Going Out In Style

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Sport is full of happy endings. There is a reason the old line about headlines writing themselves is so well-worn, a reason why beaming around the commentary box and saying “You just can’t make this stuff up!” is likely to inspire a round of heavy eye-rolling. But, even if they’re laced with sickly sweet clichés, it’s those goosebump-inducing, impossibly serendipitous moments that coax out the wonder in all of us, that change a sporting contest into a transcendent, magical experience. Cinderella isn’t a story I often find myself hankering to revisit (firstly, why didn’t her mislaid glass slipper vanish along with the pumpkin carriage, the sumptuous gown and the mice footmen, I mean, is it too much to ask for basic continuity in our fairy tales?) but sporting Cinderella stories are something I always have time for. And the best type of sporting spine-tinglers, the top-tier context for glorious, shivery kismet is the hallowed ground of an athlete’s final swansong

Farewells are bittersweet. But some, usually the last hurrahs of the greatest, the most loved, can be oh so sweet indeed. Headlines do in fact write themselves, and only in our wildest dreams could a final home game, or a testimonial match, or tearful athletic epilogue, turn out like they so often do. We saw one just the other day, at that famous Colosseum, Yankee Stadium.

Everyone with even a passing interest in baseball is acutely aware that this season is Yankee legend Derek Jeter’s last. The farewell tour has been the most overblown, the most ravenously covered, the most extended in baseball history. Patches have been sewn to jerseys, epic black-and-white advertisements have been produced, and countless fans of rival teams have risen to their feet and applauded New York’s beloved shortstop. Jeter has played more games than any other Yankee, has recorded more hits that any other Yankee and now is saying goodbye like no other Yankee has done before. He played his final ever home game on the 26th of September against the Orioles, and revealed after the match that he had been on the verge of tears for most of the night. The game was a meaningless one for the Yankees in terms of their season, but for Jeter, and the crowds who had watched his remarkable career from the very beginning, the game was perhaps his most significant. And what a way to end it.

The game was tied 5-5 when Jeter walked up for his final at-bat, at home. He’d nearly hit a home run earlier in the game, so his day had already been a highly satisfactory one. But now, with a runner on second, he had an opportunity to really go out with a bang. He needed a solid base hit so his team mate could storm around third, all the way home to win the game. He struck it sweetly on the very first pitch. The players exploded out of the dugout. The stadium erupted in giddy euphoria, Yankee caps flying out of the stands and onto the pitch. Jeter leaped up off the dirt, triumphant for the last time there, as the runner slid home. What a perfect crescendo, what a way to say goodbye. A Derek Jeter walk-off single. To hell with avoiding clichés, this was the stuff that dreams are made of.

Paul Scholes did it too. In front of a packed Old Trafford, the little redheaded pass-master was finally calling time. For a man so famously camera-shy, so modest as to appear slightly autistic, the way he went out was unnaturally bombastic. But then, at the same time, it was utterly typical. The game had only just started, a full strength United playing the ‘New York Cosmos’, an eclectic collection mainly made up of retired legends. The scores were still at 0-0 after 8 minutes, and the ball was rolled out to Paul Scholes from a corner. He had a generous allotment of space around him, and the stands were hooting the familiar grunts of “shoot!”. So, after taking a settling touch, Scholes did shoot, and he shot well. Smashed crisply, the ball moved only slightly in the air, and it flew, whistling, into the top corner. Typically understated, Scholes jogged lightly away, smiling wryly, into the arms of Ryan Giggs. Of course it would be Scholesy who’d open the scoring, and of course it’d be an absolute thunderbastard. Sensational.

There is another moment from the annals of United that, if not quite as well-timed, was just as appropriate. In February 1998, the 40th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, Manchester United staged a commemorative charity match against Bolton Wanderers. Eric Cantona had retired the year before, to the dismay of many of the fans. He had been been their talisman, scorer of 80 goals for the club, and an iconic, irrepressible personality. He lined up against Bolton for the testimonial, and the supporters, on this reverent occasion, were privileged once again so see The King back on the Old Trafford pitch, draped handsomely in the red robes that so befitted him. For their viewing pleasure, Cantona scored a goal of mind-bending poise, arrogance and skill. It was almost as if the defenders parted for him, bent by his regal will, a Red Sea of footballers, with Cantona the strutting Moses. A magnificent return.

Arguably the most poignant example, however, comes from that flashy, swaggering world of the NBA. Never before, or since, has an athlete so prominent and so celebrated had his career so devastatingly cut down. Magic Johnson, diagnosed with HIV before the 1991-92 season, was forced into early retirement because of the illness. A combination of the stigma of the disease, the health issues that it entailed, and his own lack of knowledge of what it was like to live with HIV, meant that Johnson’s final game as an NBA player was the All-Star game in 1992. He’d been voted in by the fans, despite having not played that season, and his inclusion drew criticism from some of his fellow professionals, largely idiotic and ignorant comments about the risk of contamination, all based on backward moral judgements, one suspects. In spite of this, Johnson played, and in the final quarter he enraptured the crowd by sinking 3 consecutive 3-pt shots, and playing some lockdown one-on-one defence against Isaiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. His final 3-pt shot was the, appropriately, magical clincher and, though the game still had some time left, it ended there as the players rushed the court to congratulate Johnson. He was voted that year’s All-Star MVP, and his career was crowned in style.

In a sporting era of statistically-obsessed punditry, of endless deconstruction, it takes moments like these to bring us back. They return us, hooking and hoisting us up by the strings of our hearts, to the essential romanticism, the emotion, the drama of it all; the very basic reasons why sporting endeavours thrill us. And the most exquisite elixir that exists in this sporting life is to see our faded heroes do it for us one last time.

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