These graybeards still contributing
Eleven players 40 or older currently on active rosters, and they're not just hanging on
"I was happy just to get one year in when I was 25, let alone be in my 18th season at nearly age 45,'' said Wakefield, one of 11 major league players in "the club," those who have reached their 40th birthday and are still playing in the major leagues.
The club includes six pitchers -- Batista, Wakefield, Darren Oliver, Arthur Rhodes, Mariano Rivera and Takashi Saito -- and five position players -- Craig Counsell, Jason Giambi, Matt Stairs, Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel.
Wakefield broke in with the Pirates in 1992, going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in 13 starts. He then won a pair of complete games in the playoffs against Atlanta. But he didn't fare as well the following year (6-11, 5.61) when free agency decimated the Pirates, and Wakefield was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo in 1994.
On April 20, 1995, Pittsburgh released Wakefield, believing his days as a major league pitcher -- a knuckleballer at that -- were over. Six days later, the Boston Red Sox took a flyer on him. More than 17 seasons later, Wakefield has become Boston's franchise leader in innings pitched. And with 179 wins, he's just 13 shy of the club's record for wins, a mark shared by Roger Clemens and Cy Young.
"It's something I'm incredibly proud of," Wakefield said of his longevity. "I think it sets a good example for the younger guys in the clubhouse. It proves that hard work does pay off.''
Said 26-year-old teammate Clay Buchholz of Wakefield: "You look at the span of the average major league pitcher's career and then look at the number of games he's pitched and it's amazing."
Probably the most amazing aspect of Wakefield's longevity is that his career has spanned so long with basically just one pitch -- a knuckleball whose readings on stadium radar guns look more like a speed limit (65 miles per hour) than the speed of a major league pitch. By the way, Wakefield's fastball, which used to top out at 80 mph at its best, now reaches no more than 74 mph.
"Yeah, but that one pitch is pretty special,'' Red Sox reliever Dan Wheeler said.
Even so, playing major league baseball into your 40s is an incredibly special accomplishment. It means you have taken care of your body and still have the talent to be playing at the highest level when it would be easy for most club executives to decide on someone half your age to fill a roster spot.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with the money,'' Thome said. "Most of us still playing have obviously made more money than we can ever use, anyway. It's about competing and still being able to do the things we were able to do 10 or 15 years earlier. Sure, our bodies don't feel the same anymore and it takes much more work to recover, but when you look at that list, there's something special about each and every one of those players. I'm incredibly humbled to see my name there.''
While talent gets players looked at during spring training, there are certain intangibles that never show up on a statistical spread sheet with these players. These are the intangibles that keep many general managers wanting players such as these 40-plus-year-olds on rosters.
You can't be selfish and still be playing at our age.” -- Twins DH Jim Thome
When the Washington Nationals, a club with several bright, up-and-coming players, were looking to transform what was reportedly a lackadaisical clubhouse from last season to one with a more professional attitude, Stairs was one of the players they identified early on as being capable of helping that transformation take place.
"Without a doubt, we saw Stairs as someone who would help put order in the clubhouse and teach these young guys what being a major leaguer is really about,'' National general manager Mike Rizzo said.
Said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, whose club features Oliver and Rhodes from the list: "It's about makeup. It's hard to find too many guys who stick around a long time who don't bring something else to the table.''
In the case of Vizquel, who is generally considered a first-ballot Hall of Famer in waiting if he ever stops playing, he was a tremendous mentor to Elvis Andrus during his rookie season in 2009. By most accounts, Vizquel was instrumental in helping Andrus adjust to major league life, both on and off the field. To this day, the young Andrus is viewed as one of the Rangers' leaders within the clubhouse.
"Omar was huge for us in '09 -- he helped Elvis get acclimated in addition to putting together a pretty good year on the field,'' Daniels said. "Really, other than Rivera, [all 40 and older players have] each gone through a change in roles and handled it with dignity and professionalism."
It's another attribute most of these players share, their ability to reinvent themselves. Giambi and Vizquel were fixtures in their respective starting lineups for years. Oliver, Wakefield and Batista were constants in starting rotations for most of their careers. All have adjusted to new roles as reserves or relievers, waiting for their time in a game instead of expecting it as they once did.
"You can't be selfish and still be playing at our age,'' Thome said.
With the exception of Rhodes and Saito, all players 40 and older have played in the World Series. And Rhodes has reached the postseason five times in his career, while Saito didn't come over to pitch in the major leagues from his native Japan until he was 36. He had already won a Japanese championship before his arrival.
"No doubt, these guys are all winners," said Reds manager Dusty Baker, who had Rhodes on his Cincinnati pitching staff last year.
Playing past your 40th birthday translates into a great deal of sacrifice, not just in the weight room or on the treadmill, but, more importantly, on the family front.
"You have to have a strong wife,'' said Wakefield, whose two children are under age 8. "If not, you're not going to last as long or you'll end up divorced."
Playing past 40 is not new to the game. There have been several instances of players contributing at a high level past their 40th birthday. Among the more memorable have been Warren Spahn (75 wins after the age of 40), Nolan Ryan (71 wins after 40), Rickey Henderson (109 stolen bases after 40) and Carlton Fisk (72 home runs after 40).
"I remember when I broke in with the Pirates in 1992, someone told me I was the youngest player in the majors at 21,'' Batista said. "To still be playing now is something I never dreamed imaginable."
Then there's always the case of Julio Franco, who was said to be three weeks past his 49th birthday when he played his final game in 2007. The phrase "said to be" is used because there are some who believe Franco was actually a few years older than what his birth certificate indicated.
"To the point of whether he was older, sure there was talk of that,'' said Tom Reich, Franco's agent for more than 30 years. "There was a birth certificate puzzlement. It was fairly common with a lot of Dominicans. You just don't know and I don't know. In Julio's case, it was never, ever a problem. But I know one thing: I wouldn't bet on his specific age.''
After all, we've been reminded so often that age is just a number. And there are plenty of general managers who aren't shy about betting on what these 40 and older players can still add to their clubs.
Pedro Gomez is a reporter for ESPN.
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