Jack Nicklaus always said that he loved hearing a competitor complain about the conditions at a golf tournament. He loved it because that meant he could cross that guy off the list. The greens are too choppy? Boom — you can’t win. The rough’s too high? Boom — you can’t win. The fairways are too narrow? Boom — you can’t win. The golf course is unfair, the wind is coming from an unfamiliar direction, the crowd control is not what it should be, the course is set up for long hitters, for left-to-right players, for right-to-left players, for great putters*, the course is set up for high scores or low scores … the way Nicklaus figured it, they were all playing under the same conditions which, by definition, meant it was fair. It’s always fair. To Nicklaus, every complaint was just a preemptive excuse.
Nicklaus’ Law: If you’re complaining before the thing even starts, you ain’t winning.
*I remember talking about the Masters once with Johnny Miller, and he kept referring to it as the “United States Spring Putting Championship.” I thought this was a very funny line, though it is probably telling that Miller never won a Masters. He finished tied for second three times.
I thought about Nicklaus’ Law again this week when I read that Derek Jeter has been working on shortening his stride and speeding up his bat — these adjustments mean to get him back on the fastball again. I thought about Nicklaus’ Law this week while reading that Tiger Woods’ much-talked about swing changes finally clicked when he was playing a practice with John Cook. He looked like his old self again, Cook gushed.
And so we introduce a corollary to Nicklaus’ law — we will call it Steve Carlton’s law:
You cannot adjust your way out of getting old.
You can go back through recent history and find quote after quote after quote from 30-something athletes who believe they have figured out a way to fight off age. They have figured out a way to delay the end. And here’s the thing: Their adjustments don’t only sound reasonable, they sound positively believable … hey why CAN’T YOU just shorten your stride a bit to make up for lost bat speed? Why CAN’T you just rework your golf swing to make up for an aging body that is no longer as flexible and reactive as it once was? Why can’t you use your experience to be a good quarterback or point guard after the body begins to lose some of its life. It just makes sense. The mind is sharper than ever. The experience level is higher than ever. An adjustment here and there should fix the problem of the years, or at least put off the problem indefinitely.
Look: I sincerely hope both of these guys, Jeter and Woods, beat their age for a long, long time. I root hard for them. Derek Jeter is one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history, he was at the center of the greatest baseball moment of my life (his game-winning homer in the 2001 World Series), he has been a class act and pro’s pro and I would be thrilled to see him play well for many more years. Tiger Woods is simply the most extraordinary competitor I’ve ever seen, any sport, he has made golf exciting and commercial and fun, and I would love to see him win 10 more major championships and leave behind the sad personal drama of his recent life. I always root for great athletes to fight off the inevitable end.
But here’s the thing: Steve Carlton’s Law is unbreakable. It is, on occasion, BENDABLE for a little while. But only on occasion. And only that.
We call it Steve Carlton’s law because no athlete of the last 50 years fought harder to fight off the effects of age. Carlton had all sorts of new-age and mystical training techniques. He would run a lot (at a time when pitchers often said their main form of exercise were 12-ounce curls), and he did all sorts of Martial Arts exercises, and he was probably most famous for moving his arm around in a barrel of rice. He felt certain that all this work, and the mental drive he had for fighting off age, would allow him to pitch effectively until he was at least 48 years old. And he DID win his last Cy Young when he was 37 and pitch effectively at 39 … both pretty extraordinary achievements when it comes to age-postponing.
But then he turned 40. And he was done. Few in baseball history have ever raged as hard against the dying of the light. Carlton played for five different teams after he turned 40 — and though he went 16-36 with an 84 ERA+ over those years, he STILL did not believe he was done when baseball mercifully retired him. His last career start was for the Minnesota Twins, and it was against the Cleveland Indians, and he gave up nine runs. He felt sure he still had something left. All he needed to do was make a couple of adjustments.
Carlton is just one of the more obvious examples of this phenomenon. Muhammad Ali, after he was destroyed by Larry Holmes, believed that he had simply lost too much weight too fast and he needed one more embarrassment — a terrible loss to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas with a cowbell ringing between each humiliating round. Jim Palmer tried to come back at 45 because he felt sure he had figured out a way to defy the years — it took him only one spring training start to see the light. Mark Spitz at 41 had convinced himself that age was, as Satchel Paige family said, merely mind over matter (“If you don’t mind, it don’t matter”) and he tried to qualify for the 1992 Olympics. He could not even swim fast enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Yes, time is unbeaten. And it seems to me that when you start hearing great athletes talk about these magical elixirs to beat time, or training techniques that can beat time, or little adjustments that can beat time … well, I get a little sad. Because if Derek Jeter is getting old, if Tiger Woods is getting old, that means I’m getting old too.
