Nobody asked me, but ...

9:43 AM, Mar 19, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A simple question from a then 8-year-old boy not only made me sad but also got me thinking of what it was like to be that age again.

The question:

"Why doesn't Mike Alstott play football anymore?"

It was a fair question considering a poster of the "A Train" was on his wall and his Buccaneers helmet was on his head. (Now, don't ask why a little boy living in suburban Philadelphia is a Tampa Bay fan, but trust me, he is).

Uh, well, son, athletes, especially football players get old and can't play like they used to. So they stop playing. Not a great answer, but one I hoped would work.

"But Alstott wasn't old. And he was really good."

I know he was buddy, but athletes, football players a lot of the time, get hurt, too. That's what happened to him. He hurt his neck and can't play anymore. That answer seemed to work, at least for a while, but it was still sad.

And immediately after that conversation a few years back, I went back, nearly 25 years, when an athlete who got old stung me like it stung my son.

Now, I was much older than eight, but being in my early 20s, I had grown up following and idolizing the exploits of Mike Schmidt.

Every stat. Every homer. Jeez, I could tell you which pitcher allowed which homer on which day. That's a lot of pitchers and a lot of days when a guy hits 548 homers, but I had them all rolling around in my head. (His last one, by the way, came off Houston lefty Jim Deshaies and clanked off the left-field foul pole. Scary, I know).

Schmidt hit his home runs all through my childhood and while I was in college. In my changing world, he was a constant and a hero.

But he got old. His last hit was a bunt single. The next day he retired and cried at his press conference. He wasn't the only one.

Some people lose their innocence a certain way. For others, well, there are other things.

I felt that day how my father must have felt years earlier when one of his heroes got old.

Ironically, I was probably 8 or 9 when my father and I were watching Willie Mays in his last days with the New York Mets.

I was regaled from infancy of the greatness of the Say Hey Kid, the greatest baseball player to ever set foot on a field I was told.

But when I saw him play I just had to wonder. I knew enough not to say anything, but even to an 8-year-old, it didn't look right.

Mays was playing his customary center field, but when a ball was hit in the left-center gap it took him seemingly forever to get to it. And when he finally did, he flipped the ball to the left fielder to throw it back in.

I don't know if my Dad sighed when he saw it because I didn't want to look. And I didn't have to. Fortunately, the Willie Mays in his head will always be 25. Same for the Mike Schmidt in mine.

Today, perhaps because I'm just too jaded, I just look at athletes that hang on too long and shake my head.

But then, sometimes, I'll stop myself and try and put myself in their shoes.

Would I want to let go of something I was really, really good at so easily?

Something I was so good at since I was 8 years old? Something that identified me? Absolutely not.

We think athletes stay around too long because of the money. And many do. But, again, if it was you, could you walk away from your identity and the money? I don't think I could.

So, whatever your age, you try and understand. It hurts more when you're young to see your hero go away, but you understand it a little better with each passing day.

Drew Markol has been a sportswriter and columnist for several Philadelphia- area newspapers for over 25 years.

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