New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera, 42, is congratulated as he returns to the dugout after pitching a scoreless fourth inning during a spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. The number of players in their 40s is shrinking, with 13 quadragenarians in the majors last year, down from an all-time high 26 in 2007. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)AP2012
Tampa, FLA. – Stretched out on the floor of the Yankees spring training clubhouse, Mariano Rivera stretched his right foot out and slowly drew it back over his left shoulder. He switched sides and then swung both legs over his head at the same time.
The 42-year Panamanian reliever - whose age now matches the number on the back of his jersey - looked more like a contortionist than the greatest reliever in baseball history. After 18,718 career pitches for the New York Yankees — plus 2,015 more in the postseason and 106 in the All-Star game — that's what it takes to get his body ready before he even starts to warm up in the bullpen.
And yet Rivera is once again a big part of the Yankees' plan for 2012.
These days, baseball's oldest stars are some of its greatest.
Their 40-somethings' hair, at least what's left of it, has started to go gray. In some cases, the chiseled torsos of youth have added a few pounds. The skin seems to have lost some of that smoothness thanks to all those days and nights in the sun and the wind and drizzle.
Rivera has hinted his 18th major league season will be his last. Atlanta's Chipper Jones, who turns 40 on April 24, confirmed he's retiring come autumn.
And they're not the only ones in their 40s still playing a young man's game, joined by Philadelphia's Jim Thome and José Contreras, Colorado's Jason Giambi, Arizona's Henry Blanco and Takashi Saito and Toronto's Darren Oliver and Omar Vizquel.
"These are guys I kind of grew up watching play baseball every day, somewhat idolized," said Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, a young gun entering his prime at 26. "It is a little bit strange to watch these guys get older and knowing that their time is coming in a couple years.'"
Vizquel, who turns 45 on April 24, will become the oldest shortstop in major league history, according to STATS LLC. Bobby Wallace of the St. Louis Cardinals was 44 years, 8 months, 22 days when he played his final game at shortstop on Aug. 26, 1918.
"You feel like playing, and there's nothing stopping you," Vizquel said. "I don't want to be sitting on the couch at home watching TV while I can still move and do what I'm able to do. I think I can still compete here at a high level, the highest level in the game."
Left-hander Jamie Moyer made Rockies' starting rotation at age 49 following a one-year layoff caused by elbow surgery. When he made his major league debut in 1986, he was opposed by Steve Carlton — who has now been in the Hall of Fame for 18 years.
"It's an opportunity, and I think it's a great opportunity to try to take it and run with it," Moyer said Friday after finding out he not only made the team but will start the second game of the season. "I've looked as my whole career as an opportunity, especially as I've gotten older."
Moyer could overtake Brooklyn's Jack Quinn (49 years, 74 days) as the oldest pitcher to win a big league game, a mark that has stood since 1932.
"I think it's a great inspiration for some of these young kids to see," said Giambi, a relatively spry 41. "If you work hard and you really love the game, this game will find a place for you."
Derek Jeter, who turns 38 in June, slumped for much of 2010 and the first half of last year before hitting .338 from July 9 on — the day he reached 3,000 hits with a home run during a memorable 5-for-5 performance.
While he's listened to Yogi for much of his career, soaking up that Yankees tradition Berra established during a Hall of Fame career, Jeter has taken to yoga in recent years in an effort to extend his days in the sun.
"When I first came up, I didn't lift much. I didn't lift much at all. I went out and played. As you get older, you have to do more working out," Jeter explained. "I always say it's easier to stay in shape than it is to get back in shape. You do more in the offseason. You've really got to work on flexibility, make sure you stretch. You've really got to take care of yourself. You've got to watch what you eat, make sure you get your rest."
He switched personal trainers about four years ago in an effort to adopt more beneficial routines.
"For where I play and what I do," the 12-time All-Star shortstop said, "I don't have to be huge, lift a lot of weights, do all those things. For me, the key is to stay flexible, stay loose — stretching, yoga, all those things."
Rejoining New York after a one-year retirement is Andy Pettitte, who turns 40 in June. And across the Yankees clubhouse is Alex Rodriguez, 37 in July and looking to rebound from an injury filled season that transformed him from an All-Star to nearly an automatic out. After hip, knee and thumb injuries during the last three seasons, he's also had to alter his workout routines.
"I think the No. 1 thing is less is more," he said. "Your body when you're 18 years old, you can pretty much lift anything, run as much as you want, it doesn't matter. You can keep going. You can keep going forever."
For a while, it seemed like players had discovered Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth.
The average age of major leaguers increased from 27 years, 52 days in 1969 to 29 years, 61 days in 2005, according to STATS. That was the highest average since 1946.
Since then, the average has dropped by more than 7½ months to 28 years, 192 days last season.
There were 13 quadragenarians — meaning 40 years plus — in the majors last year, down from an all-time high 26 in 2007, STATS found.
What explains the drop?
One possibility is 2005 coincided with the first season baseball players and owners agreed that an initial positive steroids test should result in a suspension. Then, baseball started checking for banned amphetamines in 2006.
"The game's changed," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "One thing I've learned now is, hey, back then there were steroids and amphetamines heavily involved. More so than anybody realized. That's not the case now."
These days, vets are likely to get some extra days off to compensate for the absence of the special "players' only coffee" with that extra kick. What hasn't altered among them is the desire to play and travel with "the guys." They stick around for the camaraderie and the competition — still wanting to show they have what it takes to be among the best.
Thome, back with the Philadelphia Phillies at age 41 after spending nearly all of the last six seasons in the American League, hasn't played first base since one game in 2007. He hasn't been in the field regularly since 2005.
"I will say it honestly has made me feel younger playing defense again," Thome said. "I think as guys get into the latter stages of their careers and they become DHs, it's very rare that they go back. For me, the challenge of this is, 'Can I do it?' I've always wanted to challenge myself in different parts of the game and this, hopefully, will challenge me for whatever the role is to be so I can help this club win."
Jones, starting the season on the disabled list following knee surgery, will become just the 26th player with a big league career of 19 seasons or more all spent with one team, according to STATS.
"Never in my mid-20s would I have given myself a snowball's chance to be in camp and have a job at 40 years old," the Atlanta Braves star said early in spring training. "But I like to think I've kept myself in pretty good shape over the years. The skills are still there to go out and get it done."
At spring training, fans want to get up close to the old stars, to get an autograph or just give a shout. Fans sense the players may not be around the team every day for too much longer, and they want to soak up as much of the presence as they can.
Watching players get into game shape during spring training, Reggie Jackson marveled. The Hall of Famer, now a Yankees instructor, took his last swing when he was 41.
"These guys work harder than I worked and I worked hard — I worked very hard," he said. "You just prepare for the fact that you aren't the same player that you were, and you work your butt off."
Based on reporting by Ronald Blum of The Associated Press.