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Older athletes playing longer, pushing boundaries

Pro sports teams rely more than ever on aging stars — and nowhere is that truer than in Boston. Outrunning time is fast becoming the game.

First of two parts

Tracking David Ortiz around the bases in his loping home run trot, fans watch his index fingers and know they will soon be pointing skyward — his familiar tribute to his late mother. But these days, fans also watch his ankles.

How long will they hold up?

Continue reading below

Similar questions surface as Zdeno Chara racks up killer minutes in the Bruins’ playoff run — double those of much younger players.

And then there is Tom Brady, who continues zinging passes, at age 35, to a new generation of Patriots receivers in spring practice. Yet the memory of last season’s playoff exit remains fresh, when the all-world quarterback appeared confused during the red zone debacle that sealed defeat in the AFC Championship game.

And, of course, there is Paul Pierce, 35, who made his mark in this year’s Celtics playoff flameout primarily, it seemed, by clanging shots off the front rim in crunch time.

It is the age of the ancient athlete in professional sports, and nowhere is that more true than here. These days, the hopes of fans of all four major local professional teams lean on superstars well past their athletic primes, and those who run the teams must make and remake forecasts of how our aging superstars will perform.

It is the new “Moneyball” calculus in sports: Who will defy time? And for how long?

“It’s like a lottery, because you don’t know how much longer your body can keep doing it,” said the 37-year-old Ortiz. “I don’t feel like the player I was five years ago.

“I’m not going to lie to you — there are some days that I have a hard time catching up with fastballs or catching up with pitches that I used to play with. But I can still hurt you.”

Globe Staff Photos

(Clockwise from left) Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is still zinging passes at 35. David Ortiz, 37, is under contract with the Sox until he is 39. Paul Pierce, 35, uses a hyperbaric chamber to recover faster. Zdeno Chara, 36, gets more ice time than younger teammates.

Fortunately for Ortiz and his peers, the sports world is increasingly organized around the geriatric set. Sophisticated training regimens and savvy coaching schemes keep superstars in the game longer than ever, certainly well past their prime performance years — typically 25 to 31 for athletes in team sports.

Or, as Ortiz put it, for athletes in their mid-30s and beyond, “It’s about either giving up and reducing your performance level, or training until you throw up.”

It is also about teams recognizing the value of aging star athletes — as both on-the-field and off-the-field marketing assets — and giving more of them the chance to play deep into their 30s and beyond.

In 1982, there were two players 35 or older on NBA opening night rosters; last fall, there were 20. Among them were Pierce and Kevin Garnett, of course, but also stalwarts like Tim Duncan, now 37, and Manu Ginobili, 35, who helped propel the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA Finals.

In the NHL, there were four players 35 or older in 1982, but 56 started this season.

In the NFL, the corresponding numbers are 14 and 40.

Baseball also has seen an increase in 35-or-older players since the 1980s, from 63 on opening day in 1982 to 88 in 2012 — though some of that growth may be traced to the career-extending effects of steroid use.

“I’ll leave this game solely when I want to,” said Garnett, who turned 37 on May 19 and has logged 47,801 bruising minutes on NBA courts, sixth all-time. “When I leave, it definitely won’t be about my body.”

Statistics and expert observers back Garnett’s view. Red Sox senior adviser Bill James sees “a longer-term trend toward an expansion in the number of older players having good years.” Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Bruins president Cam Neely recall that when their professional playing days started in 1983, the goal was a 10-year career. Now, top players expect careers of 15 years or longer.

“There’s always been older players that have played, especially in the NFL at the quarterback position, certainly a lot of basketball players,” said Brady. “But when you see guys like Jason Kidd or Derek Jeter or guys like that who continue to perform at a high level, that inspires a lot of athletes.

“We know durability is very important to a team, especially when you’re limited on the amount you can spend on your team.”

More than ever, older players are challenging perceptions about the pro athlete’s life cycle and changing the way general managers build teams. Those determined to stay in the game are forcing owners, GMs, and coaches to reevaluate the projected usefulness of older athletes and what investment to make in them.

The predictive puzzle

Brady just didn’t seem like Brady.

In the AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Baltimore Ravens last January, Brady’s familiar crunch-time magic seemed to elude him. Failure to convert on critical third downs. Off-target passes. Questionable decisions at key moments.

An off night? Or an older quarterback showing signs of decline?

To be sure, Brady is slower and less agile than many quarterbacks — and always has been — but he compensates by being a smarter, more mechanically sound thrower. The question becomes, when does physical decline cancel out experience? What are the signs the knowing eye tracks?

“You can’t evaluate where an older player is going to be in two or three years,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “That’s too long of a time frame at a certain point in time.

“When you look at a 35-year-old player, you don’t really project where he’s going to be when he’s 38. You look at him at 35, then you look at him at 36, then you look at him at 37. It’s much more of a year-to-year evaluation.”

