Active seniors still living the good life
To Jamie Moyer, Gary Sheffield and the Big Unit, age is just another number
When Julio Franco announced his retirement last year at age 49, it gave new meaning to the phrase "all good things must come to an end."
Baseball hasn't shown much love for its seniors recently. Last winter, Luis Gonzalez, Frank Thomas, Damion Easley, Mark Grudzielanek and Jim Edmonds were among the players on one side or the other of 40 who could barely get a sniff.
But some middle-agers keep on ticking, and trolling for milestones. Phillies starter Jamie Moyer failed Monday in his fifth attempt at 250 victories, and San Francisco's Randy Johnson takes his third shot at No. 299 on Wednesday against Atlanta.
In this edition of Starting 9, we take a stroll down Lipitor Lane and recognize the nine oldest active players in the game. Our respects also go out to Tom Gordon and Doug Brocail, who've barely pitched this year, to Rudy Seanez, who recently signed with the Angels, and to Brad Ausmus, who just turned 40 and is still too much of a pup to make the list.
Jamie Moyer, Phillies (46 years, six months)
His place in history: Moyer, 46th on baseball's career list with 249 wins, needs two more to tie Bob Gibson. He is one of six pitchers in history to have beaten 30 teams. The others: Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Terry Mulholland, Curt Schilling and Woody Williams.
It all began when the Cubs drafted Moyer out of St. Joseph's University in 1984. Moyer made his major league debut against the Phillies two years later. The first batter he faced, Ron Roenicke, recently entered his 10th season as a coach with the Angels.
It could have ended when Chicago released Moyer in 1992 and his father-in-law, Digger Phelps, told him it was time to look for a "real job." Moyer played for five organizations from 1990 through 1993, so the Cubs weren't alone in considering him suspect.
Did you know? Seven big league managers (Ozzie Guillen, Don Wakamatsu, Joe Girardi, Trey Hillman, Eric Wedge, Manny Acta and A.J. Hinch) are younger than Moyer, and 13 general managers are younger than him.
The prognosis: Judging from that 1.77 WHIP, Moyer has some work to do. As the velocity gap between his fastball and changeup diminishes, he's having a harder time fooling hitters. But the Phillies still owe him about $11 million through 2010, so they'll give him a chance to work out his problems until they have no choice.
Randy Johnson, Giants (45 years, eight months)
His place in history: With five Cy Young awards, 4,838 strikeouts and (very soon) 300 wins, Johnson ranks on a short list with Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove and Sandy Koufax as one of the greatest left-handers in history.
It could have ended during a 10-hour bus trip in the Montreal Expos system in the late 1980s. Johnson has told the story of how he and teammate Larry Walker were sitting in the luggage compartment above the seats at 1 a.m. when the lug nuts came loose and the tires slipped off and started bouncing down the road.
"The next thing I know I'm looking at Larry and Larry is looking at me, and we're both jumping out of the luggage compartment onto the ground," Johnson said during an interview in 1997. "All I could think was that the bus was going to tip over and we would both get crushed."
Did you know? Johnson appeared in a 2006 "Simpsons" episode in which he invents left-handed teddy bears called "Southpaws." He meets Ned Flanders at a convention and pressures him into buying a case of 1,000.
The prognosis: A National League scout said this week Johnson can pitch another year because of "his intimidation and his slider," but how much more baseball does Johnson have in his system after all those back problems?
Tim Wakefield, Red Sox (42 years, nine months)
His place in history: Wakefield ranks third on the Red Sox's all-time wins list behind Roger Clemens and Cy Young with 170 and 2,640 innings.
It all began in 1989, the year after Wakefield hit .189 as a first baseman for Pittsburgh's New York-Penn League affiliate. The Pirates were about to release him when they saw him tinkering with a knuckleball and convinced him to try pitching. "We thought it was a fluke pitch," former teammate Paul Wagner said at the time. "I don't think anybody took him serious."
