I feel for men who suddenly find themselves on the cusp of middle age, as they were forced to live with certain unspeakable indignities. Ed Hardy T-shirts, the WNBA, Alanis Morissette, and the use of “dude” as an all-purpose pronoun come to mind.
No, theirs wasn’t the Greatest Generation. Just the same, these now thirty-somethings could always take comfort in the fact two of their ranks hit little white balls as no one had before. For close to a decade, it’s been taken as gospel that Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez would break hitherto unbreakable records, setting marks for major championships and home runs, respectively.
But now it seems that neither A-Rod nor Tiger is immune to the afflictions of time. Arguably the most gifted athletes of their generation, the prodigies have grown old.
Before Barry Bonds, it was commonly accepted that distance and age were inversely proportional. Still, Tiger and A-Rod have more in common than a fading flair for the long ball. Each of them starred in a ritualistic public spectacle, the guilt-ridden televised confession. Now they find themselves vulnerable to ridicule for everything from card games to caddies.
Rodriguez recently turned 36. Woods will be 36 before the year ends. Their bodies, once regarded as singular specimens, are breaking down. As for their mental composure, A-Rod’s was always suspect. But now he looks like a rock compared to Tiger.
And did I mention that both men were patients — or should I say clients? — of the mysterious and felonious Dr. Anthony Galea, who just pleaded guilty to smuggling HGH across the Canadian border. Of course, both Woods and Rodriguez say they did nothing to break the law.
But what of those records they were supposed to break? Suffice to say, neither is a lock. What’s more, if this past summer is an accurate harbinger, the all-time major championship and home run marks are safer than the high-stakes poker games in which A-Rod is alleged to have played.
For the record, baseball’s investigation into Rodriguez’s wagering, like his involvement with Galea, remains “ongoing.” As well it should; he was warned about the card games a few years back. Still, it’s difficult to imagine Rodriguez in a scene out of “Goodfellas.” Really, hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire? They play dress-up for a living. Then again, it takes one to know one. So, while I’m at it, I’ll venture an educated guess as to what really ails A-Rod: good old-fashioned Hollywood-style narcissism.
Problem is, at his advanced years, it becomes very difficult for the non-chemically enhanced to play the role of home run king. Rodriguez, who’ll probably come back next week (after Tiger concludes yet another winless season), has 626 home runs. The record, however tainted, is 762. In other words, he needs about five seasons at 25 or more home runs.
Should he get there? Yes. This likely will be the first year since 1997 that he hasn’t hit at least 30. But there’s no reliable predictor, as very few guys were able to hit many homers past 35. Bonds was a cheater. Willie Mays hit 118 in his last seven seasons, from 36 through his retirement at 42. Hank Aaron, on the other hand, hit 201 homers in his last seven seasons but only 42 in his last three years. Still, Aaron was a lot better at 36 than A-Rod. In Aaron’s 18th big-league season, he had 47 home runs and 118 RBI. Rodriguez, a former phenom now in his 18th season, has 13 homers. Point is, once you lose it — that perishable combination of strength and confidence — it’s usually gone forever.
Which gets me back to Tiger Woods. Now here’s a guy who’s lost it. Good news for Tiger, though — there is at least precedent for what he aims to do. He’s 35 with 14 major victories. The record, of course, is Jack Nicklaus’ 18. Of those 18, Nicklaus won six after the age of 35. Sam Snead won five and Ben Hogan eight after turning 35. On the other hand, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer didn’t win any.
And I guarantee, human nature being what it is, Woods is thinking about not winning any. Forget all this talk about his physical demise. He’s a golfer. He won the US Open at Torrey Pines with a ruptured ACL and a stress fracture. But that was a different Tiger Woods. That was more than three years ago.
Next year, it’ll be four and counting. He’ll get another unwanted jolt of mortality. He’ll be 36, going on 40.