I've always admired athletes who can call it quits while still in their prime. When Barry Sanders stepped away from the NFL at the height of his talent and within striking distance of one of the games most esteemed records, the sporting world was completely perplexed. How could he leave? He was about to break the all-time rushing record? He was only 30? It rarely occurs to fans that these players have lives outside of the game: family obligations, other passions, fatigue and a slew of other things that may play into such a decision. That said, it's incredibly rare that a player, especially of Sanders' caliber, can bid farewell when there appears to be so much in front of him or her. But some do it.
I first attended a ballgame at Yankee Stadium in 1976 at the age of three. I've probably seen close to 100 games since. I sat through many of the dreaded games of the 1980s. Journeymen such as Toby Harrah, Mel Hall, Dennis Rasmussen and Butch Wynegar are as etched into my baseball mind as firmly as those now holding multiple championship rings. I was born into the Yankees and it's been a love affair that I've followed game-to-game for over 30 years. I sat high up in the upper deck when David Wells hurled a perfect game. I was deep in the right field bleachers when Tino Martinez hit an unthinkable bomb against Arizona in the 2001 World Series. I was about thirty yards from Charlie Hayes when he gloved the final out of the 1996 World Series.
I had a similar love for college basketball in the 1980s. Louisville was my team. I won my first bet ($5) when they upset Duke to win the championship in 1986. But then the college game changed drastically. Any player with an inkling of NBA potential was jumping ship or skipping the level altogether. I lost interest. When my beloved Knicks were taken over by one of the greediest and most narrow-minded dolts in professional sports, I couldn't take it anymore. I followed their evolution from Rory Sparrow and Louis Orr through to Charles Oakley, John Starks and Patrick Ewing. But then the Dolans and a former Detroit Piston star blanketed the team with controversy, stupidity, avarice and a lack of even the slightest vision. I was done. I couldn't stand beside a team that now lacked even a sliver of integrity.
But I still had the Yankees. Like almost all fans of the pinstripes, I've had to defend my ballclub from the never-ending calls that they "buy championships." When they shelled out $450 million in the offseason for three players I cowered a bit and skirted the shouts from my friends who stand with Boston or Philadelphia or Oakland. I knew it was extreme, but nothing could break my bond with them. The Yankees were being ingrained into me before I could talk. I would stick with them no matter what. And then came the steroids: Clemens, Pettitte, A-Rod. "Oh, probably half the league is culpable," I shot back. And then came word of the absolutely unfathomable ticket prices. I was having a hard time with that one.
This week the Yankees wrapped up their 27th World Championship. I watched every pitch throughout the entire playoffs. I spent over 13 hours on the road a few weeks back driving to-and-from Anaheim to catch the Yankees and the Angels in the ALCS. I blew off all plans for nearly a month to watch my team. As the World Series neared its completion, with two outs in the ninth inning and the Yanks with a safe four-run lead, my hands were still shaking from nerves. And then Robbie Cano fired the ball to Tex and the Yanks secured another championship. I sat and let it soak in. The text messages were arriving at a furious pace. Hideki accepted the MVP trophy. The team thanked George. They hoisted another trophy and I felt the same pride I felt as a kid when they were awful. Because the Yankees were my team.
When my excitement finally dissipated a bit, for some unknown reason, my mind went to Barry Sanders. No, I wasn't thinking about him in terms of Yankee players who could potentially step away. I was thinking of him in relation to my love for the New York Yankees. Even the greatest loves of our lives can come to an end at some point. With the disparity between the rich and poor in baseball almost mirroring what's happening to the citizens of this country, I sensed a rising emotion to call it a day. The Yankees clearly have many, many great years ahead of them, and likely will for generations to come. But the game just doesn't feel the same anymore. There's just too much money and corporate interest. And man, who can stomach the buffoons on FOX who cover the most important games. So like Barry, maybe it's time to walk away. In his final season he ran for over 1,400 yards. In what could be my final season, I got to once again watch Mariano close out another Series.