Over the hill and shattering records
Randy Johnson has a message for Michelle Wie, Freddy Adu, and LeBron James: Take that.
As the sporting world whirls into rapture about a generation of athletes on the short side of 20, Johnson and fellow pitcher Roger Clemens are pushing the bounds of athletic excellence from the other side of 40.
It's an age when most athletes are easing into second careers - or simply hanging on as wizened purveyors of sporting wisdom. Clemens and Johnson, however, are dominating. Clemens has won seven games and lost none, tops in baseball. Johnson pitched the 17th perfect game in Major League history this week, displacing the legendary Cy Young as the oldest player to accomplish the feat.
Together, they are building on a tradition laid out by the elder statesmen of pitchers past - from Satchel Paige to Nolan Ryan - while expanding the expectation of what is possible for pro sports' oldest athletes. For even in an era when age seems to mean less, few would have expected anything like this.
In hindsight, perhaps, there were hints. Yes, Clemens retired after his final fastball sailed through the humid Miami night during Game 4 of last season's World Series. But if Michael Jordan unretired twice, surely Clemens could do it at least once.
And there was no reason not to come back. The Clemens of 2003 was no low-carb imitation of the original. This was a 17-game winner who finished fifth in the American League in strikeouts. The birthdate might have pointed to a final curtain call, but even at age 40, the arm was still a showstopper.
For Johnson, meanwhile, the signs of a 40-something resurgence were the weakest embers in the ash of a lost season last year.
A knee injury led to one of the worst seasons of his life - and to the sense his career was drawing to a close. Yet even in that disaster, there was the flicker of what was to come: In his first start after turning 40, Johnson threw a one-hitter.
During the off-season, Johnson recovered - and Clemens reconsidered.
The only reason he left, Clemens insisted, is because he wanted to be closer to his wife and four boys in Houston. The Houston Astros, it seems, got the point. After signing Clemens's best friend, Andy Pettitte, an Astros official dropped by the Clemens household and left business cards that read: "Roger Clemens, Starting Pitcher." Two of Clemens's sons gave him an Astros cap as a Christmas present.
This, after all, quickly became more than simply a matter of baseball. Clemens's right arm was as much a Texas treasure as the Alamo or the oil patch, and Houston had come to claim it.
The coda to the career of Ryan, a Texan, had fittingly come with the Texas Rangers, where he threw two no-hitters after the age of 43. Now, Clemens needed to come home, too. And for more than just family barbecues. He had grown up watching Ryan from the cheap seats of the old Astrodome. The horn of his Hummer even plays "The Eyes of Texas." This was a Hollywood script, Houston-style.
So Clemens signed, though the contract was admittedly a bit out of the ordinary: He is allowed to skip road trips when he is not scheduled to pitch so he can watch his kids' games - and even pitch in one son's coach-pitch league (a step up from T-ball). The results, however, have been classic Clemens.
He leads baseball with the fewest runs allowed per nine innings, and opponents are hitting .170 off him. Only Johnson's opponents fare worse - hitting .156. Johnson is first in strikeouts; Clemens is third.
On the mound, they are apparent opposites. The right-handed Clemens has built his body into a human howitzer, launching fastballs toward the plate from his massive bulk of muscle. The left-handed Johnson is all arms and elbows, a long-limbed slingshot in stirrups. Yet the secret of their success is the same: They simply work harder than everybody else.
Thanks to a training regimen that borders on the maniacal, Clemens's fastball still steams through the strike zone at 95 miles per hour. Similarly, the last pitch of Johnson's perfect game tipped 98 miles per hour.
This is not the work of an old-timer. In a sport that scoffs at perfection - where success is most often measured by how infrequently you fail - the perfect game is the rarest of all achievements. It is the masterwork of a player at the top of his game. In the past 124 years, only 17 players have pitched nine innings without allowing a hit, a walk, or an error.
Before Tuesday, a 37-year-old Cy Young was the oldest pitcher to reach perfection. Now, Johnson's breaking of the 40-year-old barrier echoes like a statement of intent - not just for his own career but for the league as a whole.
Along with Clemens and his perfect start to the season, Johnson has further revised the accepted expiration date for baseball's elite pitchers - and stolen a "SportsCenter" moment for sports' senior citizens.