Mays retired before I was born, and years of incessant sportswriting analogies have turned his ending into an unforgettable addendum to a Hall of Fame career. A quick search reveals this partial list of modern players who have been compared to Mays-on-the-Mets as their careers wound down: Mario Lemieux, Brett Favre, Ray Allen, Jason Varitek, Michael Jordan, Derrick Brooks, Reggie Miller, Trevor Hoffman, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Derek Jeter, Tim Duncan, Bernie Williams, Rickey Henderson and Pete Sampras.
I saw all of those guys get old. I can’t remember ever wanting to turn away and not look, ever feeling the discomfort I felt when hearing Woods talk about his opening-round 76 at the British Open, using words like “discouraging” and “angered.”
“I made so many mistakes,” Woods said. “I just didn’t play well. It was not ideal.”
I can’t remember hearing something as sad as what I heard from a co-worker Thursday morning, as Woods veered toward missing a second straight Major cut for the first time in his career. “Poor Tiger,” she said, as the ESPN broadcast showed a beleaguered Woods, looking like he was just asked to benchpress a bulldozer.
Yes, the entire Mays legend is actually a bit unfair, as Mike Vaccaro has often written. There was haze in the outfield during Game 2 of that World Series, and the fielding mishaps weren’t the only part of Mays’s performance in Oakland. Heck, the headline in The Post the day after his fall was “Mays Escapes Goat Role With Clutch Hit to Ignite Rally.”
But Bob Addie’s lede noted that Mays “looked like a stumbling clown in the outfield he once patrolled so superbly.” In the New York Times, Red Smith opined that “for the most spectacular outfielder of an era, that pratfall in center was catastrophic.” And Mays’s final days as a pro prompted the sort of anguished prose that we’ve been hearing as Woods’s game has imploded.
“To baseball people, it’s like the pangs the world of the arts felt when Sarah Bernhardt said her final farewell and the matchless Anna Pavlova put away her ballet slippers for the last time,” Addie wrote, when Mays announced his retirement.
A Washington lawyer named Ronald Goldfarb described his sadness on our op-ed pages.
“It is fall; I have just turned 40; and Willie Mays is about to retire from baseball,” he wrote. “All three facts have fallen heavily and poignantly upon me. It is not over for 1973, for the Say Hey Kid, or me; but things are definitely different in a way that must be noted.”
And Arthur Daley wrote a Mays-inspired “Twilight of the Gods” column in the Times, in which he noted that even golfers can get old.
“There is no need to use the somber sounds of the Gotterdammerung, but melancholy marks the realization that the twilight of the gods is enveloping far too many of the Titans who once bestrode the sports firmament with heroic grandeur,” he wrote. “Reaching out for them is the inexorable sequence of going, going, gone. However, the only one definitely gone is Willie Mays.”
I wasn’t melancholic when the twilight of the gods enveloped Jordan with the Wizards, or Favre with the Vikings, or Jeter in his final season, or Darrell Green at the end of his Redskins career. All seemed to be reasonable — if older, less accomplished and less useful — versions of themselves.
But this Woods — the guy who shot 4-over at a vulnerable St. Andrews on Thursday, who shot an 82 in Phoenix and an 80 at the U.S. Open, the guy grasping desperately at the bottom few rungs of too many leader boards — makes me want to turn away from the television. It’s like seeing your childhood home demolished, or your favorite comic forget his punchlines. For much of my 20s, Tiger Woods was embarrassing the rest of golf. The sport was never supposed to embarrass him back.
Of course, people have been making the Mays-Woods comparison for at least four years, and with increasing saturation this year. My colleague Matt Bonesteel thinks it’s entirely inapt, that “Woods isn’t done at 39, because he has luxuries Mays never got to enjoy: hundreds of millions of dollars, modern sports medicine (and, probably, modern sports psychiatry), personal coaches.”
So sure, Woods could contend again, could win again, could go under par Friday. Mays, in his 40s, was never going to be an MVP. Still, Tiger is the first star I recall where the ending feels almost like it’s tarnishing the beginning, where the highlights are so jarring and unpleasant that I have no interest in watching them.
And so for what feels like the only time in my sports-watching lifetime, the hoary old Mays example finally feels relevant. “We all had to agree that we did not want to watch a pathetic Mays,” Goldfarb wrote in 1973, just as few of us want to see a pathetic, flailing Woods.
“It’s hard to watch the greatest player of this generation be a middle of the pack hack,” as Paul Azinger put it on ESPN. “You almost want to say, ‘Who are you and what have you done to Tiger Woods?’ ”
It’s a question people were asking of Mays in 1973. The outfielder as much as acknowledged that.
In announcing that he was done, Mays said, “I just feel that the people of America shouldn’t have to see a guy who can’t produce.”