Passion, production remain for MLB 40-somethings
With his 40th birthday on the horizon, Todd Helton is old enough to have become a football Wally Pipp to Peyton Manning's Lou Gehrig nearly two decades ago, a knee injury ushering in Manning's days as star quarterback in college and beyond. Helton has been around the big leagues long enough that his manager, Walt Weiss, was a teammate during Helton's rookie season in 1997, and Weiss played a few more years after that.
Destined to be one of baseball's few 40-somethings come August, Helton's still doing his thing in the Major Leagues -- and he's not alone among the game's elder statesmen.
After a 2012 season that featured 49-year-old pitcher Jamie Moyer and 45-year-old shortstop Omar Vizquel as the game's oldest players, the top of the list of graybeards for 2013 is the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, at age 43. Entering the season, Mets reliever LaTroy Hawkins stands on the top rung on the National League's age ladder, at 40 and counting.
For a player like the Rockies' Helton, approaching the middle-aged milestone lends a certain amount of perspective. After all, it's not like he started his career at age 23 thinking he'd play into his 40s.
"I don't think anybody does," Helton said. "I think you just need to be in the right situation and get lucky, I guess, to play a game you love for this many years."
When Helton does flip the odometer in August, he'll be among a dozen or so players in their 40s in the Majors this season, the final tally depending on how many return from injury. Already, former teammate Jason Giambi, 42, is poised to make his 2013 debut with the Indians sometime this week after coming off the disabled list. As long as all goes well as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery, Jose Contreras might bump Hawkins from the top of the NL age bracket if he returns for the Pirates this summer at age 41.
These players didn't go into their careers thinking they'd make it all the way into their 40s. But they keep doing it as long as they can, and somebody wants them to do it for them.
"What keeps bringing me back? I think the competing. I love to compete," Hawkins said this Spring Training. "Baseball is in my blood. And as long as I'm blessed with my physical ability to be able to do it, I'll continue to try to do it."
After all, it's just 40, not the end of the world. Raul Ibanez, who had four decades in when he had one of the most memorable two-homer performances in postseason history for the Yankees last October, said that was literally how he felt about 40, and he's keeping a young attitude as he heads into 2013 with a Mariners team with Jason Bay at 34 the closest to his age.
"I feel great," Ibanez said, just before the season began. "When I turned 40, I told someone it was like the Y2K. The day before, there was all this big blowup and you're wondering what's going to happen. And you open your eyes, just like the day you turn 40, and you go, 'Oh, nothing happened.'"
The Yankees, it is well documented, have the market cornered on players at or pushing 40. Along with Rivera, there's Andy Pettitte heading for 41 in June, Ichiro Suzuki on his way to 40 in October and Derek Jeter staring at 39 in June, and still working his way back from last postseason's ankle injury. Not to be forgotten, Alex Rodriguez will be 38 in July.
The Blue Jays have some graybeards as well, with Darren Oliver continuing to deliver left-handed relief at age 42, Henry Blanco a backup catcher at 41, and R.A. Dickey turning 39 in October.
Those aren't the only teams using a lot of, shall we say, experienced players. The Phillies lead the Major Leagues in players born in the 1970s -- or at least 32 years old -- with 10, not counting suspended catcher Carlos Ruiz. But Michael Young is the oldest of the bunch at 36, not exactly in view of the big four-oh. The Dodgers and the D-backs also have a good chunk of their roster heading into their mid-30s or already there.
Those who push 40 and get over that hump are relatively rare gems, and they're not just there to show younger players how it's done, but to be productive players.
In Helton, the Rockies have a double gem -- not only someone who's still a starting position player as he closes out his 30s, but someone who has worn the same uniform through his 20s, his 30s and, soon, into his 40s.
For Weiss, who was a shortstop with the Rockies when Helton debuted in August 1997, he remembers a young player with a lot of promise, but nobody really projects almost another two decades into the future.
"It's always tough to predict at that point in time, but we all knew he was a great hitter -- that was plain to see right away," Weiss said. "So it's not too surprising that he's done what he's done."
Like Rivera and Jeter, and recent Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn and Barry Larkin before them, Helton is trying to finish off his one-team career with the dignity afforded elder statesmen and the perspective gained only by taking one's career deep.
"To be able to play in the same place for my whole career is something that's very dear to me, because I understand it doesn't happen that often," Helton said. "I'm just grateful to the people that have allowed me to do that."