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Niekro leads retirees who could still thrive today

MLB.com

Every time I see Phil Niekro, I threaten to rub my eyes over his ability to stay within the vicinity of his old self through the decades, and then I whisper the same thing in my head, which is, "This guy could still go out there with his knuckleball and retire a couple of hitters."

The silver-haired pitcher with a plaque in Cooperstown usually responds with a straight face before he says something along the lines of, "Yeah. I could."

Every time I see Phil Niekro, I threaten to rub my eyes over his ability to stay within the vicinity of his old self through the decades, and then I whisper the same thing in my head, which is, "This guy could still go out there with his knuckleball and retire a couple of hitters."

The silver-haired pitcher with a plaque in Cooperstown usually responds with a straight face before he says something along the lines of, "Yeah. I could."

Oh, he could, all right, and "Knucksie" is 78. The last time he delivered a pitch in a Major League game was 30 years ago with the Braves, his primary team during a 24-year Hall of Fame career, but so much for small details. If Rafael Palmeiro can contemplate a comeback at 53, the possibilities are endless.

You just know 59-year-old Julio Franco is somewhere right now standing at somebody's home plate, even if it involves only a pickup game. Two years ago, he was a player-manager for a Japanese team. That's impressive, but not as much as this: Before Franco ended his Major League career after 23 seasons in 2007, he was 48 when he set the record for oldest player to hit a home run. Two years before that, he was the oldest to deliver a grand slam, and during that same season, he became the oldest to blast two homers in the same game and to clock a pinch-hit shot.

So I'm putting Franco and Niekro on my team of baseball retirees who could scare current Major Leaguers for maybe an inning or three. In case you're wondering, I won't take the easy route here. For instance, Derek Jeter has more than a little remaining with his bat, glove and legs to generate additional moments of greatness here and there. He's just three years removed from playing for a club in the Majors instead of owning one. That's why I'm only picking guys who haven't officially stood in a batter's box or on a mound in a decade or more, so Franco barely made the cut here.

Welcome, Julio. I'm placing Niekro near the front of my starting pitching rotation, but I'm putting you at first base.

Or should I go with Billy Williams?

Let's just say Williams wasn't called Sweet Swingin' Billy for nothing. He's a year older than Niekro at 79. Even so, after I encountered Williams earlier this year at the White House, when his Cubs were honored for winning the 2016 World Series, I kept thinking this vintage left-handed slugger likely hadn't lost the mechanics that allowed him to spray all those line drives around Wrigley Field and beyond with ease.

Video: WSH@CHC Gm3: Billy Williams throws the first pitch

Come to think about it, Williams has a few years on Franco. I'll move Williams out of left field, where he spent the bulk of his 18 Major League seasons, and I'll put him at first and switch Franco to left.

Pitching is huge in baseball, which is why I'll complete my starting rotation before doing anything else. In addition to Niekro, I'll add 70-year-old Nolan Ryan, because if you can throw a seventh no-hitter at 44 during a three-decade career, you're good enough at any age for me. Then I'm going with 79-year-old Gaylord Perry. If nothing else, he still has all of those (ahem) tricks he used as a future Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher in the Major Leagues from the early 1960s to the early '80s.

Since this is an old-school team of old-timers, I'll use a four-man rotation, which means my fourth guy has to match those other Cooperstown guys.

Greg Maddux.

What's that, you say? The 51-year-old Maddux left baseball nine years ago to land a season shy of my criteria for this team? I'm taking Maddux anyway, and here's my logic: Courtesy of his slight frame and average fastball, he discovered ways to outthink hitters. He was a Picasso on the mound during his sprint to four Cy Young Awards, and whether it's now or way beyond when he officially reaches that 10-year mark of retirement, his pitching style will continue to baffle hitters through the ages during stretches.

Video: Greg Maddux talks about his Hall of Fame election

I won't go with a whole bullpen. I'll let 71-year-old Rollie Fingers handle all my relief work as the closer. If his pitches fail to intimidate hitters, I'm guessing his eternal handlebar moustache will.

Now back to the everyday lineup, where I'll have 76-year-old Tim McCarver as my catcher for a couple of reasons. He showed his durability with 21 years in the Major Leagues, and he showed his considerable baseball knowledge behind a microphone well enough to reach the broadcasting wing of Cooperstown. That sounds like my kind of player for this bunch.

With Williams at first, I'll go with 57-year-old Terry Pendleton across the diamond at third, and if you've ever watched Pendleton's work ethic through the years as a Braves coach in the past, you know why. Just like Williams, I'm guessing this Pendleton can swing and field like that other one who grabbed three Gold Gloves, a National League batting title and NL Most Valuable Player Award.

Surely, you've determined my dominant theme here: Longevity in the past equals longevity for the present and the future, which means you already know my shortstop and second baseman. They're 59-year-old Alan Trammell and 60-year-old Lou Whitaker, respectively, the longest-running double-play combination in baseball history. They were paired together for 19 seasons to produce a total of seven Gold Glove Awards, seven Silver Slugger Awards, 11 trips to the All-Star Game and a World Series championship.

Works for me. I'm guessing they can turn at least one double play on my team to help ground-ball specialist Maddux get out of a jam.

As for my other two outfielders and my designated hitter, I'll take 79-year-old Manny Mota as the DH (all together now: longevity) after he produced a lifetime batting average of .304, mostly as a pinch-hitter for 20 seasons. I'm also going with 86-year-old Willie Mays in center and 83-year-old Hank Aaron in right, and I'm doing so because I'm talking about Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

You got a problem with that?

Thank you.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com.