Friday Deep- Hang ‘Em Up

Posted on March 31, 2010

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If they’re lucky, an athlete’s career will end with a press conference.  The media gathers in a mass at the foot of a dais with a long card table on it.  The athlete sits at this table, flanked by his wife or partner, agent, coach, a member of the team’s PR staff, and possibly his or her spiritual advisor.  “I’ve had a good run,” they’ll say, possibly getting a little choked up.  They will thank the team, God and the fans, and then say goodbye.  This is a good retirement- classy, like leaving a party they were the toast of, just a little earlier than everyone else.

Most athletes don’t get this chance.  When they retire, there is no press conference or fan-thanking.  Sometimes there is not even a goodbye to the team they were a part of.  It is more like being laid off- the boss informs you that your services will no longer be required, please put your stuff in this cardboard box and head home.  When this happens and the decision to retire is made, baseball has the best phrase for it: “Time to hang ’em up.”

I just love that phrase.  It evokes reticence behind the action, a resignation, like what’s happening isn’t a choice.  I picture someone in their attic, finding a nail in the back to lower their cleats onto, the laces knotted together and breathing a steady cloud of ballpark dirt, and then leaving, never to touch those spikes again.

And what a beautiful moment of honesty that is, when it’s time to hang ’em up.  So many different athletes come to that place, and from so many different places.  Maybe injuries forced a premature end because they could no longer trust their bodies, like Bill Walton or Joe Namath.  Maybe they were once at the top of their game, but their skills have eroded with age and they’ve spent the last few years just hanging on, like Mickey Mantle once did.  Or perhaps they’re still at the top but cannot bear to be anything less than the best, and so retire rather than face the twilight, as Curtis Martin did.  Or maybe they were never on top at all, but journeymen, or just players, never stars.  They were offensive linemen on 5-11 teams, backup point guards on Israeli pro basketball teams, or utility infielders that never made it past single A ball.  It doesn’t matter- eventually, they all will retire.

And that moment of pure honesty- that ‘hang ’em up’ moment- always catches my eye.  it’s compelling to watch athletes face this one hard truth.  Here are people who have always known success, now facing the fact that they no longer can succeed.  Even if they try to spin it, saying “This is a new opportunity, a new chapter in my life.  I’m looking forward to new challenges.  I’m glad I made this decision,” the rawness under the surface still peeks through.  The subtext practically shouts everything else down.  I couldn’t anymore.  I wanted to, but I have to stop.  I tried, and I failed.  The truth is, I’m not what I used to be.  Time to hang ’em up.

I’m always deeply affected when I watch athletes retire.  That radical honesty that comes during a first moment of admission, after grappling to hold onto something that’s just not working anymore- it strikes a chord in me.  It’s a small reminder of how difficult honesty comes sometimes, how I can be dragged to it, bucking and writhing like a rodeo bull.  But I can’t deny that honesty is one thing I crave as a constant in my life. 

For athletes of any prominence, the retirement moment is like discovering spinach in your teeth after walking around grinning like the Cheshire Cat all day.  People have been watching for a long time, whispering about that one thing you’re hoping they won’t notice- that you’re hanging on too long, overstaying your welcome, all while you’re busy keeping up the veneer that everything is fine and you’ll turn things around soon. 

Likewise, I have that same feeling whenever my character flaws and sin nature start to bubble to the surface, breaking through the “Good Christian” facade I’ve been toting around for years.  I have no choice but to own up to the new reality I inhabit.  Just as honesty forces the athlete to admit he is no longer the player he once was, honesty forces me to admit that, in spite of many books, much prayer, countless Bible studies and a lifetime of church, I’m still a major sinner and probably always will be.  Time to retire.

It’s a perfect dovetail with Easter coming up, where Jesus’ death on the cross retired once and for all the question of our condemnation for the sin in our hearts.  Just as Jesus retired our sins by retiring from Earth, so we retire our sins by retiring from anything except faith in Jesus.  And actually, that doesn’t make retirement sound so bad, does it?

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