Sunday, May 23, 2004

Over the hill at 40? Hardly

At age when many are retired, 10 big-leaguers still playing

By Kevin Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When President George W. Bush recently proclaimed May as Older Americans Month, he and the Administration on Aging did so to recognize the contributions of some 47 million older Americans.

That presumably does not apply - though maybe it should - to the small fraternity of 40-something major-league ballplayers who continue to appear in starting lineups and not AARP ads.

"I think guys are in better shape, not just 40-year-old guys," Reds shortstop Barry Larkin said Thursday. "I think players in general are in better shape and can play longer because they are physically capable."

Larkin, who turned 40 last month, is one of 10 active major-league players age 40 or older. Through Friday, he was batting a respectable .276 and was the only starting shortstop in the major leagues without an error.

Randy Johnson, 40, became the oldest pitcher to throw a perfect game when he did so against the Braves on Tuesday.

"It's unreal at any age, but especially at 40," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "For him to be doing that at 40, with power, is phenomenal, just mind-boggling."

Astros pitcher Roger Clemens, at 41, took a 7-0 record and major league-leading 1.72 ERA into his start against the Reds Saturday night.

"Power pitchers last forever, at least some of them do," baseball historian Bill James said. "I don't think age is what makes (Clemens) special."

The Mariners' roster includes a trio of 41-year-olds in designated hitter Edgar Martinez, backup catcher Pat Borders and starting pitcher Jamie Moyer, who tossed seven scoreless innings in his second win Thursday.

Julio Franco, at 45, is hitting .271 with three home runs and 17 RBI for the Braves. Mets relief pitcher John Franco is 43, two years older than Twins pitcher Terry Mulholland and Rockies pitcher Jeff Fassero.

Eight more players - including Giants left fielder Barry Bonds, Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers - will turn 40 by year's end.

"As long as you take care of yourself and stay healthy, you can continue (to contribute)," Mets catcher/first baseman Mike Piazza said. "The days of kicking dirt on guys when they're 37 or whatever are over."

A BAD WEEK: In the span of three days, Johnson and Brewers pitcher Ben Sheets exposed the Braves' offensive problems.

Sheets struck out 18 Atlanta batters last Sunday. Off Monday, the Braves struck out 13 times as Johnson tossed his perfect game Tuesday.

The 31 strikeouts in consecutive nine-inning games were two shy of the National League record.

"I think you can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that we've reached a new all-time low," Atlanta outfielder Chipper Jones said after Tuesday's game.

The Braves, entering Friday, ranked 13th in the National League in batting average and 14th in home runs and had the fourth-most strikeouts. Atlanta led the NL in home runs and had the fewest strikeouts last season.

GOING HOLLYWOOD: Sony's Columbia Pictures recently purchased the rights to the best-selling book Moneyball.

But that doesn't necessarily guarantee the story, about how the Athletics and general manager Billy Beane constructed a winning team on a limited budget, ever will make it to theaters.

Even so, Moneyball author Michael Lewis believes George Clooney would be perfect to play Beane, a former first-round draft pick who played 148 career major-league games from 1984-1989.

"Both of them have a certain Teflon quality," Lewis said. "The key to playing Billy Beane in a movie is to find somebody that everybody thinks is perfect, but they have a flaw that is hard to see.

"The people watching the move see it. But the people on the screen don't."

ODDS AND ENDS: Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett, who is coming off ligament replacement surgery on his throwing arm in 2003, made his first rehabilitation start Tuesday and topped 98 mph on the radar gun. Burnett plans to make his first start of the season against the Reds on June 2. ... The Rockies are said to be among the teams interested in acquiring relief pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim, who pitched himself out of Boston and to Triple-A Pawtucket. ... To replace Raul Mondesi on their roster, the Pirates purchased the contract of former Reds outfielder Ruben Mateo from Triple-A Nashville on Wednesday. Mateo was hitting .316 with 11 home runs and 25 RBI for the Sounds.

LAST WORDS: Marlins closer Armando Benitez, a native of the Dominican Republic, often can be spotted in the team's clubhouse with his headphones on.

What's he jamming to? Country musician Kenny Chesney, of course.

"I like it," Benitez said, "because I can understand all the words."

Compiled using information and notes submitted by other baseball writers.

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