Satchel Paige, asked how he could pitch in the big leagues at 47, said, "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?" If that didn't get you off stride, Paige would just say, "Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
Lately we've seen so many peculiar occurrences in sports that it's time to ask whether something's afoot. Suddenly nothing's going by the book. The old are acting bold and, just as confusing, teams that are mediocre, or even lousy, are challenging for championships.
Jack Nicklaus, Willie Shoemaker, Bobby Allison, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Pete Rose, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Carlton Fisk, Bill Walton, Dennis Leonard. Why repeat the tales? You get the point. All much too old or injured to be reborn.
Next, consider the teams: the Kansas City Royals, New England Patriots and Calgary Flames. The Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros are in or near first place, looking to win pennants just like the upstart Cubs, Padres, Cardinals and many others have done in recent seasons.
Grantland Rice loved to say, "The race may not always be to the swift and the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet." These days, if you bet on the young and strong against the old and weak, you'd go broke.
Once upon a time -- like the day before yesterday -- who ever heard of a 37-year-old all-star catcher, a 39-year-old NBA center, a 45-year-old first baseman, a 47-year-old winning pitcher, a 46-year-old Masters winner, a 48-year-old champion race car driver, a 54-year-old Kentucky Derby-winning jockey?
Something's definitely goin' on.
Whether we're discussing an old or injured athlete, or a team of humble pedigree, we realize it's treacherous ever to use the word "upset" anymore. No wonder Sugar Ray Leonard wants to come back. When the impossible seems routine, why be daunted by the improbable?
The nature of sports has changed, altering our expectations with it. The reasons -- not the least bit magical or romantic -- are good ol' science, plus our modern mania for sports, which has turned athletes into adulation junkies.
Athletics has reached the assembly-line age. We've reached the point where we can mass-produce nearly great jocks, then repair them when they break and keep them running years longer than anybody ever dreamed possible.
Want to build a better body?
We have more theories on total conditioning, strength with flexibility, cardiovascular efficiency and a dozen other buzz words than we can keep track of. And they all work -- more or less.
Want a bigger body?
Got that, too. Try a designer diet, fitted specifically to your sport. Want a few more pounds of muscle, or a rush in the fourth quarter? There are drugs for it -- most easy to get, some legal.
Want to get over performance hangups?
We've got sports shrinks and motivationalists who can help you visualize success, block out fears.
Want to improve technique?
Are you kidding? Everybody from the late Charlie Lau to Prof. Gideon Ariel (the physicist who does computer analysis of motion to find track and field flaws) has contributed some new advance.
Want to delay the aging process?
That's easiest of all. Put all of the above together. When Jack Nicklaus won at Augusta, one of his first thank-yous was to the fellows on tour who run the fitness trailer where he works out.
Adding to the whole picture is the booming wealth and popularity of all games. The sort of cash, hero worship and lifestyle once reserved for Babe Ruth is now available, with only slight exaggeration, to Doyle Alexander.
With that much money, celebrity and self-esteem piled on the line, almost nobody leaves his sport voluntarily. Nicklaus, Shoemaker, Leonard -- they're rich beyond counting. They also have nothing to prove as athletes, although they convince themselves that they do. They keep on pushing for one reason: they can't help it. Life doesn't feel sufficient without it. If you've never been a reigning hero, you can't imagine the sense of loss when you're not.
What's the net result?
The athletic genius -- the Nicklaus, Rose or Abdul-Jabbar -- will not dominate his sport as completely as a Bobby Jones, Ty Cobb or Bill Russell once could. The general level of opposition is far too high. (For instance, pro golf has several times as many quality players now as when Nicklaus played his first Masters in '59.) But that Hall of Famer will, if he keeps at it, last longer than his predecessor and have unexpected glory days at the end. Think we won't watch the Preakness and U.S. Open with redoubled attention this year?
At the level of team play, the age of dynasties may be gone for a long time. The sensation of awe elicited among sports fans at the names of teams like the New York Yankees, Green Bay Packers, UCLA Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Celtics may, in a few years, be so foreign that we will have to explain to our perplexed children how a Yankees team could win 22 pennants in 29 seasons or how Russell could play on 11 world champions in 13 years.
Measure them in any pertinent way you choose -- size, speed, strength, jumping ability, age, experience -- and there's precious little difference between the rosters of the best and worst pro teams in any major sport. The same goes for big-time college programs.
The 6-foot-6 swingman who can tomahawk dunk to the elbows and the 250-pound pulling guard who can bench press Rhode Island are so common now as to be unworthy of comment. We just want to know if he can also dribble with his toes or backpedal the 40 in 4.0. After seeing Michael Jordan, we'll believe anything.
We're moving into the era of longevity and standardization in sports. Whether we like it or not depends on how we feel about the basic tradeoff that's involved.
What we lose in majesty, we gain in surprise.