Four-decade players a rare breed

Four-decade players a rare breed

When Omar Vizquel signed with the White Sox late last year, he slipped a white-on-black jersey over his shoulders and placed a matching cap atop his head. In doing so, he gained admission to an elite club.

As soon as Vizquel steps onto the field in 2010, he will become one of a select few MLB players to play in four separate decades. Vizquel was a slick-fielding rookie shortstop in 1989, a perennial Gold Glover throughout the next decade, a respected veteran at the turn of the century and now, in the final stage of his career, a future Hall of Famer in search of a ring.

"He's in unbelievable shape, wow," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said of Vizquel, just after introducing him as Chicago's new utility man. "He has always taken care of himself very well."

And so he has become a four-decade man, one of the rarer baseball breeds. Of those position players ranking in the top 100 in games played in MLB history, only seven have managed to stick in the game for at least parts of four decades. Of those pitchers ranking in the top 100 in either appearances or games started, another seven have done the trick.

A select few others have done it, as well. Ted Williams, for example, ranks 102nd in career games played due to the time he missed at war, but he did play in parts of four decades. Tim McCarver made four decades despite ranking 278th in career games played. And Minnie Minoso, who made cameo appearances in both 1976 and 1980 -- the latter at the age of 54 -- is Major League Baseball's only five-decade man.

Now, as the calendar has turned to 2010, more players are about to make it to a fourth decade.

Vizquel, Jamie Moyer and Ken Griffey Jr. are all under contract for next season, making them all but locks to join the club. Two others searching for contracts -- John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield -- are likely to do the same.

At a time when booming home runs and strings of strikeouts represent baseball's glamour, it seems good old longevity still carries some cachet.

Moyer, for one, recognizes just how rare these four-decade men are. At a time when he is scratching with his fingernails just to remain in the game, the 47-year-old Moyer is often forced to reflect upon his age. In the past, he has called the notion of being a four-decade man "cool."

And it would be cool. Playing in four decades requires talent, knowledge and desire, not to mention heaps and heaps of luck -- luck that those achy knees and sore backs hold up, and a bit of generational fortune as well. Consider that of the 14 games and appearances leaders who have done it, 12 of them began their careers in the final year of a decade, and another ended his career during the first year of a decade.

Four-decade men
Of baseball's top 100 leaders in games played (position players), appearances and starts, only 14 have played in four decades:
Name Pos. Years Games
Rickey Henderson OF 1979-2003 3,081
Eddie Collins 2B 1906-30 2,826
Bill Buckner 1B/OF 1969-90 2,517
Tim Raines OF 1979-2002 2,502
Carlton Fisk C 1969-93 2,499
Mickey Vernon 1B 1939-60 2,409
Willie McCovey 1B 1959-80 2,320
Jesse Orosco LHP 1979-2003 1,252
Jim Kaat LHP 1959-83 898
Nolan Ryan RHP 1966, '67-93 807
Jack Quinn RHP 1909-33 756
Early Wynn RHP 1939-63 691
Jerry Reuss LHP 1969-90 628
Bobo Newsom RHP 1929-53 600

The lone exception? Nolan Ryan, who played in a Major League-record 27 seasons (1966, '68-93).

Of the other 13, all but two of them played in fewer than 20 games in the first (or, in Eddie Collins' case, final) seasons of their careers. Bill Buckner, for example, had just one plate appearance in 1969. Carlton Fisk had five.

Though baseball's all-time appearances leader, Jesse Orosco, made the list, the game's all-time games played leader, Pete Rose, didn't come particularly close. Rose played in 3,562 games over 24 seasons, but had the disadvantage of beginning his career in 1963 and ending it in 1986. And so baseball's four-decade men do not necessarily double as the game's captains of longevity -- merely as its kings of the calendar.

The concept of a four-decade man is not unique to baseball, though it's close. The NBA, which places supreme value on quickness and athleticism, does not generally allow for long careers. None of its members have ever seen four separate decades on the court.

Football is known for even shorter careers. But one NFL player, Hall of Fame quarterback George Blanda, managed to extend his career to a fourth decade by playing out his final nine seasons as a kicker for the Raiders. Another, Giants punter Jeff Feagles, recently joined him on the final Sunday of this season, blasting seven punts into the history books as the 2009 regular season finished on the first Sunday of 2010 .

If former Saints kicker John Carney hooks on with a team in 2010, he will become the NFL's third four-decade man.

In hockey, elder statesmen are easier to come by. Bruins winger Mark Recchi, who has played for seven teams throughout a 21-year career, entered the four-decade club this month. Joining him were Hurricanes center Rod Brind'Amour and Stars center Mike Modano. Defenseman Mathieu Schneider was placed on waivers by the Vancouver Canucks at the end of December and reassigned to their top affiliate, but he could join the four-decade club at some point this season.

OTHER FOUR-DECADE ATHLETES
Name Pos. Years Games
NBA
N/A N/A N/A N/A
NFL
George Blanda QB/K 1949-75 340
Jeff Feagles P 1988-present 352
NHL*
Gordie Howe RW 1946-80 1,767
Mark Messier C 1978-2004 1,756
Raymond Borque D 1979-2001 1,612
Mark Recchi RW 1988-present 1,538
Rod Brind'Amour C 1989-present 1,451
Tim Horton D 1949-74 1,446
Mike Modano C 1989-present 1,436
Stan Mikita C/RW 1958-80 1,394
Rob Blake D 1989-present 1,240
George Armstrong RW 1949-71 1,187
*Among those ranking in top 100 in games played

Modano has played all 20 of his seasons with the same organization. That's a feat that none of baseball's four-decade men can match. Derek Jeter might have had a chance -- if only he were born six years earlier.

And so the turn of the decade is teaching us just how difficult it is to play Major League Baseball in parts of four decades. Take Tom Glavine, for example. The longtime Braves and Mets lefty has not officially retired, and by all accounts is willing to play. But no team has opted to give Glavine, who debuted in 1987 and did not play last season, a chance to pitch in 2010.

"I think if anybody has any common sense," Glavine said last week, "they can figure out that I'm probably not going to pitch again."

Not so certain is Sheffield, who, at 2,689 career hits, has made a point of saying that he'd like to stick around for 3,000. It's a quest that would take him into a fourth decade.

Sheffield, though, unlike Vizquel, has had trouble finding employment this offseason. Not many teams are willing to put a four-decade man on the roster, it seems, when one- and two-decade options abound.

Smoltz faces a similar predicament. After struggling through a three-month stint with the Red Sox last season but briefly rebounding with the Cardinals, Smoltz is still looking for a contract for the 2010 season. His career began with an eight-inning gem of a victory against the Mets in June 1988. He does not want it to end with two innings of relief against the Dodgers in the deciding game of last October's National League Division Series.

Smoltz, who has one World Series title to his credit, wants another. Moyer, who finally nabbed a ring in 2008, can afford to get a little greedy in his fourth decade. Then there's Griffey, who has never even been to the Series, and Vizquel, who has played in it twice but never won.

And suddenly it becomes quite clear as to just what entices these men to play professional baseball for not one, not two, not three but four decades. It seems the game's four-decade men want the same thing its rookies and hotshots do.

They want to win.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.