Remember when “twilight of his career” had a negative connotation?
There is little more exciting in baseball than witnessing the infusion of young talent into the game, but perhaps just as gratifying is watching some of the game’s best old dudes' return to the top of their games, pitching better than they ever have to open a season.
Tonight, the 39-year-old Curt Schilling can become just the third Red Sox pitcher to earn his fifth win in April, joining Pedro Martinez (2000) and Babe Ruth (1917). On Sunday night, 40-year-old Greg Maddux ran his record to 4-0 by spinning a five-hit shutout in St. Louis. In four starts, Schilling has allowed just five runs and has a 1.61 ERA headed into tonight’s start at Cleveland. Maddux has been the ace of a Cubs staff stinging from the absences of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, allowing just three runs on his watch this season for a 0.99 ERA.
They have each been the best pitcher in their respective league, despite a combined 79 years of age between them, off to the best starts in their storied careers.
They’re not the only old dudes with a measured stretch of success this month by any means, just the highlights of the senior set. Before last night’s road bump (six earned runs at San Francisco), Mets lefty Tom Glavine, 40, had allowed just four earned runs in his previous four starts. Forty-one-year-old Kenny Rogers is 3-2 with a 3.21 ERA for the surprising Tigers. Randy Johnson, 42, rebounded from an awful start at Toronto to completely dominate the Orioles over the weekend. Heck, Julio Franco is hitting home runs at 47. Minnie Minoso HAS to be thinking one more comeback at this point.
Chris Snow points out in today’s Boston Globe that seven major league starters (Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Jamie Moyer, Johnson, Maddux, Rogers, and Glavine) are 40 years of age or will turn 40 this season. Those pitchers are a combined 17-9 with a 2.70 ERA. That’s not just getting by on fumes, now is it?
It has undeniably been a good year for the vintage set. Schilling is more than on pace to better his best season, 2001, when he helped Arizona win the World Series. That season, he won 22 games with a 2.98 ERA. Amazingly, for all his accolades (check out that nasty stretch of ERAs from 1992-98) Maddux hasn’t won 20 games since 1993, which was just the second time the future Hall of Famer reached that mark.
Let’s put this in perspective. If another old-timer, 43-year-old Roger Clemens, does indeed decide to quit jerking everyone around and retire, Maddux needs just 19 more victories to match his 341 career wins. You think at the beginning of the season, knowing Maddux needed 23 wins to reach that number, anyone thought it was possible to accomplish by October? No. Way.
The Maddux surprise has to be injecting a certain amount of hope into Cubs Nation, which has been devastated by injuries to (surprise) Prior, Wood, and Derrek Lee, who will miss the next two months with a fractured wrist, an injury he suffered a week after inking a five-year, $65 million contract with the team.
Meanwhile, a time zone to the east, Schilling’s start has put aside one of the major questions surrounding the Red Sox and sealed the envelope with definitive punctuation. In Cleveland, Schilling aims to beat the Indians, the only team he has yet to defeat in the American League. He faced the Tribe just once prior, in a 2004 2-1 loss. If he does indeed run his record to 5-0 tonight, he would have the chance to go 6-0 for the month on Sunday against Tampa Bay, which would tie a Major League record. The oldest pitcher to previously go 6-0 in April was his former teammate, Johnson with the Diamondbacks in 2002 when the lefty was 38 (Johnson also previously had done it in 2000).
Young pups like Jonathan Papelbon and Josh Beckett assure us that the game will be kept in competent hands once the torch is passed between generations, but it is just as enlightening to witness greatness from some old familiar faces as well. Young faces may infuse some new personality into the game, but when veterans on the other side of 40 continue to shine at the level that they have already set so high as much as a decade ago, it kind of slows down our own aging, watching these gray hairs smoke the younger studs of baseball.
The future of the game is never quite fully in our grasp as long as the six degrees factor can be traced back to the likes of the dead ball era, its past always in our midst whether that be in Maddux, who pitched with Dennis Eckersley (and a 23-year-old Moyer, by the way, in 1986), or Jon Lester in 14 years when we tell our kids how he fared against the likes of Miguel Tejada. Perhaps this is why the game is considered timeless.
Guys like Schilling and Maddux, despite belief to the contrary, are not. One day their baseball mortality will come. But for now, the twilight, it turns out, isn’t such a bad place to be.