The Last Ballplayer Standing

Pitcher Tim Wakefield announced his retirement this week. The knuckleballer won 200 games in a 19-year career, mostly with the Boston Red Sox.

But Wakefield’s announcement has a personal significance for me. It means we’re close to reaching a significant milestone: the last active big leaguer who’s older than me.

I knew early on that I wasn’t going to a big league ballplayer.  It wasn’t due to  a lack of desire. I started  little league when I was eight years old and played the game voraciously into my early 20s. But at the more competitive levels, the good fastballs were more than I could handle.  I may have had the heart of an athlete but I had the body of an office worker.

In the spring of my junior year of college, I was flipping through a copy of USA Today and came across a photo of a minor leaguer in the Toronto system named Jimmy Kelly. He was a seventeen year old outfielder who had joined the  Blue Jays for spring training.

I showed the photo to my friends and roommates, observing that if Kelly made the cut that year, he’d be the first player in the major leagues who was born after we were.

Kelly never made it to the big leagues, and never earned the distinction of being the first ballplayer younger than me in the big leagues.  That honor went to Gary Sheffield, who reached the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers on September 3, 1988.

According to my Wikipedia page, I was born in June of 1968.  Sheffield was born in November of that year. Other younger players followed, of course, but I always had a special place in my heart for Gary Sheffield.

Twenty three years have passed. A strike cancelled the World Series. MLB added four new teams. McGwire and Sosa rewrote the record book before lying to Congress about it.  I got married, had three kids, and last fall took my oldest daughter off to college.

That month forty-three year old Matt Stairs announced his retirement. He was four months older than me. With Jamie Moyer on the disabled list, that left just two guys on major league rosters born before I was:  45-year-old Tim Wakefield and 44-year-old shortstop Omar Vizquel. And now Wakefield has called it a career.

But it’s too soon to declare Vizquel the bookend, the player who with Gary Sheffield’s mark the beginning and end points to an era in baseball, an era when the game was populated with players my age.

Jamie Moyer  Matt Stairs Omar Vizquel Tim Wakefield

As spring training opens this weekend, 49 year old pitcher Jamie Moyer is trying to make a comeback with the Colorado Rockies. Vizquel is trying to make the Blue Jays as a utility infielder. Either one of them could keep the era alive.

I’ll be rooting for both of them.