Class by himself
Nobody in baseball can fail to be amazed by Roger Clemens. The man will be 45 years old later this year and he still can outpitch -- if he decides to keep pitching, that is -- guys half his age. Guys any age, for that matter.
Randy Johnson is 43, and even though he's coming off back surgery and a bumpy two-year ride with the Yankees, nobody anywhere in the game will be surprised if he wins 15-20 games this season now that he's back home with the Diamondbacks in the relative cushiness of the National League West.
Jamie Moyer ... he's 44 and has started at least 30 games and amassed at least 200 innings a season for eight of the past nine years, including the past six straight. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Kenny Rogers, Orlando Hernandez -- even David Wells, to a lesser degree -- all have been reliable starters over the golden years of their careers. And all will be counted on this year to be major parts of their team's staffs. John Smoltz, the ace of the Braves' rotation, joins them in the ranks of 40-something starters this season.
As good as all of those guys have been, though, or as good as they may be for the rest of their pitching lives, none is going to give Phil Niekro a run for late-career durability -- and certainly not for late-career success.
They just don't make them like ol' Knucksie anymore.
"I don't know if guys have to play that long today," Niekro, who will turn 68 on April 1, said with a laugh from his suburban Atlanta home, citing the huge salaries going to starting pitchers these days. "I had to pitch. In my case, it was the money."
Niekro, the Hall of Fame right-hander, is in an age-class of his own as far as starting pitchers go. He defined late-career success, winning more games (121) after turning 40 than anyone in baseball history. Nobody in the game has ever thrown more innings after the age of 40 than Niekro did, either (2,311 1/3 of them). In 1986, he threw 210 1/3 innings -- at the age of 47.
Just for a comparison: Niekro, whose career spanned from 1964 to '87, threw almost 1,000 more innings in his 40s than Clemens threw in his 30s.
Baseball has changed tremendously, of course, in the 20 years since Niekro was dragged into retirement. The bullpen has become a major part of the game. A seven-inning start today is considered a good outing. Complete games are a rarity. (Niekro completed 245 games, including an amazing 21 in 1969; Clemens leads all active pitchers with 118.) The whole mindset of a starting pitcher is different.
"We had a lot of pride when we got the ball. My job, as a starter, was to take the ball from the manager when it was my turn and to give him back the ball when the game was through," Niekro said. "If I didn't do that, I felt like I wasn't doing my job.
"I don't know if guys think that way today."
In a lot of ways, considering the lighter workload for starters that beefed-up bullpens provide, you might think that today's pitchers would be better suited for long, prosperous careers after 40 than ever before. Advances in nutrition and medicine have made it easier for players to stay healthy and to bounce back from injury. Tommy John, remember, was a contemporary of Niekro's; today, the surgery that bears John's name has kept the careers of many pitchers alive.
Still, it's hard to think that anyone over 40 in the game today will be pitching a full-time workload when he's 47. Clemens is on a year-by-year watch. Moyer's contract runs through next year, when he'll be 45. Johnson's health problems could well derail him by the end of his contract, which expires after the '08 season.
And, as Niekro suggests, it's hard for a player to stay hungry when he's made more than $140 million in his career, as Johnson has, or more than $120 million, as Clemens has. Even Hernandez has made more than $50 million in his career.
This current crop of older pitchers has its reasons to keep going, though. Clemens is on top of his game. Johnson and Glavine are both within reach of 300 career wins, which would all but guarantee their spots in the Hall of Fame. Smoltz is trying to pad what could be a Hall of Fame resume, too.
And the money, let's not forget, is pretty hard to turn down. Clemens will probably make at least $12 million this year for a half-season. Johnson just signed a two-year, $26 million extension with Arizona. The unheralded Moyer will make $6 million this year.
That said ... pitching until 47? As much as the crafty Maddux relishes his time on the mound, as much as he hates talking about possible retirement, it's hard to see him starting games in 2013.
"I never looked to retirement. My retirement was going to come when my retirement came. I played that like I pitched," Niekro said. "You can't throw your second pitch before you throw your first one. You can't get the second out before you get the first one. You can't play the second inning before you play the first one.
"The cause [of my retirement] was going to be the cause."
Niekro's playing career ended in a familiar way for many ballplayers. After the 1987 season, nobody asked him to play. He finished with 318 wins, a 3.35 ERA and a place in the Hall of Fame.
Niekro will have plenty of company from this generation of fortysomething starters when Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, Glavine and maybe Smoltz join him in Cooperstown in the decade or so ahead. They may not be his late-career equals, given the difference in time and the game, but they're all still proving, as Niekro did in the '80s, that there can be plenty of pitching life after 40.