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TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2005
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MARK EDWARDS

Great ones shouldn’t leave early

At 42 and long past his prime, Jerry Rice wants to play one more NFL season and will go to training camp with the Denver Broncos.

After three years out of the NBA, Michael Jordan came out of his second retirement at 37 to play two more seasons for the Washington Wizards.

At 40, Cal Ripken committed to playing one more season for the Baltimore Orioles even though he wasn't close to the hitter, fielder and durable player he used to be.

Once the best running back in the NFL, Emmitt Smith played until he was 35 and spent his final two years with the mediocre Arizona Cardinals as just another decent player.

Is Rice making a mistake by trying to prolong his playing career? Should Jordan, Ripken and Smith have left while they were still on top? Why does it seem to bother us so much that some great athletes want to keep playing when their skills have eroded so much?

Do great athletes damage their legacies by sticking around even though they're far from their peak?

Yes, it's hard to watch players like that succumb to age. Maybe it reminds us of our own mortality. Then again, maybe it's not nearly as deep as that — perhaps we just like remembering the great ones as, well, being great.

We want to remember Jordan making that last championship-winning shot against the Utah Jazz, not limping around on a bad knee doing well to score 20 a game for a Washington team that's not even good enough to make the playoffs.

We want athletes to be like Sandy Koufax, the greatest left-handed pitcher ever. A Hall of Fame pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he won 27 games in 1966, essentially willed his team into the World Series and then retired because arthritis in his arm became too painful to continue.

But is that fair to athletes? Does their talent belong to them or us? Why should a legacy take on such importance?

Why call it sad that Rice, the greatest NFL receiver ever, must earn a spot with the Broncos as a reserve? Why not respect that his enjoyment of competing overwhelms his need to be great?

If Rice still likes playing, and a team like the Broncos is willing to give him a chance, then it's his right to continue.

If Cal Ripken wants to play until two months after his 40th birthday, and the Baltimore Orioles don't mind letting him stay on the roster, then why argue?

If Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath wants to spend the last year of his career reduced to a backup for the Los Angeles Rams, good for him if that's what he wants. He wasn't the first, by far. Johnny Unitas, another Football Hall of Famer, did the same for a bad San Diego Chargers team in the last year of his career.

If players like Jordan and pitcher Roger Clemens say they're definitely retired and then later say, "Wait a minute. I want to play after all," then why is that a problem?

Besides, in some cases, it adds to a player's legacy to stick around.

Clemens retired after winning 17 games with the Yankees in 2003. He promised to leave even though 15 more wins could've pushed him moved him up the all-time wins list past Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan — five guys who squeezed every last Major League inning out of their arms that they could.

But Clemens un-retired, returned for his hometown Houston Astros and won 18 games and his seventh Cy Young Award. This year, he's 3-3 even though his ERA is 1.30.

Koufax never returned after his great 1966 season. But there's a story floating around about him playing golf years after his retirement, and one of his golfing partners commented that if he straightened out his left arm, he could drive the ball farther.

Koufax answered that if he could straighten out his left arm, he would be pitching at Dodger Stadium that day.

Mark Edwards Mark Edwards
DAILY Sports Editor

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