Past TimesOctober 31, 2006
Never Give Up
By Al Doyle

Some old baseball players don't know when to quit. And who can blame them?

It's easy to understand why some graying veterans hang on for one more year, as playing the world's finest sport for a living sure beats the 9-to-5 world. However, this isn't a profile of Greg Maddux, Luis Gonzalez or other famous names who are well compensated for their services.

In more than a few cases, players in the 35-and-over age group aren't cashing major league paychecks. Aging minor leaguers usually have no chance at all of getting even a cup of coffee in the Show, but they still persevere. Along with the personal satisfaction of being in baseball, they can count on obscurity and (outside of AAA) meager wages as a reward.

Former big league pitcher Angel Moreno may have finally reached the end of the line, as he went 0-2 with a 10.50 ERA during brief stints with Veracruz and the Angeopolis Tigres (Tigers) of the Mexican League.

Moreno has a legitimate excuse for his subpar performance, as he turned 51 during the season. The Mexican-born lefty pitched for the Angels in 1981 and 1982 before returning to a nearly quarter century run in his native country. Moreno wasn't kept on the Veracruz Aguilas (Eagles) roster out of pity, as he went 8-4 with a 2.27 ERA as a 48-year old in 2003. He followed that performance with winning records in 2004 and 2005.

Another Mexican-born player with big league experience is riding buses south of the border. Outfielder Matias Carrillo appeared in 107 games with the Brewers and Marlins from 1991 to 1994, and he's still a productive bat at age 43.

The left-handed hitting outfielder came through with 7 HR and 48 RBI in 290 at-bats for the Tigres. Carrillo isn't being blown away by power pitchers half his age, as he struck out just 27 times.

No one can accuse Pat Borders of being a quitter. The long-time major league catcher and clutch performer for the Blue Jays during the 1992 World Series began his professional career as a third baseman with Medicine Hat of the Pioneer League in 1982. Sadly, the 2006 season - his 25th as a pro - looks like the end of Borders' playing career.

After hitting just .181 at Vero Beach of the Florida State League (playing Class A ball at age 43!), Borders went 1-for-19 (.053) at AAA Las Vegas before being released by the Dodgers organization.

A look at his career shows a man who will do whatever it takes to stay in baseball. Borders has spent at least part of each season in the minors since 1999 (usually in the Mariners system), hoping for a promotion as a backup catcher or September call-up.

Ernie Young has earned a Ph.D in AAA baseball, as he has played for nine teams at that level since 1994. The 37-year old outfielder also has 796 major league at-bats (.225, 27 HR, 96 RBI), so he has something to show for his perseverance.

Young didn't embarrass himself in 2006, as he hit an even .300 with 26 doubles, 13 homers and 68 RBI in 350 at-bats for the Charlotte Knights of the International League. Even though Young earned a September pat on the back, the White Sox didn't recall him. Young's last trip to the Show was a 2-for-4 September stint with the Indians in 2004. He has 1594 career minor league hits along with 314 HR and 1110 RBI.

Curtis Pride is another outfielder who is intimately familiar with the cities of the International and Pacific Coast leagues.

The lefty hitter performed well enough at Salt Lake City - hitting .311 with 8 HR, 44 RBI, 54 walks, a .424 on-base percentage and 21 stolen bases in 273 ABs - to earn a call-up to the Los Angeles Angels. Pride hit .222 in 27 at-bats, which dropped his big league career average a point to an even .250.

Despite his deafness (he's an excellent lip reader), Pride has played professionally since being drafted by the Mets in 1986. The 37-year old has seen major league action in parts of 11 seasons, but Pride has never spent a full year in the Show. He's been in and out of AAA since 1993, and Pride's baseball road show includes stints on independent teams. This is one journeyman with an inspiring story and life.

If they gave a Mr. AAA Baseball award, Alan Zinter would be a leading candidate.

