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Tom Glavine and the Fate of the Aging Athlete

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Tom Glavine did not wish to retire and so the Atlanta Braves, who did not want him anymore, did him the courtesy of releasing him.

Perhaps another club, in need of left-handed pitching will sign him. There is talk of interest from the Dodgers and Phillies. But Milwaukee, in need of an arm, passed, having concluded that the Braves had not been encouraged by Glavine's seemingly fine rehab performance in the low minors.

Glavine is 43 and is destined for enshrinement in Cooperstown. His return to Atlanta after five years in New York last season was injury-marred, and that only deepened what his longtime teammate, Chipper Jones, says is the enduring sting of having pitched his worst when it mattered most, in the finale of the Mets' 2007 collapse. A dreadful way to close things out for a pitcher who has won 305 games.

Glavine always impressed as a wise and thoughtful man, yet he is, Jones told the New York Times, "a bitter competitor." Which explains a great deal about why even so erudite a fellow appears unready to start the rest of his life.

A host of qualities separate professional athletes from those who are very good at playing games, and talent is only one of them. Professional athletes need to play and need to win and the absence of being in the game creates a void that no amount of golf or gin rummy can fill. Elite athletes like Glavine bear a striking resemble to surgeons and test pilots who, it is often said, feel most alive when things are most perilous. Situations that the rest of us would prudently avoid are precisely those encounters they seek out. Give me the ball.

Glavine, so great and so much in demand for so long, now finds himself at the mercy of men whose interests are not his own. He can go on only if someone decides he can still be of value. He need only look to his former Met teammate and fellow future Hall of Famer, Pedro Martinez, who had hoped that his performance in the World Baseball Classic might convince someone, anyone, that he still had it. But no one wanted Pedro anymore.

Years ago, I got to know a group of aging fighters who worked out in a now-defunct gym on the South Side of Chicago. They trained hard and afterward would take stock of themselves before the mirror and proclaim that they never felt better, or younger. And who was to tell them otherwise?

They could train and talk of fights that would never happen, all the while convincing themselves that the life they had worked so long and so hard to achieve was over. Boxers don't get released. They may not get paid to fight. But no one is stopping them from training, and dreaming and denying.

Yet sometimes they took things too far, and forgot that there was a level of competition that could reveal what they did not wish to see. There was one fighter who, in his prime, had been a successful boxer and who, after his apparent retirement had nonetheless made his way back to the gym, taped his hands, and after seeing that he could still move and hit the speed bag and skip rope, decided it was time to get back in the ring. Maybe he still had it.

He stepped in, inevitably, against a younger man who hit him very hard. The older man finished his sparring, removed his gloves, showered, dressed and left. No one ever saw him again.