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M.J. and Pete: Time to make final bows

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

Great athletes seldom quit on top. Great, a term I use more sparingly than jalapenos. Jim Brown and Rocky Marciano did it decades ago, retiring as jock epitomes. Joe Montana did not badly overstay.

Larry Bird read the signs, then fled in a hurry. Joe DiMaggio knew when to go. Wayne Gretzky tried to push it but soon understood his excellence was ebbing and heroic skates were hung.

If you were paid $10-million a year, knowing age had eroded your lofty talents by 10 to 15 percent, yet you found the invigoration of competition intoxicating, how easy would it be to voluntarily exit and slam the career door?

So difficult for many.

It's their business, but. . .

My cheers would be respectful and loud if Pete Sampras were to recognize his tennis stage had reached optimum plug-pulling time, making it a gallant idea to perhaps play through Wimbledon, where the American gentleman has stylishly dominated, retiring in July from high sport with characteristic class.

His struggles are painful.

Likewise, it seems time, after a gallant comeback try in Washington, for Michael Jordan, history's greatest basketball player, to accept his unparalleled skills are seriously sagging.

His quickness has faded at age 39, the outside shot often clangs, making M.J. the NBA's 50th best instead of a runaway No. 1, a situation that might be sad to witness if he opts for another Wizards season.

LOBS: Being a reporter steeped in digital research, Keith Olbermann reveals, "Last time the Cubs were world champs (1908), their pitching ace was Mordecai "Three Finger' Brown, so it's intriguing that Wrigley Field's new hope as a closer is Antonio Alfonseca, who has six fingers on each hand." As he was helping the Florida Marlins, manager Jim Leyland coined the Alfonsecan phrase, "Give me six!" ... Skip Bayless, columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, writes, "Jon Gruden became the snarling face of Raider Nation, a perfect poster-boy coach for Oakland, but "Chucky' turned on his master, causing (owner) Al Davis to lose leverage in the locker room as well as on talk shows, becoming a doddering 72-year-old man who got in Gruden's way. But no more (with him coaching for Tampa Bay)."

READER'S SHOUT: E-mail from Ocala food salesman Shaun Sweat rants, "We fans of FSU football couldn't be happier to no longer share the state of Florida or any football field with Steve Spurrier, the most arrogant coach this side of Bobby Knight.

"I see he's already making a jerk of himself with the Redskins. Making brash comments. Bringing in Danny Wuerffel, Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony, Chris Doering, Shane Matthews and all those other former Gators has stamped Spurrier as an NFL knot-head before his first Washington game. Tell me you think he has zero chance of succeeding."

HUBERT'S REPLY: Can't say that, Shaun. Spurrier is incurably unconventional but seldom fails. This is a football prof who won at Duke, a Herculean achievement. A chap who excelled at Florida as '60s quarterback and '90s coach.

Sure, ol' S.O.S. has again opened himself to mass public/media criticism if he flunks in September or October, but he is too confident and gutsy to care.

I cannot imagine Wuerffel becoming a high-quality quarterback, but I wouldn't bet my SUV against it. Not with Spurrier again pulling Danny's chain. My visions are in a different league from Steve's. Already, old-pro eyes are rolling back into unbelieving foreheads. Spurrier predicted his Redskins will be among the league's top five in 2002 offense and should "have a good chance to win the NFC East."

While wearing FSU colors.

Can't wait to observe.

DUNKS: What a sweet, clean-language, no-nasty-mayhem story. The Rookie makes the Rays look good. With a portrayal of Jimmy Morris, versatile actor Dennis Quaid enhances his jock movie portfolio, having played a quarterback in Any Given Sunday, a running back in Everybody's All-American and a cyclist in Breaking Away. ... It's easy to be overly contemporary, diminishing the towering past, but outspoken Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros roars for perspective, saying, "A lot of people think Tiger Woods is the best ever, but Jack Nicklaus is clearly still the best of all-time. Nicklaus beat everybody over and over again. Tiger hasn't beaten anybody, including Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Ernie Els." ... An Australian firm has produced a shark repellent that attaches to a swimmer's ankle and emits a protective electronic field that supposedly will ward off Jaws, Orca and toothy associates up to two hours. Can they rush a shipment to Florida's east coast?

Whatever happened to Ben Johnson?

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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