"[Family members] are under strict orders to speak up if they think I am not writing well any longer, because at this point I could write the telephone directory and get money for it."
- Author John le Carré, 81, to the New York Times
MUHAMMAD ALI'S last fight was a loss to Trevor Berbick in a 10-round decision. That isn't the one I remember, though. It was the fight before that, against Larry Holmes, that will forever endure.
The fight was in 1980, with Ali coming out of retirement to try to beat the champion. My 18-month tenure as the Daily News' boxing writer was just beginning, but I did not cover the fight. I don't remember if I saw it on television or at a pay-per-view venue, but two things about the fight are indelible.
First was the fact that Holmes was very obviously pulling his punches. Even though Holmes was pounding the great Ali - he would win all 10 rounds on every card before Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, stopped the thing - he was doing his best not to demolish the hollow man standing across from him. Holmes even cried a little bit in the postfight news conference, talking about how much he respected Ali.
The other thing was the hair dye. Ali had gone a little bit gray but vanity had demanded a coverup. The problem was that, as the bludgeoning commenced, and as Ali continued to perspire, a little bit of the dye began to run down his tortured face.
The image of the dye that stained a champion's visage was the first thing I thought of when Charlie Manuel began to walk to the mound Sunday in the third inning.
Manuel went to get Roy Halladay, a beaten man on Sunday, a pitcher with nothing. He was losing by 9-0 and it might as well have been 19-0. It was the kind of performance that you watched through the gaps in your fingers - when you could bring yourself to watch at all.
The man is held in such esteem by everyone. The career, the work ethic, the entire professional personage - the combination is impeccable. Nobody doesn't like Roy Halladay and what he has stood for over the years. It is what makes this thing so hard - and the boos sprinkled with the cheers at Citizens Bank Park were the manifestation of that ambivalent feeling.
After the game, Halladay said he was hurt and would be seeing a specialist in California. It is the second specialist he will see in a year, which is two too many. He is on the disabled list now, and there will be a little time here to try to figure out the next step.
You get the sense, having studied the man from the distance that he permits, that quitting in the middle of a fight is not likely. You get the sense that they will have to pry the ball out of his hands. The MRI that will inevitably be done on his shoulder will show decades of destruction - just as it showed the doctor last year, and just as it showed the Phillies when they signed him in the first place. Throwing a baseball overhand is not a natural act, and there are only so many repetitions in the life span of a shoulder.
The guess is that the prescription will be several weeks of rest, followed by one more try.
With these guys, there is always one more try.
I can close my eyes and still see Willie Mays, weaving like a drunk beneath a fly ball in the sun. I can see Johnny Unitas in that sacrilege of a uniform worn by the San Diego Chargers - or Steve Carlton as one of the Minnesota Twins.
There is Roger Clemens, testing the limits of modern pharmaceuticals. There is Evander Holyfield, testing the limits of common sense. And over there, in all of his black-and-white splendor, is a fat Babe Ruth at the end, nothing more than a gate attraction in the days before giveaway fanny packs.
The thing that makes them great is the thing that makes almost all of them stay too long. It isn't the money for most of them, and it isn't necessarily the fame - although so, so many professional athletes do go through spotlight withdrawal upon retirement. It is the fact that they were great, and that the steel of determination has always gotten them through the hard parts, and that it will get them through again.
They believe this. This belief, if not genetic, is ingrained. It is why they stay until someone insists that they leave. It is why so few of them make the choice to go out on top. For every Joe DiMaggio, or John Elway, or Norm Van Brocklin, there are dozens of Roy Halladays, searching for that last doctor who will clear them, conniving for that one final try.
Until, well . . .
Sports are not like novels, as it turns out, except in this respect: Despite years of success and everything that entails, despite everything, sometimes the people who have mastered the plot for so long really are the last to know.