Once upon a time, sports made me feel incredibly young.
As a boy, my parents would take me on an annual birthday pilgrimage to Shea Stadium. It was youthful innocence at its best. We'd sit in the cheap seats, gorge on pretzels and hot dogs, scream and cheer and boo and hiss. I'd adopt a player -- Ron Hodges one year, Hubie Brooks another -- and tell myself, "Someday, I'll be just like him."
In my mid-20s, I began covering baseball for Sports Illustrated. Again, there was a boyish glee to it all -- strolling through the clubhouses, sitting down with the men I'd once watched from afar on TV, picking the brains of Greg Maddux or Cecil Fielder or Dwight Gooden or Al Leiter. Being called, "Kid." (Even if the context was, "Kid, get away from my locker before I spit tobacco juice all over your head.")
Ah, the good ol' days.
Thursday was my 38th birthday. My lower back is chronically sore. Plantar fasciitis has decimated my right foot. My six-year-old daughter and her friends increasingly drop the names of singers I've never heard of, and I can't find my car keys.
Oh, and the sporting world renders me ancient.
When we're young, we never gauge age. Heck, we never think about age. Time exists as a measure, though only in relation to the divide between events. As in, "Daddy, how many more days until we go to Disney World?" But as the years pass and the clock ticks, the sporting world becomes a haunting, semi-sadistic reminder of how quickly time evaporates. For example, the NBA currently employs 432 players. I am older than all but one of them (Stay strong, Shaq-Fu!). The NFL currently employs 1,696 players and, were it not for a small handful of geriatric kickers and punters, I would be utterly obsolete there too (My advice to Brett Favre: Keep playing -- forever and ever). Earlier this decade, the major leagues gave old farts like myself incredible hope. We could point to men like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro and scream, "See! The power of knowledge! Old guys rule! Whoo hoo!"
I covered my first -- and only -- NFL Draft on April 20, 1996. I still remember the glowing grins and unparalleled optimism of the men who took the stage. Keyshawn Johnson was going to be the best receiver since Jerry Rice. Kevin Hardy had a chance to emulate Andre Tippett. Cedric Jones was destined to be the pass-rushing menace the New York Giants needed. One after another, they walked toward commissioner Paul Tagliabue and into what promised to be a dazzling future.
The future arrived.
The future departed.
Of the 30 first rounders, only two remain. The 28 others -- all younger than I am -- are gone. Finished. Washed up.
I've tried everything to stay relevant. The back of my sweatpants reads J-U-I-C-Y. I'm down with the hip lingo, yo. My shorts are baggy. I'm considering a neck tattoo. I'm finally starting to grasp that Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana are the same person. The iPad looks interesting. Anyone up for some Red Bull?
And yet, sports keep dragging me back down. Jason Heyward, the Braves' sensational rookie, was born the year I graduated high school. Bryce Harpercould be myson. The most electric sporting event I ever covered -- Robin Ventura's walk-off grand slam single -- occurred in 1999. Eleven years ago! When I'm occasionally asked to speak to journalism classes, I usually begin by telling the story of John Rocker -- until I look at the faces and realize they have no idea who John Rocker is.
Growing up in Mahopac, N.Y., one of my neighbors was a kid named Dave Fleming. In 1991, Fleming debuted with the Seattle Mariners and the following season he won 17 games. While injuries limited his career to five big league seasons, I've always held out hope of a comeback. Fleming bounced around the minors and independent leagues in the mid-to-late '90s, and every so often I'd call him, just to check in. While he verbally pooh-poohed the idea of a return to the spotlight, I could always hear a sliver of hope. Well, the arm feels good. Well, maybe if I wanted to. Well, perhaps ...
Two Februarys ago I dialed his number once again, thinking that the start of spring training would spark something inside of the lefty.
"I'm done," he told me. "No chance."
What if? I asked.
"Nope," he said. "I'm a teacher now. I'm happy."
"Why?" he said flatly. "Because, man, we're old."