We’ve covered this at some length with Tiger. People want to believe that golf allows players to stay great well into their 40s … which can be true but mostly isn’t true. Yes, every now and again a golfer like Mark O’Meara or Vijay Singh will emerge in their 40s. Yes, every now and again a full-fledged old golfer will have a magical week — like Watson at Turnberry (though, sadly, he did not win). But the average age for major winners since 1970s is 32. Golfers rarely win major championships after age 36. Time can steal a golfers nerve, putting steadiness, consistency for four days and audacity on Sundays. Something may have clicked in Tiger Woods’ swing, and he might indeed start winning consistently again. Like I say: I hope so. But I don’t think so. I think the decline has begun.
It’s even clearer to see the decline in baseball. If you go to Derek Jeter’s Baseball Reference page you can find 10 players who compare pretty well to him through age 36.
1. Robbie Alomar. A Hall of Famer. Took a significant drop as a player after age 33. Never had even an average offensive year after that. Played his late game at age 36.
2. Craig Biggio. A future Hall of Famer, I believe. Got 3,000 hits. Developed some power late in his career — hit 24 homers as a 38-year-old, and a career high 26 at 39 — which increased his value somewhat. But he could no longer get on base, and he was a defensive liability.
3. Frankie Frisch. The Fordham Flash is in the Hall of Fame. He retired at 38 with the realization he could no longer play. He had not been a great player for five or six years by that point.
4. Ted Simmons. An odd match to Jeter … I don’t think a shortstop can really compare to a catcher. Still, Simmons was a mostly ineffective player after age 33, which I suspect is a big reason why people have not taken his Hall of Fame case as seriously as they might.
5. Robin Yount. Hall of Famer moved to center field as 29-year-old, and he had some of his best years out there. He stopped hitting at Hall of Fame level at 34 and he retired at 37.
6. Charlie Gehringer. Another Hall of Famer, he walked a lot in the latter part of his career to increase his value. But he was done at 38, and retired at 39.
7. Johnny Damon. He is about seven months older than Jeter, and is now facing many of the same challenges. He is on his third team in three years.
8. Cal Ripken. People will tell you that the streak wore Ripken down. Maybe it did. But Ripken’s career arc seems pretty much in line with the norm. He had his best year at 30 and had flashes of brilliance — but no brilliant seasons — after that. He retired at 40, but he was not really an everyday player after age 37.
9. Alan Trammell. Should receive a lot more Hall of Fame consideration, in my opinion, but probably won’t get more because he was effectively a part-time player after age 32. Injuries wrecked the last few years, and he retired at 38.
10. Pete Rose. And finally … the ageless wonder. But even Rose was never really a great player after age 35. He did hit .331 at age 38, and he led the league in doubles at 39. Rose was driven to hit, and then driven to break Ty Cobb’s hit record, and there wasn’t much that could stop a driven Pete Rose. He was, in the words of my friend Scott Raab, a “brick-bodied mother …” and late in career he became a manager and kept inserting himself in the lineup. In other words: Rose was unique to baseball history.
So where does this leave Jeter? He is undoubtedly driven. He is undeniably focused. He is undeniably great. He is undeniably baseball brilliant. He could develop power like Biggio, or increase his walks like Gehringer or simply bludgeon his way forward like Rose.
But he is also undeniably coming off his worst offensive season. He hit 21 points below his previous low. He slugged 35 points below his previous low. He slugged a startling and anemic .317 on the road.
Jeter’s offensive troubles last year are not hard to identify. He swung at more pitches outside the strike zone than ever before (28.2% — Jeter’s percentage at his best was closer to 15%), which seems to me a guy whose bat has slowed to the point where is guessing more. He also made more contact with those pitches than ever before (69.2%), which is not really a good thing. That led to a lot of weak ground balls. A LOT of weak ground balls. He hit 3.6 times as many ground balls as fly balls, and that ratio led all of baseball by a lot … followed by the not especially inspiring offensive cast of Elvis Andrus, Skip Schumacher, Juan Pierre and Michael Bourn.
Will shortening the stride and trying to make the stroke quicker reverse that trend? Will it allow Jeter to crack more line drives over a long season? Well, these are exactly the reasons why we watch sports because sometimes unpredictable things happen. But it seems unlikely to me. Derek Jeter did not come up with the idea of shortening the stroke to help catch up with the fastball. Great aging players have been trying to shorten their strokes for as long as there have been great aging players. Rod Carew was an artist with the bat — and he had a thousand different batting strokes. he stopped hitting .300 at age 37. Mike Schmidt is almost certainly the greatest third baseman in baseball history — he stopped hitting home after age 37. One of the smartest baseball players ever, Al Kaline, was essentially a part-time player after 36.
This is not to say Derek Jeter can’t squeeze out some more good-to-great years. It’s to say that the odds are against him. Once the decline begins, it rarely pulls back its choke hold. Nicklaus used to say that when he saw someone griping, he saw someone who was not going to win — almost without exception. I would say when I see a great athlete in his mid-30s talking about magical adjustments that will allow him to return to his younger self, I see someone who is closer to the end than any of us would like to admit.