder why they don't just quit. But why should they? The money is usually good. And they are getting to do what they want to do. As Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer said not long after he retired, standing on the mound with the ball in his hand was exactly where he wanted to be.
It is not only sports that can grip people in this way. Many are intoxicated by what seems like only a few minutes in the media spotlight and seem to spend the rest of their lives seeking to keep that feeling. Monica Lewinsky protests that she hated the attention, then stays on television. Figure skater Tonya Harding fights in boxing matches. Those one-time sitcom stars you stumble across as the celebrity guest on a Saturday afternoon game show, or hawking wares on a shopping channel, or as hosts in infomercials. Or maybe they are out on the dinner-theater circuit, the equivalent of a baseball star kicking around in the minor leagues.
Partly, these people are making a living, and who can blame them for that. But you can see the same intoxication among many who were at the top of their professions, with plenty of money and only their reputations to lose. Near the end of his life, Frank Sinatra still toured but often forgot the lyrics to his songs. The great ballet dancer, Rudolph Nureyev, milked audiences for applause with numerous curtain calls long after he deserved them.
The political bug can bite just as hard. Harold Stassen kept making futile attempts to become the Republican presidential candidate decades after he was a serious contender for the nomination in 1948. Eugene McCarthy changed history by challenging Lyndon Johnson in 1968, but then parodied himself, re-emerging several times as a hopeless candidate.
Strom Thurmond stayed in the Senate until he turned 100. Just as people kept going to see Sinatra because he was Sinatra, the voters of South Carolina did not want to defeat Thurmond, but they must have wondered about their senator being brought from a hospital every day to represent their interests.
Athletics is a particularly cruel arena because the body delivers messages that the mind often doesn't want to hear. Everything else is still there -- the desire, the competitiveness, the knowledge -- but the body will not do what you want it to do. It's a mysterious process. Why did last year's 95 mph fastball become this year's 85 mph fastball?
But Palmer notes that it is often not the body that says it is time to quit. "People in sports talk about the perfect triangle -- intellectual, emotional and physical -- that it takes to play at that level," he says. "When you see someone like Sampras, who really played at another level, it might not be the physical part that goes, it might be intellectual or emotional.
"Think about playing in the fifth set of the U.S. Open on a hot, humid day. You've been out there almost four hours against the No. 2 player in the world. Tennis is like life; it's about making the big shots. Anybody who has played at that level knows it's not just the physical part. Like in golf, a lot of people can drive it 300 yards down the fairway, but can they do it on the 18th hole at the Masters?
"So it's the total package for me. And someone like Sampras might be saying that he's got to be honest, he just can't make the commitment to be what he used to be. It's not like he's limping around out on the court. It's not just physical."
Sampras could have stayed in the game, won many minor tournaments, still played in the Grand Slam events, following the path that kept Jimmy Connors in the game far past his prime. But he might have ended up looking like Arnold Palmer at the Masters, happy to shoot under 80 on a course he once dominated.
Yet Arnie Palmer still clearly loves walking up the fairway and hearing the cheers. Jack Nicklaus once told friends that he would not be like that, hanging on after he could no longer win. But Nicklaus is still out there, looking as if he is convinced that if he works out a few kinks, he can still win this thing.
"The good fortune that a great athlete has is to be able to play at that top level," Jim Palmer says. "The misfortune is that once you set those standards, people always expect you to meet them. It's not something you can turn on and off.
"Unless you have been there, you can never really know how difficult it can be, to constantly be under the spotlight, people expecting and demanding that you perform at that level."
"When I retired, I had lost a lot of my abilities," Palmer says. "It was a relief in a sense because people were no longer demanding and expecting something I could no longer give them. Instead, people are reflecting on all the great things you've done. It gives you a lot of peace of mind.
"You have all those bittersweet memories of what you could do, what you were a part of. You're going to miss that. You don't just turn that off. You move on."
The problem is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "There are no second acts in American lives." Certainly, enough exceptions challenge that rule. John Quincy Adams followed up his presidency with distinguished service in the House of Representatives. Jimmy Carter would be a lot higher in the rankings of former presidents than of presidents. Bill Bradley is better known as a politician than a basketball player. The jury is still out on whether William Donald Schaefer's performance as Maryland's comptroller is a successful second act or a Sunset Boulevard-like attempt to stay in the spotlight.
Jim Palmer had trouble with the second act for a while. If he had left baseball after the 1982 season, when he had 15 wins for an Orioles team that challenged for the division title until the last day of the regular season, it would have been close to a Sampras-like departure.
But he came back for the 1983 championship season, watching the World Series from the bullpen. He left the team in 1984, then tried an abortive comeback in spring training a few years later before settling into his post-baseball life.
Now among his many ventures, Palmer does commentary for Orioles television broadcasts. "I promise myself, and I don't always do it, never to forget how difficult it is to play professional sports at the level people do," he says. "I think Pete probably thinks he can't make the commitment to be at that level. And I think he deserves it, after all he's accomplished, to be able to go out the way he did."