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  Not All Comebacks Are Magical

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, February 3 1996; Page K01

The comeback has been a staple of history ever since that phoenix bird of legend rose from its own ashes to rejoin its kind. The sports pages have been saturated with stories of the comeback, in this sport or that, by individuals trying to relive it up.

Magic Johnson is merely the latest to disavow retirement and return to the wars, his being basketball. He has, as an immediate example, a return to the game by Michael Jordan, a mere two-year retiree who has meshed so well with the Chicago Bulls that they are the class of the league.

Magic was no less a dominant player and crowd hero, but four years away from the game? It speaks of basketball as distinguished from baseball, which would regard that long a retiree as a loony bird if he tried to return to the game.

Even as Jordan's successful return to basketball stands as a goal for Johnson, it also underscores the skills of the two games. Jordan, a superb athlete, quit basketball to give baseball a try and it was a disaster. He should have heeded Ted Williams's dictate that "hitting a well-pitched ball is the toughest thing in sports" — this from the player who did it better than any other of modern times.

Even in the minor leagues, Jordan's try at becoming a professional baseball player was a complete misadventure. In the field he was passable, but even minor league pitching exposed him as a feeble batsman. So, back to basketball.

There have been no notable comebacks in baseball. And none much remembered in basketball except in the case of Jordan and Magic. Football? Too rugged a game to permit a comeback. Boxing, ha! That's the game in which the comeback has been such a regularity the phrase is now mainly associated with boxing.

Baseball players know there is no return to the game for them when the tyrant of age has diminished their skills. They knew when to call it quits forever -- Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Williams, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and all the others. They would not risk disgracing themselves by playing the game too long, and knowing that unlike basketball one misplay by a ballplayer, one insufficiency, could cost his team the game. DiMaggio won't even suit up for those old-timers games.

Pride has always been a factor with baseball players. Cobb quit, at 41, after hitting a decent .323 for the Philadelphia A's but that number was intolerable to a man who had a .367 career average. Mention of Cobb recalls the colloquy of the two fans that went like this: "How much do you think Ty Cobb would hit against today's pitching?" . . . "Oh, about .300." . . . "Is that all?" . . . "Well, remember that Cobb today would be 86 years old."

However, in boxing, the comeback is almost the norm and has produced too many sorry tales, too many cruel endings. Scarcely a heavyweight champion has not attempted it. The two notable exceptions were Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano. Tunney pocketed $990,000 for his second fight with Jack Dempsey in 1927 then married an heiress and had no more need of boxing's bounty. Marciano, unbeaten in all his 49 fights, had some wealth and saw no more fields to conquer.

Anent the Marciano retirement I was palavering with Ted Williams behind the batting cage in Fenway Park the day the newspapers announced it. "Too bad," said Williams. Why so bad? Williams, a bug on statistics who always knew how many homers or runs batted in he needed to tie a record, said, "He should have fought one more fight. Fifty for 50 would have looked better in the book."

In most of their comebacks, boxing's old champions had answered too many gongs. Dempsey and Joe Louis were reduced to fighting palookas in their comeback years before both of them went into that lowest of careers, refereeing wrestling bouts.

After losing his title to Ezzard Charles, Louis retired, then came back to fight eight times before he encountered Marciano at Madison Square Garden. There he suffered the final indignity — knocked clear out of the ring by Marciano, a humbling experience. He wound up subsisting mostly on the handout of gamblers in the Vegas hotels, where Joe had the honorary title of "greeter."

Sad, too, was the denouement of the great Muhammad Ali. In his last comeback against former sparring partner Larry Holmes, Ali wasn't even a ghost of his former self. Ringsiders were asking the referees to stop it as an act of mercy by the fourth round. The ref finally did in the 11th. But Ali would be remembered for that cruel spectacle.

Even Sugar Ray Robinson, greatest of them all, couldn't surmount the comeback curse. He announced his retirement in 1952 and opted for a career as a song and dance man. But he missed the big paydays of boxing and put away his dancing pumps to go back to the ring. He was still fighting at the age of 44 but he was a sorry sight. The boxer who had lost only three of his first 330 fights was beaten five times in his last 10, by some tomato cans he would have blown out of the ring.

The most illogical and at the same time most fascinating of boxing's comebacks is that of George Foreman. Out of boxing for 10 years and discredited when he did quit, he promoted himself to big money even as an oversized 270-pounder who padded around the ring like a sleep-walking elephant, knocking out a long series of palookas. He is still functioning, sometimes at $10 million a fight, a product of pay-TV.

Sugar Ray Leonard holds the record for comebacks, four or five, depending on who's counting. He did have two glorious comeback fights, beating Marvin Hagler and fighting a draw with Tommy Hearns. But his returns to the ring were not without cost. In 1984 he was dumped on his rump by a mere novice named Kevin Howard, and later another palooka, Donny Lalonde, also splattered him to the floor. A one-sided, bloody defeat against Terry Norris ended Leonard's career. Like so many others, Leonard would learn that comebacks were not easy. They had their price, so often not a pretty one.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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