Still, in the age of the ancient athlete, no longer do general managers simply cast aside players 35 or older. Teams gamble more on veterans, and especially stars, trying to predict the effects of aging and anticipate the inevitable sharp falloff that marks the beginning of the end.

At the end of February, the Patriots and Brady agreed on a three-year extension that will keep him under contract until the year he turns 40. In 2010, Chara signed a seven-year extension that keeps the Bruins defenseman in black and gold until he reaches 41. The Red Sox have Ortiz under contract until he turns 39. Last summer, the Celtics agreed to a deal with Garnett that is scheduled to keep him in town until 39.

Now the Celtics and Pierce find themselves up against the kind of key decision point that teams and older star athletes increasingly face. Do the Celtics pick up Pierce’s $15.3 million option for next season, extend his contract, pay a $5 million buyout before June 30, or pursue a trade for younger talent?

Teams know that predicting well and spending wisely on veterans gives them a competitive advantage. They also appreciate that better training, ever-improving sports medicine, league expansion, and multimillion-dollar paydays give older athletes more means and extra incentive to play on. And more than ever, older athletes not only play on, they play integral roles.

Despite all this, athletes break down unpredictably and some deteriorate rapidly.

“We’re desperate to know when a player is finished,” said James, the Red Sox adviser. “And because we don’t really know, we have a million ways of speculating. It’s one of those debates like life after death, where there’s an extraordinarily high ratio of speculation to knowledge because we care so much about it.”

Attaining that knowledge is particularly tough in baseball, James said, because of the legacy of steroid use by many players. “What the steroids did was fight off the effects of aging, so that players continued to get better in a time frame in which they normally would be declining with age and injuries.”

The good news for Brady and other members of Boston’s older athlete club is that players who perform far better than average at younger ages have the best chance of long, productive careers. Or, as Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington put it, “Guys at that elite level have more room to fall.

“If the Ferrari isn’t working quite right, it’s going to slow down. But it’s still going to beat the Honda over time. It’s just how rusty does the Ferrari have to get to no longer work?”

Yale economics professor Ray Fair has tackled the question of how to predict athletic decline with studies of long-distance runners, baseball players, swimmers, and track and field athletes. Fair, an avid distance runner known for his presidential predictions, has devised tables designed to forecast the body’s physical deterioration and estimate the effects of aging on performance.

The Globe asked Fair if he could develop specific data for NFL quarterbacks and NBA players, hoping to answer a couple of questions that preoccupy Boston sports fans: How well will Brady age? And what might the Celtics expect from Pierce and Garnett?

Fair’s breakdown of quarterback performance ratings indicates that players at that position reach their peak performance level at age 30. From 30 to 35, the performance level declines almost 13 percent because of aging. From 35 to 40, it drops off by roughly 38 percent.

But Brady — like Garnett, Pierce, Ortiz, and Chara — benefits from being a Ferrari. Since those players achieve higher performance levels than most of their contemporaries, they are well-positioned to continue performing at a high level. They also reach higher performance peaks and therefore tend to perform better than average even as they inexorably decline.

Imagine Brady’s career trajectory as an elevator rising up a skyscraper, peaking at the 100th floor at age 30, then slowly descending by the same increments as other quarterbacks. Few other players even come close to the 100th floor. In fact, when Fair’s data is age-corrected to compare quarterbacks, only Peyton Manning ranks ahead of Brady in how far they rose, and thus from what height they will gradually fall. Manning essentially reached the 101st floor of quarterback performance.

Because basketball is built so much on speed, reaction time, and vertical leap, NBA players tend to peak earlier than NFL quarterbacks and decline more quickly after age 30. The skills they rely on are the first that time saps.

On average, centers peak at 26, forwards at 25, and guards at 26, according to Fair. Other studies have concluded that NBA players in general peak around 27. Using Fair’s measures, performance declines more than 50 percent between 30 and 35 because of aging and continues on a sharp downward slope as players approach 40.

Some players, however, do much better than others at maintaining higher performance levels and defying expectations. Among forwards, Fair’s data ranks Garnett first among current players for retaining his skills and productivity late in his career, and fourth behind Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Larry Bird in a sample that stretched back to the 1977-78 season. Pierce, by the same measure, ranks 42d among all forwards.

But the rankings are far from the final word on athletes and the effects of aging.

“Remember,” said Fair, “there is a huge variation around the predictions based on aging alone. In any given year for a player, aging is only a small fraction of what affects his actual performance.”

A host of variables

When evaluating players 30 and over, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli works his way down a lengthy checklist. He looks at a player’s history of durability, his past injuries, and his body type — strong and durable, or prone to injury? He assumes an older player will miss a certain number of games — though Chara has played in almost every game since he was signed in 2006 — and calculates what that will cost the team. He tries to assess character and attitude on and off the ice.