It could have ended in 1995, when the Pirates released Wakefield. Boston signed him to a minor league deal, and Wakefield turned it around after knuckleball sage Phil Niekro convinced him to pitch more aggressively. "If he makes a few adjustments, he can pitch in the big leagues for a lot of years," Niekro said in an interview in May 1995.
Did you know? Wakefield still holds the career home run record at Florida Institute of Technology with 40.
The prognosis: Wakefield has been the most consistent pitcher in Boston's rotation in April and May. Charlie Hough pitched until he was 45 on a two-pack-a-day habit, so Wakefield should be able to stick around for the 16 more wins he needs to reach 200.
Omar Vizquel, Rangers (42 years, one month)
His place in history: He's the career leader in games played and double plays turned by a shortstop. Throw in 11 Gold Gloves, 2,673 hits and 387 stolen bases, and he's a bona fide Hall of Fame candidate.
It all began when the Mariners signed him as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela. As a youngster, Vizquel honed his hand-eye coordination by playing basketball, volleyball and soccer as well as baseball.
It could have ended in 1994, when Vizquel nearly suffered a serious knee injury on a takeout slide by Pudge Rodriguez. Vizquel avoided a blowout, but spent several weeks in a cast and then a walking brace before he could resume playing.
Did you know? When Vizquel arrived at Texas' camp this spring, he showed teammates a video of his journey into the Venezuelan wilds last winter in search of anaconda. Vizquel and his guide landed an 11-footer weighing more than 80 pounds.
"I was a little scared," Vizquel told The Associated Press. "Those snakes can eat an alligator.
The prognosis: Vizquel wants to manage when he's through playing, but he has accepted his bench role with enough grace to make you think he has another year or two left in him. He's been a wonderful influence on young Elvis Andrus, and he's hitting .340 in 18 games.
"Omar's long been one of my favorite guys to watch play -- there's just a different energy that he brings to the park," Texas GM Jon Daniels said in an e-mail. "And he's been extremely selfless with us. We're talking about a 42-year-old surefire Hall of Famer who's willing to back up a 20-year-old, enter spring training games in the sixth inning, and play second base and third base for the first time in his career."
Trevor Hoffman, Brewers (41 years, seven months)
His place in history: Hoffman is the most prolific closer in history with 565 saves. He's had a few missteps on the big stage, but they won't put much of a crimp in his Hall of Fame speech.
It all began when the Reds chose Hoffman in the 11th round of the 1989 draft. Hoffman hit .371 and .284 in two years as starting shortstop at the University of Arizona, but was overshadowed by teammates Scott Erickson, J.T. Snow and Alan Zinter.
It could have ended when Hoffman hit .212 with Charleston in the South Atlantic League in 1990. "All I remember is, he had huge calves -- and a hose for an arm," said Marlins coach Andy Fox, who played against Hoffman that year. "At that point none of us could hit, so he didn't stand out for that." Hoffman's baseball career was saved when his minor league manager, Jim Lett, suggested he give pitching a whirl.
Did you know? Before selecting Hoffman with their fourth pick in the 1992 expansion draft, the Marlins took Toronto outfielder Nigel Wilson, Mets pitcher Jose Martinez and Montreal infielder Bret Barberie -- Jillian's future husband.
The prognosis: The league is hitting .116 against Hoffman this season, so 600 saves look like a sure thing. Not surprisingly, the Brewers say Hoffman has been an enormous asset to their bullpen as a teacher and role model. He's been particularly helpful to Carlos Villanueva, another practitioner of the changeup. "Having Trevor is like having an extra pitching coach," said general manager Doug Melvin.
Matt Stairs, Phillies (41 years, three months)
His place in history: We could recite a bunch of statistics, but it's more fun to haul out this recent paragraph by Phillies beat reporter Scott Lauber of The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal, who described Stairs thusly:
It all began in snowy New Brunswick, where Stairs turned to baseball after a knee injury put an end to his hockey aspirations. In 1988, he played shortstop for the Canadian Olympic team in Seoul.
It could have ended when Stairs was still kicking around Triple-A ball at age 28. His reputation for power notwithstanding, Stairs never surpassed 13 homers in a minor league season.
