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Mid-life crisis management

These guys are only in their mid-to-late 30s. Why does that make us feel so old? Getty Images

Furman Bisher, a sportswriter, died Sunday. Mr. Bisher, one of the best ever, was 93 years old. Bryce Harper, a baseball player, was assigned Sunday to the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. His future is very bright. Mr. Harper is 19.

Andy Pettitte, a 39-year-old pitcher, just signed a $2.5 million contract to return to the New York Yankees. This was in the news and might have been remarkable if 49-year-old Jamie Moyer hadn't long since signed a deal to pitch for the Colorado Rockies this spring. Two 38-year-old NBA point guards, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, have been the narrative counterweight to crew-cut youth and Linsanity this season. Randy Moss at 35ish is now himself a 49er; and Peyton Manning, a soon-to-be 36-year-old quarterback with a fused spine, has been shopping himself around the NFL and will apparently play for the Broncos this fall. Late last Saturday, a 37-year-old middleweight champion hammered out an 11th-round TKO against an opponent a decade younger.

All at once, 50 feels like the new 40. Forty might be the new 30. Thirty wants to be the new 13.

Do better diet, better training, better medicine mean better athletes going deeper into their careers? Sure. This is the New Age of Middle Age, after all, and not just in the malls and fashion magazines but out at the ballparks, too. "Youth will be served" goes on sale as a cookbook. Gray is in. Gray is beautiful. Gray is the new black.

Part of which perception is the demographic distortion of the Baby Boom and the Echo Boom passing through the culture carrying everything in front of it like a wave. We're all a little older, we're told, if none the wiser. Some of which is indisputably true and some of which is just salesmanship and cynicism and the new advertising economy of an aging America. I'm still not sure what the hell you can do in two separate bathtubs.

I'm 54. About halfway along the continuum from Harper to Bisher. And while I favor growing older for others, I oppose it vigorously in my own case as it seems to come with a laundry list of complaints and qualifiers, aches and pains, diminishments and disappointments. Given the choice, I'd have opted for eternal youth and beauty, and seeing some old dude on a vintage motorcycle in a half-tone TV commercial fret about his prescription interactions doesn't change that. Still, I consider the bleak alternative to aging and press on.

Having questioned that same impulse in Peyton Manning last week, I got a lot of emails from readers about love of football and love of football money and why shouldn't Manning just go on and on and on as long as he likes?

OK. Sure. My questions about Peyton Manning at 36 are about his soundness and the four surgeries he's had in the past 18 months and the permanent risks -- if any -- he runs when he returns. If he's 100 percent, if he's well, if he's right -- then why the auditions for all these teams? Are they unfamiliar with his body of work?

My sense of that story is that things are not as simple as they've been made to seem. But I'm sure I'll be proved wrong. By someone younger.

In the meantime, the paradox. When we're kids, every professional athlete looks like a grown-up. Once we grow up, professional athletes all look like kids. No matter how old we are, athletes seem to inhabit a separate dimension. It might be better there, it might be worse; but it's a different reality entirely.

Think about the ageless plasticity of Chipper Jones. Then consider poor Greg Oden, as old and wracked as Methuselah from the moment he got here. Oden, namesake Viking god of the ruined patella.

Youth alone is no assurance of success.

About that middleweight prize fight last weekend: Sergio Martinez fought Matthew Macklin. "Can Macklin reveal Martinez's inevitable athletic decline?" asked Larry Merchant from ringside after the opening bell. Matthew Macklin is 29. Sergio Martinez is 37. Larry Merchant is 81.

Youth was counted out in the 11th round following a hard straight left from athletic decline.

Fans and sportswriters age; youth crowds in behind us.

His work here finally done, Furman Bisher leaves at 93. "He put more quality words on newsprint than any other writer in the last half of the 20th century," one former editor said. "He never wrote a bad column."

His work just beginning, Bryce Harper arrives this spring in Syracuse. He is 19 years old.

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