“Definitely the radar goes up for me when the player reaches 30, but it’s case by case,” said Chiarelli.

Chiarelli, who has 10 players 30 or older on the Bruins roster, added, “I think 35 is the new 32. Without question, players are in better shape and they’re going to last longer. You have to adjust your thinking.”

The way Chiarelli figures it, the 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound Chara “may play until 50 with his body and his will.”

Given all the variables with athletes — injuries, body type, position, minutes played, team strategy, offseason conditioning, nutrition — it is tricky to forecast the effects of aging. And that quest only becomes more complicated and critical as more teams lean on older players.

“As things get more uncertain about how players are going to age, it opens up opportunity for teams to take advantage,” said Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, a leader in the statistical analysis of NBA players. “With more uncertainty in forecasts, the more opportunity there is. Which player can we bet on that we know might now age better?

“With every decision we make, there’s an art and a science or a mix of analytics and traditional knowledge of the game.”

The challenge is determining the most accurate predictors of an athlete’s decline, figuring out how to combine performance analytics, physical and psychological testing, traditional scouting, and medical histories. Different organizations have different theories, approaches, and formulas. And most keep their methods closely guarded.

“Older athletes open the curtain and raise some questions for us,” said Dr. Michael Joyner, who studies elite athlete physiology at the Mayo Clinic. “They raise a lot of questions about what’s normal. They show what the minimal rates of aging are.

“The next ‘Moneyball’ piece in all of this is trying to understand who’s declining at a slower rate and where the value is in trades or free agents that people might think are over the hill.”

To better predict performance over time, the Bruins put players through an extensive regimen of physical testing every training camp, charting improvements and declines each year. The testing includes pullups, bench presses, flexibility drills, vertical jumps, and shuttle runs.

“If you can see the bottom dropping out over the course of years, that would be related to his age,” said Chiarelli. “But you’ve got to paint the whole picture — physical testing, game-by-game evaluations, trends over one year, over two years.”

Chiarelli also puts greater stock in player performance during the second half of the season, when game intensity ramps up.

Since veterans by definition arrive with more career history, general managers often find themselves doing more homework on players 30 and over, though it is hardly limited to number-crunching. Chiarelli, Cherington, and Celtics president Danny Ainge said that personality and work habits factor heavily into evaluations. They want disciplined players who will be good influences in the locker room and good role models for younger teammates.

Psychological adjustments

Coaches practice their own art, figuring out the best ways to utilize and rest older athletes during the season. They strategize ways to capitalize on older players’ strengths and hide their weaknesses, typically toying with game plans to disguise drop-offs in speed and stamina. Celtics coach Doc Rivers has, of necessity, become something of an expert in these tactical adjustments.

“It’s a push-pull thing,” said Rivers. “Sometimes they need to be pushed, sometimes they need to be pulled along. And it’s all year. It’s even in the middle of games.

“I can see in a game when Paul needs to come out. He’s just having one of those days. It’s age. But we need him on the floor. So, I’m thinking, ‘If I leave him on the floor, will it affect him later?’

“I remember my last year playing. There were days I just showed up old. I didn’t mean to. I was prepared. I felt good. Then, all of a sudden in the game, I just didn’t have it.”

It is the players who must make the biggest and toughest adjustments as they age, coming to terms with diminishing skills, constant competition from younger teammates and opponents, and changing roles. Aging takes a toll physically and, perhaps more significantly, mentally.

“While a younger player is trying to gain identity, an older player is losing identity,” said sports psychologist Don Kalkstein, who worked with the Red Sox from 2006-11.

Pierce relies on the talents he has honed since his high school days in Inglewood, Calif., but he also increasingly entrusts his athletic soul to what, for athletes, is a relatively new machine.

Pierce has a portable hyperbaric chamber that he uses during homestands and takes on long road trips. The device — more familiar as an aid for healing stubborn wounds, such as burns — uses elevated air pressure to help blood carry more oxygen to tissue and organs, potentially speeding recovery.

Pierce says sessions in the chamber leave him feeling rejuvenated much more quickly after tough games. He also works to fight the aging process by more conventional means — picking his spots for his trademark contact-seeking drives to the hoop, exerting energy more judiciously, and settling more for jump shots, though tired legs are an enemy there, too.

“You’re not the young athlete you used to be,” said Pierce, with a matter-of-fact shrug.

Not all star athletes are so realistic about their limits. Thus, the challenge for general managers, coaches, agents, and sports psychologists becomes persuading veterans, particularly aging superstars, that they can make an impact without competing 40 minutes per game or getting regular at-bats or playing most downs.

“As an older player, you learn to adjust to physical changes and adapt, but it’s not easy,” said 38-year-old Brooklyn Nets guard Jerry Stackhouse. “We honestly feel we can still do the same things as before. The only difference is that you just don’t know what day you can do it.”

Tomorrow in Sports: How teams assess risk when re-signing older players.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com
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