This essay will appear on Beckett.com on Thursday, August 30th
Watching Roger Clemens pitch in the Red Sox/Yankees game tonight gets me thinking. Do you remember the Senior Professional Baseball Association from the early Nineties? It was a league down in Florida comprised of a few teams of ex-major leaguers and other assorted amateurs. According to Wikipedia, the SPBA was only around for two seasons (1989 and 1990), but some big names took part in the action, including Vida Blue, Ferguson Jenkins, Rollie Fingers, Dave Kingman and Ron LeFlore, to name a few.
The reason I bring this up is simple: there needs to be a national Senior League. Not just in baseball. It looks like basketball could use one too, because the last time I looked, Charles Oakley was still talking to his mirror about how good he is and Reggie Miller decided he couldn’t handle the grind of the NBA. But what about the NBAGL (Geriatric League)? It could be part of the players’ League pension plan: if you retire and feel the need to get out and play against someone other than your children, you can play a forty-game season in warm-weather cities like Tucson, Austin, Fort Lauderdale, Richmond, Santa Barbara, Las Vegas, Omaha and Cincinnati. This would give guys like Oakley, Miller, Tony Massenburg, PJ Brown, Allan Houston, Scottie Pippen and Gary Payton a chance to dominate again.
I mean, who doesn’t flip through old cards of former stars and wonder how they’d compare against today’s stars? It’s a pipe dream, one collectors and fans happily engage in to keep the debate alive—not something that ex-players should buy into. The ‘retirement’ blueprints of players like Roger Clemens and Michael Jordan should be anomalies, not the norm. I say this as a collector who has purchased items celebrating the retirement of stars like Jordan and others, only to feel duped when they make their triumphant—and sometimes not so triumphant—return.
As when a player first breaks into the league, his retirement is a big deal. It’s a turning point for collectors as well. Take Ted Williams. His 1958 Topps card is the last one of him as an ‘active’ player. Sure, he played well into 1960, but that one from 1958 was his last regular season card. (There is a reason for this, as he signed a contract with Fleer for cards after 1958, which allowed for 1959’s hero-worship Ted Williams set, and seemed to be the reason why Fleer produced their Baseball Greats sets in 1960 and 1961.) His Fleer cards, and subsequent cards of him as the Senators/Rangers manager in the late 1960s/early 1970s, pale in comparison to his Topps cards in terms of value (and rightfully so). But what if he had decided to come back as a player in 1962 and stick around for a few years? Would his cards be worth as much from that period as from the Fifties? I’d answer ‘no’: cards from the later period would not be worth as much as the earlier ones. The only ones that would even compare in price would be his first card after coming back and his new last card as a player.
I’m pretty sure Oakley, Pippen and Houston aren’t thinking about basketball cards and other merchandise that their sudden re-emergences on the national radar would spark, but it would be interesting. I think the scenario I outlined in the Ted Williams example would be true for those considering a return.
But what is it that makes players think we want them to come out of retirement? Is it some kind of Baby Boomer backlash that I’m not keyed into? And what if Charles Oakley’s sideline trash talking is for real and he can still perform at the NBA level? What other now-round mounds want to shag rebounds? (And while we’re talking about old timers, how old is Greg Oden, anyway? The photo of him in this month’s Beckett Basketball makes him look at least thirty-five. It’s those glasses and the beard. If only he’d stayed in college—I bet he can buy beer without a fake ID. Forget McLovin: McOden’s the one who’s superbad.)
But seriously, I can only think of two players who I’d root for to make a return (even today): Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax. Luckily, those two guys were smart enough to hang ’em up when they were still at the tops of their games.