Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Archive of the Day

In June 2002, Harper's published an essay by Rich Cohen called "The Boys of Winter: In praise of the aging athlete." The piece was what its subtitle promised. It argued that there's something right about great athletes hanging on as long as they can, not going out on top, though there's often pressure to do so from fans and media who don't want reminders of mortality from their sporting icons. I generally agree with Cohen. Even when someone sticks around to the point of embarrassment -- Rickey Henderson, I'm looking at you -- I tend to find it endearing, a sign that the person really loves what they do.

Cohen makes clear that he's talking about only the best of the best:
No one much cares how the end comes to the mediocre or the merely good. Such athletes are allowed to wander away when no one is watching, to elicit, at most, a paragraph in the local paper. They are a friend of a friend leaving the party: you look up and he is gone and you cannot remember whether he has been gone for an hour or five minutes. Bob Dernier, Reggie Theus, Jeff Bukeboom: who remembers their last game? Their last hit? ... But a superstar sucks the energy out after him, and so he is denied the easy getaway.
The piece ends with Cohen reflecting on a trip to a New York Rangers game toward the end of Mark Messier's career:
Messier no longer plays on the top line, so he usually makes his first appearance while you are looking elsewhere. Suddenly there he is, cutting in front of the net, his chin leading him into and out of confrontations. When he first came into the league, Messier was the biggest center in the game, the prototype of a new kind of forward. He has since been surpassed, overwhelmed by the tide of bigness he once portended. Eric Lindros, Bobby Holik, and Keith Primeau all dwarf Messier. Even on his more effective shifts, he therefore stands as a kind of relic, a reminder of an older standard. Like the Chrysler Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, he is a monument to a future that came and went, a cutting edge that passed into antiquity.

As the game slogged on, things got rough and then chippy, with sticks and pucks drawing blood up and down the boards. At one point, a young player took a run at Messier. Whenever a young player goes at an old star, there is the stink of regicide. For a moment, the Garden got quiet, the kind of quiet only a crowd can make. Messier turned slowly, his face set in that familiar hard and icy stare. It was the kind of stare it takes an entire career to perfect. The fact that it was mostly bluff made it only more courageous. That stare, that intensity, that stubbornness -- it is all that remains of Messier's old game. On most nights it is enough.


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