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EXITS HARDLY GRACEFUL FOR OUR FALLEN HEROES

IT MADE you cringe.

Here was John McEnroe, losing badly to a guy who barely squeezed into tennis' computer rankings, and Mac was behaving as if he were still master of the court, still battling Borg and Connors for No. 1 at Wimbledon.

McEnroe was slow and sluggish; at times it took him a tennis eternity to react to an opponent he would have incinerated in the old days.

Obviously it is all over for McBrat.

The shame of it is he doesn't realize it. The most ardent McEnroe hater could have taken no joy in watching the wreck of a player who was so great not long ago.

The proper thing for Mac would have been to sink quietly, then look for some hole into which he could crawl and lose himself. Instead, he threw the sort of tantrum that made him famous when he was a post-teenie bopper. He might as well have taken out ads in the British newspapers announcing "Hey! I'm Washed Up!"

So it goes with fallen sports heroes these days. They don't know how to make graceful exits.

Take boxing.

Have you seen any portion of George Foreman's comeback? George can take out any palooka they put in front of him. What happens when they match him against a legitimate heavyweight is another story.

Evander Holyfield says "I believe" in Foreman's comeback now, but boxing hype is right out of Wrestlemania. A certain suspension of disbelief is required.

I find it hard to believe that a man in his 40s -- especially a fat man in his 40s -- can relocate the reflexes, foot speed, reactions and endurance to stay with high-quality athletes 20 years younger.

In football, Lyle Alzado is coming back, at age 40, with the Raiders. San Diego's general manager, Bobby Beathard, invited Bert Jones, who hasn't played in eight years, to attempt a comeback as backup quarterback/guru.

I like Jones' chances better than Alzado's. Senior quarterbacks are supposed to offer wisdom and advice. No one gets to beat on their vertebrae except in extreme emergencies. Alzado is a defensive end. The Raiders can't provide him with any palookas. Don't expect him to last through training camp.

It's tougher to make an old fool of yourself in team sports. The team usually tries to break it gently that the fun is over.

The Montreal Canadiens did that with Guy Lafleur, but he insisted upon going through his mid-life crisis in public in the hockey uniforms of the Rangers and Nordiques.

You rarely see baseball players get a chance to embarrass themselves. It quickly becomes obvious when an older pitcher loses a foot or two off his fastball. Nolan Ryan is 43 but what he has lost off his fastball could be measured with a micrometer.

Dubious comebacks are not the exclusive province of the players, either. George Allen, who hasn't coached football in an eon, is back this season at Long Beach State. Allen is in his 70s.

I'm sure George's faculties are as sharp as ever, but X's and O's as well as accumulated knowledge are just part of coaching a football team. Relating to the players is vital. How does a newcomer in his 70s relate to a bunch of teen-age stallions?

The old guys insist they still have something left. It reminds me of once-distinguished actors who now appear in horror movies or Burt Reynolds good-ole-boy epics.

There is one sport where getting old often means getting better, or at least richer. Within the next four years, when Hale Irwin and Raymond Floyd join Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino on the Senior Golf Tour, that competition will be more entertaining than the bland and the blond on the PGA Tour.

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