Did you know? Ichiro Suzuki has the best career batting average against Randy Johnson (8-for-18, .444) by a lefty hitter with at least 15 at-bats. Right behind Ichiro on the list: Matt Stairs, who's a career .412 hitter (7-for-17) against the Big Unit.
The prognosis: As Stairs showed with his home run off Jonathan Broxton in the 2008 National League Championship Series, he can still crush a fastball. "He can probably hold up another five years," said Phillies reliever Chad Durbin. "Whether he's doing it on our field or hitting a softball three miles, he's going to barrel up something." Phillies fans might revolt if the team doesn't bring Stairs back next season.
Brian Shouse, Rays (40 years, eight months)
His place in history: Shouse is a classic lefty specialist survivor. His closest career comparable on the Baseball-reference.com Web site is Tony Fossas. Enough said.
It all began when the Pirates selected Shouse out of Bradley University in the 13th round of the 1990 draft.
It could have ended too many times to count. Shouse has 979 professional appearances on his résumé, but 538 were in the minors. He's pitched for 10 organizations and spent a year with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in Japan.
Shouse was just a filler guy in the minors when Jim Hickey, his former pitching coach with Triple-A New Orleans, suggested he drop down lower in his delivery to give lefty hitters a tougher look. He owes Hickey a major debt of gratitude.
The prognosis: Shouse has outlasted Mike Stanton, Steve Kline, Ray King and a slew of other lefties. He recently went down with a slight tear of the flexor muscle, but it'll probably take more than that to finish him off.
Russ Springer, Athletics (40 years, six months)
His place in history: Springer ranks 14th among active pitchers with 685 appearances. His most noteworthy moment came during Barry Bonds' pursuit of Babe Ruth's record 714 homers. Springer made Bonds dance with four inside pitches, then drilled the future Home Run King in the back with a 92 mph fastball.
It could have ended in 2001, when Dr. Michael Lee repaired Springer's torn rotator cuff and labrum, tightened his capsule, removed a bursa sac and a bone spur and shaved off his acromion bone. Springer credits his longevity in part to long-toss, which allows him to lengthen out the muscles in his right arm and "realign the bone chips."
Did you know? Springer pitched with future big leaguers Ben McDonald, Curtis Leskanic, Chad Ogea, Paul Byrd and Mike Sirotka on LSU's 1989 team. He still holds the school record for longest outing by a starting pitcher with 10 2/3 innings against Kentucky.
The prognosis: Springer, who has a son with autism, had planned to hang it up after last season, but the A's lured him out of retirement with a one-year, $3.3 million contract. Now that he's gotten cuffed around in his last few appearances, it's worth recalling some comments he made about retirement to ESPN.com in spring training..
"This is going to be my final season," Springer said in February. "I'm 99.2 percent sure I'm done."
Gary Sheffield, Mets (40 years, six months)
His place in history: Sheffield's supporters cite his 500 home runs, nine All-Star Game selections, five Silver Slugger Awards and contribution to Florida's 1997 World Series title. His detractors recall his contract hassles and angry rants against management, the steroid whispers and perceived selfishness. Regardless of where you stand, it's been an interesting ride.
It all began in Helena, Mont., in 1986, when Sheffield played in the same lineup with two promising young outfielders named Greg Vaughn and Darryl Hamilton. That's a combined 5,440 major league hits not bad for a short-season team in the Pioneer League.
It could have ended when Detroit released Sheffield in spring training, eating his $14 million salary. But if the Mets didn't scoop him up, the Phillies or Reds would have.
Did you know? Not many pitchers can lay claim to having "owned" Sheffield, but former Dodgers starter-turned-broadcaster Jerry Reuss fits the description. Sheffield went a career 0-for-17 against Reuss.
The prognosis: Unlike Bonds, Sheffield is actually well-liked within the confines of the clubhouse, and he's been a godsend during the Mets' recent run of injuries. If he can stay healthy and handle life as a part-timer, that .291/.430/.535 line suggests he has more to offer beyond this season.