'Oldtimers' are rocking the sports world

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Anyone who remembers Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield in the 1973 World Series knows how cruel advancing age can be to a great athlete.

Anyone who saw Randy Johnson pitch a perfect game last week at the age of 40 knows that age these days can sometimes be just another number.

Just ask Tom Glavine, who followed Johnson's perfect game a few days later with a one-hit masterpiece of his own at the age of 38.

"There are days I feel 38 and days I feel 25," Glavine said. "I don't pay attention to the numeric figure next to my name."

Neither do a lot of other athletes, who lately have been busting out with big games at an age where only a few years ago they would have been signing autographs at charity golf tournaments.

Roger Clemens is a lock for the Hall of Fame and has tried to retire once already. At age 41, though, he's as intimidating as ever, and began the year 7-0 for the Houston Astros.

Look at this stat: Johnson and Clemens are 1-2 in strikeouts in the National League, a spot usually reserved for young fireballers.

It's not just baseball players who are aging more gracefully.

Tampa Bay captain Dave Andreychuk is in his 22nd season at the age of 40 and has played more regular-season games (1,597) than any other active player. All he did this year was help lead the Lightning to the first championship series he has ever played in.

Say what you will about golf, but on the PGA Tour eleven players over 40 combined to win 15 times last year, including 50-year-old Craig Stadler.

Karl Malone is looking for his first ring at the age of 40, and wants it so badly he didn't mind running over -- literally -- the other team's point guard the other night in Minnesota. This is one old man who won't back down.

And Reggie Miller not only hit the 3-pointer that sealed the win in the first game of the Eastern Conference finals, but is also an improbable candidate for the U.S. Olympic team.

At the age of 38, Miller would be twice as old as teammate LeBron James if he is added to the roster.

Don't think he's not aware of it.

"I'm a little too old for that," Miller said. "It's quite an honor. I'm not saying no. But right now I'm just in the moment in the Eastern Conference finals. I'll evaluate everything after this."'

So why are guys who might have been candidates for rocking chairs only a generation ago doing so well?

Better diets and better conditioning, of course. Better living habits, too, for players who know that every year they stretch a career means millions of extra dollars in the bank.

"I've tried to condition myself while everyone else is on cruises," Malone said.

Clemens is also famous for his grueling workouts. And Johnson, who will be paid $32 million this year and next, follows a strict, strenuous offseason conditioning program.

Contrast that to Mickey Mantle, whose injuries and years of carousing turned him into a shell of himself by the time he was 33. Mantle finally retired at age 37, after batting .237 in his final season with the Yankees.

Mays played until he was 42, but to those who knew him in his prime his final years were painful to watch.

"It isn't the guy who just shows up on game day and does his job anymore," fitness guru Mackie Shilstone said. "That's the flash in the pan, the guy who does a great job and you never hear from him again. There's enough money on the table today so the smart athlete realizes this."

Shilstone has built a career on helping older athletes get their bodies right so they can keep playing. He helped Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith play until age 41 and coordinates the physical fitness program for NFL kicker Morten Andersen, who has 22 years in the league.

"They know how to play the game, but they feel their health is paramount to the biggest game they play, which is the game of life," Shilstone said.

Not everyone, though, can find the elusive fountain of youth.

Andre Agassi looked a lot like what he was Monday -- the oldest man in the French Open -- when he was soundly beaten by a career minor leaguer who had never played in a regular tennis tour event.

And over the weekend in Mexico City, two 40-something boxers, Julio Cesar Chavez and Frankie Randall, struggled to stay upright for 10 rounds in what was touted as Chavez' farewell match for his Mexican fans.

Even those who still have it are not too eager to talk about how they keep it.

Johnson bristles when questioned about his age, like he did before the season.

"Geesh, we haven't even started opening day yet," Johnson complained.

Proving, of course, that you can be a grumpy old man and a great pitcher, too.

Tim Dahlberg is a national columnist for The Associated Press.

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