The left-handed hitting first baseman came through with 12 HR and 44 RBI in just 212 ABs for the Round Rock Express in 2006. His other numbers - 63 strikeouts, 35 walks and a .259 average (low for the PCL) - are typical of Zinter's career.

He's the Rob Deer of AAA. At 38, Zinter can still smack the ball a long way when he makes contact, and he'll take a walk. After being signed by the Mets in 1989, Zinter finally worked his way to AAA with Toledo in 1994, and he found a home at this level.

Zinter came up with the Astros as a 34-year old rookie pinch-hitter in 2002, and he spent some time with the Diamondbacks in 2004. Other than 78 big league ABs (3 HR, 9 RBI, .167) and parts of two seasons with the Seibu Lions in Japan, the past 13 seasons have been AAA time for Zinter. Outside of his brief big league career, Zinter has played 2193 games with 7063 ABs, 1785 hits, a .253 average, 312 HR and 1161 RBI. He also has 1938 strikeouts and 1038 walks.

In contrast to Zinter, Jose Offerman spent 15 seasons racking up 1551 hits and a .273 average with eight major league teams. So what's a two-time All-Star doing in AAA at age 37?

Offerman played first base for the Tidewater Tides in 2006. The switch-hitter's .238 average in 344 at-bats wasn't the kind of performance that would lead to a spot on the Mets roster.

As a key cog (7-2 with a 2.45 ERA in 78 innings) in the bullpen of the 2002 world champion Angels, Ben Weber has been on top of the baseball world. Who can blame a 36-year old with recurring arm injuries for trying to recapture the magic?

The righty spent 2006 as a long reliever with AAA Syracuse (1-1, 4.33 ERA in 28 games) and the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League (0-1, 8.53 in 12.2 IP). Weber spent 1997 and 1998 pitching in Taiwan, so he's no stranger to doing whatever it takes to stay in the game.

Pedro Swann played for three teams in 2006. The veteran outfielder saw action with Tabasco of the Mexican League (.296 in 54 ABs) and Reading of the Class AA Eastern League (a .365 average with 4 HR and 25 RBI in 96 ABs) before returning to the familiar confines of the International League, where he hit .282 in 117 at-bats for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons.

The 35-year old Delaware native has spent at least part of every season but one since 1995 in the IL. Swann has 28 big league ABs and four hits (.143, one HR) to show for his 25 games played with the Braves, Blue Jays and Orioles. His minor league resume includes 1748 hits in 6059 ABs for a .288 lifetime average.

Catchers - even weak-hitting ones - are always in demand, and a trio of well-traveled backstops kept their playing careers alive in AAA during 2006.

Ken Huckaby parlayed a .219 batting average at Pawtucket into some time on the Red Sox roster. Used mostly as a defensive replacement, the 35-year old appeared in eight games for the Bosox. It took the former Dodger farmhand a decade to reach the majors, as he debuted with the Diamondbacks in 2001. Huckaby will enter 2007 with a .222 career average in 428 big league ABs.

Veteran backup catcher Tim Laker hit just .207 with no home runs in 188 ABs for Buffalo, but he still had the opportunity to play four games with the Indians. Laker came through with a .308 (4-for-13) performance for Cleveland.

The 36-year old Laker is an expert when it comes to packing his bags. He has appeared in the majors over parts of 12 seasons since 1992, usually as a mid-season recall. During that time, he spent just two full years (1995 and 2003) as a big leaguer. Laker has appeared in 281 major league box scores during the past 15 seasons, with career totals of 11 HR, 79 RBI and a .226 average.

Alberto Castillo did something unusual during his 20th year in professional baseball. He spent the entire season with one team.

The 36-year old Dominican caught 88 games for the New Orleans Zephyrs, hitting .268 with 0 HR and 30 RBI. Castillo has a decent major league resume, as he has appeared with seven teams over 11 different seasons. The light hitter (.222 lifetime in 995 ABs) spent most of the year in AAA during eight of his big league campaigns.

