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Original Issue


Old-geezer competition deprives today's stars of their due

Excuse me, but do you have the year?

Woodstock revivals, the Who, tie-dye. Batman, paisley. The Wonder Years, Star Trek—for some reason I expected the late 1980s to be something other than a '60s yard sale. I also expected calendars to work. And no matter how far back to the future the rest of the world went. I always expected sports to be different.

I expected sports to be about moving on. The new champion replaces the old champion. The new record breaks the old record. And when our hero stopped hitting the curve or the off-tackle hole or the open jumper, he was done, no matter how much oat bran he ate. Here's the watch. Hammer, but do you mind opening it in the stands? The game's about to start.

There was grace in walking away with dignity. Our hero's belt would expand a few more notches, but his familiar face would always remind you that he was an athlete and that he didn't need to slide headfirst during an old-timers' game to prove it.

But that was before senior-hip; before somebody decided the times weren't a-changin'. That was before senior golf and senior tennis and senior boxing (George Foreman, 40, Roberto Duran, 38, et al.) and this latest unsightliness. the Senior Professional Baseball Association.

Peter Pan Baseball ("I'll never grow up") is open to ballplayers 35 and over, or 32 and over for catchers. They'll play from November to early February on spring training fields in Florida. Graig Nettles. Bill Lee and Vida Blue have already signed up. Fans are reminded there is no throwing of objects onto the playing field and no operating of microwave ovens near the players 'pacemakers.

The potbelly league is just the beginning. There's also a super-senior division of the oldtimers' tour for golfers 60 and over. And there's even a second senior golf tour kicking around now.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against seniors. I hope to be one myself someday. My mom is married to one. He's 71 and has taken enough money from me on the golf course to more than supply me with a nice inheritance. But my dad loves sports—knows sports—and I'm certain that he would rather see Curtis Strange winning titles at 34 than Billy Casper at 58 (we're talking ages here, not waistlines).

Look, I'm all for senior sports. Let the old guys play until they're 99. Let them have their fun and their beers and their reminiscences afterward. However, let's not treat these geriatric circuits as if they really matter.

Let's face it. Senior golfers play easier courses. On the PGA Tour the holes are longer, the rough is thicker. the fairways are narrower, and the greens are faster. If that isn't so, then why has no senior player ever come close to winning a regular Tour event? Last month Arnold Palmer bombed out in a qualifying tournament for the U.S. Open. Three days later he was tied for the lead after one round of the Mazda Senior TPC.

Yet here's TV—and this magazine, too—covering senior tournaments as if they were real events, as if they were more than just alumni reunions in knickers. I've seen sports-casters give more time to a senior tournament than to that week's regular Tour event. That's like reviewing the cartoon and not the movie.

The danger of senior-hip is that it obscures what today's athletes are achieving. The grizzled veteran used to say, "You'll have your day, kid." But now the kid can't be so sure. Out of ego or greed or fear of getting old. the grizzled veteran keeps on playing in some creamed-corn league, stealing TV time, fans, sports-page coverage and even endorsements from the real athletes.

Now. instead of a dad taking his kid down to spring training in Florida to get Don Mattingly's autograph, he takes him there three months earlier to get Harmon Killebrew's. I'm telling you, Justin. This guy was great. You should have seen him.

That's why I hope television treats the senior baseball league for what it is—a hoot. Maybe once a year TV can check in with the league just to see whether Mickey Lolich can even see the rubber. That's also why I hope that when Jack Nicklaus turns 50 in 1990, he'll treat senior golf for what it is—an exhibition tour. I hope he'll treat his glorious career with the dignity it deserves and let it stand by itself, unlittered with schlocky victories on the Senior tour. I hope he'll let the new stars emerge on the real Tour just as he was allowed to.

One of the charms of sports is the "what if." What if DiMaggio had faced Gooden? What if Hogan had gone head to head with Ballesteros? Wouldn't it be much sweeter to imagine Foreman versus Tyson than to actually watch it?

Somebody supposedly asked Ty Cobb back in 1960 what he thought he would hit against modern-day major league pitching. "Only .300," said Cobb. "Of course, I'm 73 years old."

Wake me when today comes.