Ken Griffey Jr. retired last week. One day, as he always said he would, he did not show up for practice, but left a heartfelt note to his team and city of Seattle. The same week Stephen Strasburg exploded into the major leagues with 100 mile per hour fastballs and 14 strikeouts.
Just another week in life; just another week in sport; but the week reminded us of the rhythm of life in sport. Athletes live under a sentence that their body imposes. The human body reaches the zenith of its physical strength, quickness and coordination combined in early twenties. Even by then some elements like quickness are already eroding. Each player lives that sentence knowing their body will ultimately betray them, not on purpose, but by the simple entropy of existing as a human being.
The apogee moment of life, the moment to die for the ancient Greeks, arrives at those glorious rich moments of pure excellence. Griffey exuded sheer joy of game. His unbridled ebullience launched him against walls where stunning catches became normal. His true glory manifest in that pure swing, one of the fastest cleanest swings you will ever see. Not cat quick but cheetah fast. Pure clean aggression with pinpoint accuracy and effectiveness. Watching the swing was like watching the immaculate form of the swing. As Michael Jordan discovered hitting a 2.8 inch ball travelling at 96 miles per hour as the ball dances and dives and curves is the hardest action in all sports. At the height of his power and talent Griffey did it better than any one around him including the steroidal hunks who lumbered around bases unable to get bloated muscle structure out of the way enough to run or play outfield.
Incessant and lingering injuries marred Griffey's career after he left Seattle. Some believe they arose from the pounding he took at the concrete floor in the mausoleum of the Kingdom. In some ways he never reached the sheer numerical stature projected by his apogee years simply by his body breaking down just a little too early. But the period of his ascendency were glorious for him and the sport.
One star leaves. Another enters.
Stephen Strasburg, all 21 years of him and looking every year of it, signed a 15 million dollar contract last year on the last day of contracts, he is a Scott Boras client after all. After a mandatory stay in the minors to acclimate him and protect his pitching clock with the Nationals, he blazed into the major leagues with his debut. A true prodigy, he pitched only seven innings and struck out 14 batters.
I am not worried about the hype or his final long term trajectory. The point of the game is the circle of sports, like the circle of all our lives.
We are born, we stumble, grow and with luck and love and talent and effort we arrive at the blissful time when we really are "at the top of my game." All of us have that possible trajectory. All of us face failure and success and those rare awesome moments when it all comes together. For a great athlete like Griffey, this continued that for a decade. But the Faustian pact athletes make with their bodies caught up with him as it does with all athletes.
The athlete, like all of us, also faces the young guns. The world does not stand still. Young kids, old kids dream of being an athlete--I don't know anyone who dreams of being a college professor at the age of 10! Athletes face constant competition and instant obsolescence. Come to think of it many of us face that it this age that specializes in replacing physical skill or mental judgment with technology.
As their body betrays them slowly and incrementally, sometimes disastrously with injuries and sometimes they fae a threshold decline in their quickness or speed or endurance. One year, one month they can do it; a year later they can no longer hit a curve or catch up to fastballs or bounce off a tackle and run again. The decay sets in at the same time younger committed fanatically devoted and well trained young players push them. They admire and want to be like the players they now face. It is an honor to face a Griffey but even more of an honor to strike him out or surpass his home runs or hit the ball past him that he once would have caught.
The circle completes itself. A great player retires, quietly and without fanfare. A new player, a potential great player, erupts onto the scene. Just another week in sport, in life.