Left-handed pitchers are the kings of second chances, and a trio of mid-30s journeymen saw action in AAA during the 2006 campaign.

After posting an 0-6 record with a hellish 6.66 ERA at Omaha, 35-year old Donovan Osborne bounced back with a 2-1 record and 2.64 ERA in 47.2 innings pitched for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League.

The former Cardinals starter (49-46 lifetime in the majors) should get a chance to continue his career in 2007, as southpaws with at least a pulse are always in demand.

Chris Michalak was 9-5 with a 2.99 ERA and just 28 walks in 132.1 IP for the Louisville Bats. That was good enough to earn him a late season promotion to the Reds. In his first big league action since 2002, the 35-year old Notre Dame alumnus went 2-4 with a 4.89 ERA for Cincinnati.

Vic Darensbourg appeared to turn his mediocre career around in 2005. The 5'8" reliever gave up a single earned run in 30.1 IP (0.29 ERA) at Toledo. That earned him a promotion to the Tigers, where Darensbourg went 1-1 with a fine 2.82 ERA in 22.1 innings.

2006 wasn't as successful for the 35-year old, as Darensbourg was 1-5 with a 3.92 ERA in 41.1 IP for Buffalo. The former Marlins hurler has appeared in 309 big league games with an 8-17 career record and 4.96 ERA.

Playing in AAA and being a phone call away from potential glory and major league wages is one thing, but what about older players in independent minor leagues? Aside from a love of poverty and/or masochism, what drives them to keep going? Baseball Analysts will take a look at the graybeards of the bus leagues in our next segment.


Trenidad Hubbard and Scott McLain are two other good ones.

Hubbard was in AAA in 2005 at age 39 and played in the Mexican winter league, but he didn't play in the U.S. in 2006. I looked for information on players in Taiwan and Korea, but couldn't find anything in English.

I heard about this 48-year-old named Julio Franco. I think he's playing for some NY-Metropolitan area team, but I'm not sure.

How much do they make in AAA?

One of my favorite bits of trivia is that a few years back Curtis Pride was in the Atlantic League playing for the Nashua Pride. That's a tough trick to pull off.

Many baseball fans have dreamed, at one time or another in our lives, of being able to play baseball for a living, or at least have one chance to play in a major league game. All of these players you mentioned have had that chance-- and still want more. Perhaps it's just a love for playing a game. Perhaps it's a chance to get additional service time for the pension plan. Whatever it is, it's nice to see these players' tenacity and dedication. I can see where it could be looked upon as sad, too. I choose not to see it that way.

You find something you love to do, then try to do it for the rest of your life. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all find something like this?

Im with you Ralph.
"Aside from a love of poverty and/or masochism, what drives them to keep going?"
How fun would that be? Miserable bus trips playing for crowds of 1000 sounds like a great way to spend 25 years to me, and Im not joking.

Julio Franco:
I was watching a Mets game earlier this year in which Julio was on first when the comparative spring chicken 36 year old Jose Valentin came to the plate and hit a ball in the gap. The old man got on his horse and scored from first base.
That was easily one of my favorite moments from the whole 2006 season.

I never played in the major leagues but spent nine years in the minors and independents. I was never on scholarship but graduated from a great liberal arts school in the south and have a pretty decent job now. Not great, but manageable and the money is good.

And every single day when I get up in the morning to go for a run or jog I wish I was getting on a bus for a nine hour ride to play in Nashua or Huntsville or Jackson or Peoria. Sad but true.

Andy, you're making me jealous. Those must be some of the best memories you have, and the rest of us can only imagine. I've always thought that if I'd had the chance to play pro at any level, I'd _still_ be doing it, no matter where I had to go.

Andy, you sound like someone who would make an excellent minor league manager or coach at the high school, college or professional level. Have you tried to get back into the game? Many of us would gladly take nine years of low wages to play in the minors.