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How Old Are You Now?

Michael Sokolove has a measured and insightful piece in the New York Times Magazine about aging athletes. Derek Jeter is a feature player:

The careers of elite athletes, enviable as they may be, are foreshortened versions of a human lifespan. Physical decline — in specific ways that affect what they do and who they are — begins for them before it does for normal people. The athletes themselves rarely see the beginnings of this process, or if they do, either do not acknowledge it or try to fight it off like just another inside fastball. They alter their training routines. Eat more chicken and fish, less red meat. They try to get “smarter” at their sport.

A great many of us, their fans, live in our own version of denial — even in this age of super-slow-motion replay and ever more granular statistical data. We want to think our favorite players have good years left, great accomplishments ahead of them, just as we would hope the same for ourselves. The writer Susan Jacoby, who happens to be a devoted baseball fan, is the author of “Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age.” “Fans don’t like to watch aging in these relatively young guys,” she told me. “It makes us uncomfortable. We think, If it happens to them, what the hell is going to happen to us?” Jacoby, a self-described insomniac who listens to sports-talk radio in the middle of the night, said she has been appalled at the “venom” she sometimes hears directed at Jeter. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘The hero is not performing.’ Well, he’s gotten older.”

Older, for ballplayers, begins much sooner than we think. “A lot of fans, if they really studied it, would be surprised at how early players really peak, especially hitters,” Jed Hoyer said when he spoke to me by phone from San Diego, where he is general manager of the Padres. Previously he was an executive with the Red Sox, one of the more data-driven franchises in baseball. “The years of 26 to 30 are usually the prime years,” Hoyer continued, “but you’ll see plenty of guys start to trend down, even if it’s subtle, before they’re 30.”

It is almost impossible to age gracefully as an everyday player. You can transition to a role player like Jason Giambi has done in Colorado, but Jeter is in a tough spot and Sokolove is dead-on in describing Jeter’s career as “charmed.” Yet Jeter’s relative good fortune has changed over the past year. Everything about him these days is touchy:

The prospect of this article did not sit well with the Yankees, or at least elements of its hierarchy. Jason Zillo, the team’s media director, would not grant me access to the Yankees’ clubhouse before games to do interviews. I have been a baseball beat writer, have written two baseball books and have routinely been granted clubhouse credentials for a quarter-century, as just about anyone connected to a reputable publication or broadcast outlet usually is. “We’re not interested in helping you, so why should I let you in?” Zillo said, before further explaining that he views his role as a “gatekeeper” against stories the Yankees would rather not see in print.

I was surprised that he would deny access to The New York Times Magazine. But if I learned anything over the course of working on this article, it is that aging is a sensitive issue. It happens to everyone, but that doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with it. Jeter has become a lightning rod on the topic. We see him getting old, but we’re supposed to pretend he is just in a prolonged slump. “The reason the response to athletes’ getting older is so powerful is that the decline occurs in public,” Susan Jacoby told me. “We don’t see it when a man has trouble with an erection for the first time. Or a mathematics professor forgets something. It’s not Alzheimer’s, but it’s age, and it’s difficult. But it’s private.”

This is a long story but well-worth reading. Fine job by Sokolove.

[Photo Credit: David Goldman/AP]

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