The gracefully aging boys of summer

Is it merely a coincidence that the playing years of the major league baseball player correspond to the period of peak fecundity of the American woman?


Joan Walsh
October 8, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

It's hard not to notice -- hard for me, anyway -- that the playing years of the major league baseball player correspond almost exactly to the period of peak fecundity -- and perceived sexual desirability -- of the American woman. In your teens you're a prospect, your 20s are your prime; by your 30s, you're showing signs of age but compensating with experience and wisdom. But by 40, you're expected to move gracefully out of the sunshine and into the next phase of your life -- hanging up the cleats, if you're a baseball player; cutting your hair and lengthening your skirts, if you're a woman -- after sending the crib and baby clothes to Goodwill.

Maybe that's why, the week I turned 40, I was inspired by the stunning end-of-the-season play of some guys who are fairly geriatric, by baseball standards. On the final Saturday of the regular season, ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" trumpeted the fact that three 40-year-olds -- pitcher Orel Hershiser of the San Francisco Giants, third baseman Gary Gaetti of the Chicago Cubs and left fielder Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A's -- had that day won games for their teams, despite their advanced ages. Meanwhile, the Giants' Joe Carter, a lad of 38 on the verge of premature retirement, was carrying the team to a tie for the National League Wild Card spot (batting over .400 in his last 25 games) in the twilight of his final season.

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Giants general manager Brian Sabean gave credit for the team's end-of-season surge -- which came up short when they lost a one-game playoff to the Cubs -- to its many veterans. The Giants' starting pitching staff, for instance, was the oldest in the major leagues, with three of five starters over 36, but its ERA made it a respectable eighth out of 30 teams. "I'll be honest: It gives me goose bumps to be in that clubhouse and see veterans like Orel Hershiser and Joe Carter in Giants' uniforms," fawned Sabean (who, at 42, by the way, is a young GM).

I always got goose bumps in the Giants' clubhouse, too -- not for that reason; I only go in when I know the players are dressed, and I keep my eyes at eye level -- but because of all the baseball wisdom accumulated there. But it was also poignant to see several older Giants having strong end-of-career seasons, because sadly, they were just that: at the end of their careers. What does that say about me? How washed up am I? I don't want to take the women-and-ballplayers analogy too far, of course, because there are many more sexy, vital, happy 40-something women than there are 40-plus major leaguers. And certainly I don't feel 40. Last week an old boyfriend tried to rationalize forgetting my 40th birthday by saying I don't look 40. But still, it's hard to see baseball players my age judged so definitively past their physical prime. I reject the possibility that I am, too.

So I cheered myself up by putting together a starting team of post-40 major leaguers -- which was easier than it would have been two decades ago, thanks to the Internet as well as the fact that baseball players are playing better, longer. Pitchers especially can hope to play into their 40s. The 40-plus team's pitching staff features not just Hershiser but 42-year-old Danny Darwin, also of the Giants; 41-year-old A's knuckleballer Tom Candiotti (whose wife gave him his own Web site for his 40th birthday); relievers Dennis Eckersley (44) of the Boston Red Sox, Doug Jones (41) of the Cleveland Indians, Dennis Martinez (43) of the Atlanta Braves and Dave Stieb (41) of the Toronto Blue Jays.

The bad news is, fielding a full complement of position players was harder than I thought. I had intended to put together an all-40 team -- I turned 40 in mid-September, two days after Hershiser -- but I could only find four non-pitchers born with me in 1958. So I improvised, drafting a couple of 40-plus guys as well as some late-September call-ups who'll be 40 soon. Catcher was the toughest call, not surprisingly, since spending the season in a squat takes its toll on even sturdy players.

For my dream team I must single out my two born-in-'58 All-Stars, Orel Hershiser and Rickey Henderson. Hershiser became a favorite of mine late in life; just this season, in fact, when he became a Giant, after 13 years with the hated Los Angeles Dodgers and two with the Cleveland Indians. Despite the Dodger taint, he won me over with his dedication to the game. I loved his edge. On the mound, the skinny, nerdy Hershiser still grunts and grimaces and makes mock-scary faces, which earned him the unlikely nickname "Bulldog" ("The Mad Librarian," the bespectacled Hershiser once joked, would be a better fit).

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In George Will's 1990 book "Men at Work," Hershiser, then 30, was quoted saying he'd never cheat -- throw a scuffball or spitball -- because "I don't know if, at the spiritual level, I could live with myself." Then he added: "Maybe when I'm 40, and I gotta do it to do it, I'll see it differently. Spiritually, I'll figure out a way. 'Lord, let me make this money and I'll give it to the church.'"

A week after his 40th birthday, I reminded Hershiser of what he'd told Will and asked whether he had cheated to hold on to a starting job with the Giants. He laughed hard -- then quickly denied it. "But clearly I never thought I'd still be pitching at 40." Was anything about pitching better at 40? Hershiser didn't hesitate. "The mental part -- I understand myself better," he said. "I can return more easily from a bad outing. Nothing's as life-and-death as at 30." When I asked if he was happy with his 11-10, 202-inning season -- which most pitchers at 40 would give their pitching arms for -- he dropped his avuncular, above-it-all persona. "I really shouldn't talk about that before the end of the season," he began. But then talk he did, about how he's actually pitched better than his record reveals, how opposing teams are only batting .259 against him and how he's pitched the second most innings on the Giants. He also revealed that the Giants are actually 19-13 in games he started, since he got several no-decisions, and how he's gotten less run support than any other starting pitcher. Then he caught himself. "I hope that doesn't seem like sour grapes," he said apologetically. But it didn't; it seemed like fire. He's not content to be the clubhouse sage, mentoring young pitchers. He still wants to win, even at 40, which is why he does win.

As for Rickey Henderson: I'm nervous about including him in this piece, because I don't think anyone's told him he's turning 40 on Christmas Day this year, and I certainly wouldn't want it to get back to him. The future Hall-of-Famer led the major leagues in stolen bases for the 11th time this season (a major league record) with 66 steals -- which is just over half the 130 he stole in 1982, also a major league record -- and he's also the oldest player in history to take top place in steals. His batting average lagged this year but his on-base percentage was respectable, and he was a formidable leadoff hitter in his fourth stint with the A's, finishing first in the American League in walks.

Unlike Hershiser, Henderson isn't a late-in-life favorite for me. I've loved him since we were both 30, when he was leading the A's to a world championship and I was pregnant with my daughter Nora. I'd lie in bed and watch Rickey run and forget about my raging hormones, high blood pressure and extra pounds. I terrorized my husband by saying that if we had a boy we'd have to name him Rickey Henderson Walsh-De Vries (I wound up divorced anyway, so it would have been worth the fight). Henderson says he wants to come back to Oakland, his hometown, to play next year, and I hope he does. He and Hershiser taught me a crucial birthday lesson: You're only as old as you play.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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