Overrated – Athletes coming out of retirement

Ned Bitters

This week’s inductee into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” is … athletes coming out of retirement.

“Say it ain’t so, Lance.”

But alas, it looks like it is so, and once again sports fans are faced with the prospect of seeing one of the all-time greats return to his sport to be merely above average, or maybe just very good, or maybe – please say it ain’t so – mediocre. While it’s never been a wise move to bet against Armstrong (see: Cancer, Seven Tour wins, Banging Cheryl Crow when she was still smokin’ hot despite having just one ball), the sports gods have a way of bitchslapping hubris. I’m afraid they might be readying the old ego-checking pimphand right now, penciling in a stiff backhand for Sir Lance next July about halfway up l’Alpe d’Huez.

I’m not rooting for his failure. I love Armstrong. But history says it won’t be pretty. Michael Jordan returned to the Wizards, and while he played some great basketball, he was no longer the M.J. who made us gasp. Guy LaFleur was the most sensational hockey player of the entire 1970s, but when he unretired in the 80s, he was a balding former star unable to skate through the slushy ice of aging. George Foreman? Sure, he did some winning when he came back, but he was only fought the bums he could beat despite his bulbous belly and raspy death wheeze.

The one comeback that almost proved worth it was Mario Lemieux’s. The day he returned was one of the greatest sports memories of my life. It was like a holiday in Pittsburgh, with special TV coverage all day and special sections inserted into each daily newspaper. The arena was packed before the pre-game warmups. While I can’t prove this, I believe that when Lemieux scored that night, Kleenex stock went up three points just due to half the city dabbing away a few tears.

Lemieux led the league in scoring from that night until end of the season, and he led the Penguins to the brink of the Stanley Cup finals. It was a magical time to be a Pittsburgh sports fan. It was the greatest unretirement in sports history. But the next season, and the one after that? He never again showed us even a glimpse of his former greatness. He was often injured. He face looked bloated, and he was always drenched in an unhealthy looking sweat. While Mario’s exploits make up the bulk of my favorite sports memories, I now have the added image of a Lemieux who looked and played like every other player. I feel a bit cheated.

Am I being just a selfish fan? Sure. That’s my right. I wasted a lot of emotion of my favorite athletes over the course of their careers. It’s completely silly and irrational, I know. You can call it stupid, and I won’t argue. But it’s still real, spent emotion. The first time Mario retired, my wife and I just sat silently during the last 30 minutes of his last game and final goodbye on the ice. It was either stay silent or choke up. When Lance gave his final Tour victory speech, I had the same emotions. This beautiful sports creature was leaving, which meant another era of my life was being severed for good. Those moments hit me in the pit of my stomach.

Then the athlete returns a few years later, and you feel like a total asshole for expending those very real, very strong emotions. It’s akin to what Lazarus’s family probably experienced when Jesus, in another fit of “look what I can do” neediness, brought his dead buddy back from the grave. Lazarus’s family had grieved and mourned and cried and wailed for days, and they said all the requisite nice shit you always say about dead relatives, and then – voila! (or whatever they screamed in the Middle East back then … Mazel Tov?) – he’s back, a bit paler and thinner maybe, but ready to get back into the Lazarus family swing of things. The family’s left feeling like idiots, and what’s worse, they know he’s going to die again some day. But I guarantee you that the next time, they aren’t going to be so broken up. It’s the same with athletes.

I can understand how these athletes need another fix of that glory and adulation thing. I don’t know how they give that shit up cold turkey. But with a comeback, after that first-game-back outpouring of love and affection, the cheers are mostly artificial, retroactive gestures of respect for the memories of who the athlete used to be. They’re not for that night’s one assist performance or that day’s 12 points from the floor and 4 from the foul line. These “remember when” ovations are just sad.

And so it will be with Armstrong if we find him struggling up the Alps in the middle of the pack, the famous steely gaze replaced by the ragged, open-mouthed visage of the weekend biker busting ass up the mild grade that leads to his suburban cul-de-sac. What’s even worse with Lance’s comeback is that it will force the Versus Network to return to their obnoxious, way-too-Lance-heavy coverage of the race.

No network does a better job of covering a sport than Versus (and formerly OLN) does with the Tour. They manage to make a three-week bike race the most riveting sports television of the year. This was true before Lance was winning Tours, while he was winning and after he retired. But with Lance back in the race, they’ll have to cater to the casual viewer, somehow finding the Lance angle in every aspect of their coverage. And as an added non-bonus, we’ll have to endure the daily interview with whatever piece of celebrity skank he’s banging at the moment.

I sure hope he changes his mind and sticks to the occasional marathon and mountain bike race. I want no Lance images in my head that will interfere with the countless unforgettable moments he provided. “The Look.” The musette hook-and-fall. Narrowly avoiding the Vinokourov crash. Passing Jan Ullrich in the Alpe d’Huez time trial.

Instead, I’m worried I’ll be left with a new set of memories, like Lance heaving up his breakfast in the Pyrenees, or Lance “off the back” of the peloton in the Alps, or Lance turning in a middle-of-the-pack time trial ride. So here’s hoping he wakes up and decides not to taint the memories he’s left us with. Maybe he’ll realize he can still lead the cancer fight in retirement. Maybe he’ll find other ways to get the adrenaline rush that competition provides. And most importantly, maybe he’ll realize that, despite being a one-balled retiree, he can still score some that hot Hollywood snatch.

Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at teacherslounge@hobotrashcan.com.

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