Newsday – May 10, 2007 – John Jeansonne – Highly successful pro athletes find it difficult to give up the adulation, remuneration and excitement of sports

With Roger Clemens’ annual spring return from the baseball afterlife, like Persephone in Greek mythology, and with Mariano Rivera’s recent pitching infirmities, age-old questions arise: When is it time to retire? And just who decides?

This is not merely a sports riddle. When the Washington Post this week invited readers for thoughts to be passed along during the Queen’s current U.S. visit, one response from a self-described senior citizen was, “I urge you … to let the next generation take over the throne. You cannot outlive them, so hang it up!”

Her Majesty is 81 and in the 56th year of her reign. By comparison, Clemens is a mere 44, Rivera 37. And Bernie Williams, who chose a baseball exit rather than subject himself to a rookie-like tryout earlier this year, 38.

But in sports, of course, advanced age arrives relatively soon. And athletes face their own unique set of issues regarding the dreaded career-ectomy.

Giving up the adulation, considerable payday and adrenaline rush of performing under pressure is, to some extent, abandoning their very identity.

“Oftentimes, they’re the last people to know [it’s time],” said Florida-based sports psychologist John Murray, who has worked with elite athletes in all the major sports. “Time will tell whether they’ll stay around or not, but when a career’s gone, it’s gone. So why not go for it?”

To Murray, there is “no shame and no embarrassment if you’re not still at your prime.

It’s the striving that makes sports exciting; it’s not just the achievement.”

He finds the latest Clemens comeback attempt “inspiring” and not the least bit surprising.

While many stars have found a certain honor in “going out on top,” purposely leaving the scene at the peak of their powers, plenty of others have acknowledged the difficulty in retiring.

Psychologist Nancy Schlossberg, whose books include “Retire Smart, Retire Happy,” said that such a “high-energy” vocation as professional sports “can become very addictive.”

As a comparison, she cited the Fortune 500 CEO she had interviewed who, in spite of having plenty of money, found retirement was a crashing disappointment. “He found it to be hollow,” she said. “He expected to still be a major player.”

She cautioned against generalizations, but said finding comfort in retirement “has to do with expectations.”

Bill Bradley, when he concluded his Hall of Fame career with the Knicks in 1977 (and before he went into politics), wrote in his book, “Life on the Run,” that athletes approach the last of their playing days “the way old people approach death” – putting finances in order, reminiscing easily, offering advice to the young. They faced, he wrote, the “inexorable terror of living without the game.”

There are, Schlossberg found, retired athletes who suddenly realize they “haven’t saved enough nuts for winter.”

But Murray argued that retirement fears and career-extending motivations are more likely rooted in other causes.

“We always talk about money,” Murray said.

“But these guys have the money already, so there has to be an intangible. They have to have something like love of sport and loving that place in the limelight.”

And, yes, the same can-do attitude that served them so well in finding athletic success also can trick them into believing in their immortality.

“There is a certain amount of blind optimism,” Murray said. “Sports are so tenuous, the highs and lows so dependent on such small factors, you have to be almost blindly optimistic and nurture that personality trait. If not, you’d have given up a long time ago, so that will predispose you to perhaps being oblivious to your demise.”

Pitcher Jim Bouton was seven years past his last major-league game when, attempting to make a comeback as a minor-league knuckleballer, he insisted he never heard a voice telling him he no longer could play. “And I know what I’ll say when I hear it,” he said at the time. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, yes I can.'”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.