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Ride into sunset should be a one-way trip

My introduction to baseball came in 1987, via the good folks in the trading card division at The Topps Company. I had all the stars - well, I thought Mario Soto and Ben Oglivie were stars - including a Mets lefthander named Sid Fernandez. Fourteen years ago, "El Sid" was a promising young hurler. Now, as he attempts a comeback with the Yankees at age 38, he is instead a sad reminder that far too many professional athletes just don't know when to say goodbye.

Michael Jordan waved at curveballs for a year before returning triumphantly to his throne atop the NBA. Mario Lemieux sat retired for three years before reassuming his place among the NHL's best. El Sid's comeback could be similarly successful, but I'm willing to bet it'll be Magic-al, not magical.

You do remember Magic Johnson's sorry comeback attempts (yes, that's plural), don't you? In November 1991, he revealed that he had the HIV virus and was retiring from the NBA.

Magic wasn't finished just yet, though. He won an Olympic gold medal with the only true Dream Team in 1992, earned MVP honors at the 1993 NBA All-Star Game and took a brief and spectacularly unsuccessful stab at coaching his beloved Lakers in 1994. Then he left the game again to devote himself to his new life as a businessman and inner-city advocate.

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    Two years later, Magic was back in the NBA again, joining the Lakers for the second half of the 1995-96 season. He still had some of the old juice, but it just wasn't the same.

    This was his second comeback, after all. Yet the inglorious failure of his quickly aborted 1992 return made it hard to rouse oneself from the La-Z-Boy in exuberance this time around. It would be nice to remember Earvin as the wizard behind Showtime instead of an over-the-hill former legend, unable to move on to life outside the athletic spotlight.

    By no means is this curious athletic phenomenon limited to oversized Laker point guards. The annals of boxing history are littered with the tales of once-legendary champions who tarnished their reputations by attempting ill-conceived comebacks. Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Muhammad Ali ... need I go on?

    Even the venerable Ralph Sampson fell prey to the temptations of ego and glory. Sampson, the best player in Virginia basketball history, retired from the NBA in 1992 but later managed to rationalize a comeback that ended with lamentable predictability.

    NFL players, on the other hand, seem to know how to stay gone, although that fact seems a mere byproduct of the brutality of the game. Athletes retired from other sports often feel as if they could step back onto the field at any time, while too many former pro football players spend their days struggling to get out of bed or play with their kids.

    But whatever their motivations, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders (as of press time) stand as two shining examples of retirement resolve. They left the NFL as two of the greatest running backs the sport had ever seen, and they kept it that way.

    Sid, spring training just started - it's not too late to back out. Your legacy isn't exactly on par with those of Jordan or Lemieux, but you had a nice 15-year career. Do as Brown and Sanders did: Keep it that way.


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