CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A quick story about perfect endings: To the naked eye, baseball hall of famer George Brett had more or less the flawless ending to his brilliant career. He hit well into his late 30s, a pretty rare thing; Brett won a batting title at 37. In his last year, at age 40, Brett was no longer a great player, but he was still useful. He led the Royals in RBIs. He was the unequivocal leader.
And in his last home game, a Wednesday night in Kansas City, in front of 37,000 or so people, George Brett kneeled down and kissed home plate to perhaps the loudest ovation in Kansas City since Harry Truman came home. That photo of Brett kissing home plate still hangs in living rooms all over Kansas City.
In his last at-bat before his hometown, Brett ripped a ground ball single up the middle to score the tying run.
Most people thought so. But do you know who did not? George Brett. We were talking one day and he started talking about how his career SHOULD have ended. He was saying that he wished that he had come back to spring training the following year and competed for a job.
MORE: Phelps wins in Charlotte
"I should have signed for the minimum," he said. "I should come to camp and just tried to make the team as a role player. You know, just like I did when I was a kid. Wouldn't that have been great? Wouldn’t that have perfectly summed up what my career was all about? I should have gone to camp and busted my hump and tried to make the team -- that would have been the perfect way to end my career, right?"
I nodded and said, 'Yeah, that would have been great." But, would it have been? His ending seemed so fulfilling, so utterly without regret. How could it have been better? But Brett went on about how great it would have been to be a role player making the minimum, how right that would have been for his career.
The perfect ending. One thing you see as a sportswriter is the attempt for the perfect ending. You see great athletes and coaches retire and unretire, come back too late or leave too early, hold on too long or struggle to adjust to live on the outside. And after all these years, the question looms larger than ever: What is a perfect ending for a great athlete?
Or more to the point: What is a perfect ending for any of us?
* * *
If anyone in sports ever had a perfect ending, it was Michael Phelps. How can you possibly beat it? Phelps went to his third Olympics in London and secured his place as the most decorated athlete in Olympic history -- a mind-boggling 18 gold medals, two silvers, two bronzes, 22 medals in all, four more than any athlete in the Summer or Winter Olympics.
There will always be debates about the greatest Olympian; numbers alone don't settle such arguments. Phelps happened to compete in a sport with many medal opportunities -- can you fairly compare his success against Jesse Owens or Larisa Latynina or Paavo Nurmi? Phelps also happened to compete at a time when swimming was giving out more medals than in the time of, say, Johnny Weissmuller. That said, he won the most medals. The argument of greatest Olympian runs through Michael Phelps.
London was a hassle, however. Phelps had worked so hard to win eight gold medals in Beijing four years earlier. What do you do after you've done the impossible? In an interview with his hometown Baltimore Sun in 2008, Phelps laughed when asked if he would swim after London. Laughed. Heck, at that time, he wasn't sure then if he was going to make it to London.
His coach Bob Bowman wasn't sure either. The two have worked together since Phelps was a child, and they always had that love-loathe, push-pull, demand-bellyache relationship of coaches and stars. Going into the London Olympics, they almost broke each other. Bowman thought Phelps wasn't working nearly hard enough and might embarrass himself. This gave him gray hair and ulcers. Phelps, meanwhile, was not entirely sure why he was still swimming after Beijing.
"Enough is enough," Bowman said the last time Phelps swam in Charlotte, in a tune-up before those London Games. "It's been a very long road, but at some point you have to graduate. He needs to move on to something else. And I need to move on to something else."
"It was probably a little challenging at the tail end, going into 2012," Phelps says. "After 2008, it was challenging to get back. I'd say 2009 was decent, 2010 was terrible, 2011 was mediocre and we were able to put something together and finish strong in 2012. And, I think Bob can agree with this, that was in no way, shape or form easy for either of us."
So, with that as background, what happened in London was in its own way almost as miraculous as Beijing. Phelps, at age 27, won four gold medals and two silvers, one of the greatest swimming performances in Olympic history. Yes, it happened to be the third greatest Olympic swimming performance of his own career. But it was pure genius just the same. It was a magical finish. And there was never any doubt that Phelps saw it as the end. He could not wait to get on with his life.
"I'm done," Phelps said.
"It's over," Bowman said.
"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened," Phelps wrote on his Facebook page, quoting Dr. Seuss. Yes, play the sweeping music. Cue the final credits. How could you finish a career better than that? It was like Ted Williams homering in his last at-bat. It was like Richard Petty winning his 200th race on the Fourth of July. It was like Michael Jordan finishing off his amazing career with that glorious push-off jump shot (his 45th point of the night!) to finish off the Utah Jazz in the NBA FInals.
Oh, yeah, wait a minute, Michael Jordan came back to play for Washington after that. And here we are in Charlotte again, at a non-Olympic-year Grand Prix swim event. And here’s Michael Phelps again.
"I'm enjoying being in the pool," Michael Phelps says. “I’m going to get sick of saying that.”
“I’m getting sick of hearing you say it,” Bowman says.
“Well, it is fun,” Phelps says. “It’s a lot funner than golf.”
What is a perfect ending anyway?
* * *
Michael Phelps wanted to play golf. He wanted to hang out with celebrities. He wanted to play some big-money poker. He wanted to travel around, not as a swimmer but as a traveler. You know what Michael Phelps wanted? He wanted to be a kid. Sure he did. He had spent his life in the water, staring at the line on the bottom of the pool, pushing himself to almost unendurable pain.
Golf. Now that looked like fun.
"Never in a million years did I think he'd swim again," Bowman is saying now. But, see, it's a funny thing about life. A couple of years ago, I was talking to my friend Mel Stewart, who won the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1992 Olympics. Mel left swimming for a long time after that and said he had no intention of ever returning. These days he runs the swimming site "Swim Swam."
"You know what's a crazy feeling," he told me. "You get into the water and you realize that you're better in the water than you are walking on land. It's like you become a fish."
So Phelps texted Bowman. He’d been away from swimming for an extended period of time. He’d played a lot of golf. He’d played in poker tournaments. He’d done some work with his foundation, and he hung out with family and friends and a few famous people. It was a blast. Really.
"Hey, I'm going to come up to Colorado for a week," he texted Bowman. The text boggled Bowman's mind. Colorado? Phelps DESPISED the high-altitude training in Colorado. He used to fight back on that trip more than just about any other. Bowman texted back, "Uh, no, I don't think so."
"The last four years," Bowman says, "had not been great."
But Phelps was insistent. And when he showed up to start swimming again, well, he was ... different. Reluctance was gone. Gloom was gone. "He's got a smile on his face," Bowman says, "and I don't have to force him to do anything."
"I come in every day, and I am joking, I am laughing; I am smiling," Phelps says. "I guess I still do have a bratty side where I guess I can be a little twerp here and there. ... But that's really the only reason. I'm doing it to have fun. I'm doing it because I love it."
Phelps says this is the first time he has loved swimming in years, perhaps going back to when he first burst on the scene before the Athens Olympics. Back then, he says, he swam because it was fun to swim, because it was fun to be so naturally good at something. The harder he worked, the faster he went. He did not know his limits -- it’s hard for him to describe how cool a feeling that is to feel limitless. “That’s when I enjoyed my career probably the most,” Phelps says.
After that, swimming was intensity and pressure and expectations and a constant battle with his coach. The victories were not so much fun as relief. Reporters and fans always asked how he felt, especially after he won those eight gold medals, but in the moment there wasn't much time to feel. There was only tomorrow's practice. There was only that line at the bottom of the pool to follow. There was only the constant feeling that someone in the world, somewhere, was working harder and pushing harder and swimming faster.
Then, Michael Phelps at age 28 just shows up to swim and it ‘s like old times.
"It's not ... what's the word? ... it's not quite so urgent now," Bowman says. "If he comes, I like it. I like him to work. If it's not perfect, I don't go home and lose sleep because it wasn't good enough."
"You didn’t do do that," Phelps says.
"Yeah, right" Bowman replies. "I did that for 16 years."
Bowman lost sleep. Phelps looked for motivation. Bowman pushed him. Phelps pushed back. Life was a program. Swimming overwhelmed all. Phelps thrived on the competition ("I don't care what I'm competing in against anyone in the world, I don't want anyone to beat me," he says), and of course he enjoyed the successes. But the very thing that struck single person who watched him -- it must be such a rush to SWIM THAT FAST -- did not strike Phelps very often. He wanted the end.
And when the end came, the perfect end, Michael Phelps started living. And he found out: Golf is hard. He worked with one of the best golf teachers in the entire world, Hank Haney, and he hit a few thousand golf balls and he still hasn't broken 85. "It turns out hitting the ball straight," Phelps says with lightness in his voice, "is really challenging."
He found poker to be fun but the rush fades. Traveling was fun. Hanging with celebrities was fun. And ... yet ... what? Perfect ending? Dammit, Michael Phelps wanted to swim again.
* * *
In Bob Gibson's last inning as a hall of fame pitcher, he gave up a grand slam. The legendary quarterback John Unitas' last pass was a meaningless seven-yard completion in a meaningless game while wearing a San Diego Chargers uniform. In Michael Jordan's last game, he scored 15 points in a 20-point loss at Philadelphia. Muhammad Ali's last fight was a dismal loss to Trevor Berbick with a cowbell clanging to signal the ends of rounds. Jack Nicklaus missed 15 of his last 17 cuts on the PGA Tour and did not finish in the Top 60.
And ... what difference does it make? Does the end diminish what they did? Of course not. We all grow older. We all lose bat speed and that first step and a few yards on our drives. When Willie Mays fell down in the outfield during the 1973 World Series, it felt sad -- that remains the example so many people use when talking about bad endings. Mays himself said, "Growing old is just a helpless hurt."
But was it a sad ending? Sad for who? Willie Mays was doing the thing he loved most, the thing he believed he was put on earth to do. He was playing ball.
Phelps and Bowman will not call this return to swimming a "comeback." They don't know what it is yet. Phelps won the 100-meter butterfly this weekend in Charlotte, his first swimming victory since London. He looked pretty fast in the pool; he says that he finally feels like his body is getting back into swimming shape. Phelps will carefully admit that he has talked privately with Bowman about some goals that clank around in his mind. But mostly, he doesn’t want to talk about goals. There are no goals, not really. Phelps just wants to swim. Why not? He's still good at it.
"I always say," Bowman says, "Mozart should be able to make music for as long as he wants to make music." That’s right. Maybe Michael Phelps has enough left for one more Olympic run, enough left to swim in Rio. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe there's another perfect ending in the works. Maybe there is a disappointing and bittersweet loss.
But isn’t a perfect ending the one that makes Michael Phelps happy? I still think about George Brett wishing he could change his ending -- because, see, even a perfect ending is still an ending. And isn’t it the most human aspiration of all to push off endings for as long as possible.