It's said that a baseball player's professional career is much like a normal human lifespan, only crammed into 15-20 years (if he's lucky enough to have a career that long). Well, baseball fans feel the sting of that accelerated lifespan, too. Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox's 45-year-old pitcher, has officially retired. Barring any unlikely comebacks, on Opening Day I will be older than every active major league player. And with the demise of Wakefield's career comes the death of my own long-cherished, lovingly nurtured dreams of taking my non-existent baseball skills and latching on somewhere as a crafty knuckleball pitcher -- like Wakefield himself, only without the talent and perseverance.
Actually, baseball fans have our own separate set of milestones and rites of passage apart from the standard birth-graduation-marriage-children-retirement-meeting the Grim Reaper procession. Our "birth," if we're lucky enough, comes in childhood, when we're bitten by the baseball bug. I guess it's something like being born again for Christians, except that we get baptized by the first beer spilled on us at the holy cathedral that is the ballpark. A little stickier than holy water, but no less sacred, in its own way.
The birth of fandom is the only angst-free milestone a fan will ever face. Each successive stage is accompanied by an emotional and intellectual slap in the face that leaves the fan with an increased sense of mortality and the taste of childhood fantasies gone sour. There's that first time you're watching a ballgame and you realize that someone on the field is younger than you are. That's right -- while you were goofing around with your buddies, cutting class and smoking those funny cigarettes without any writing on them, the guy on the field was busy shagging flies, taking BP, lifting weights, running sprints, and generally doing what it takes to be one of the few human beings in the history of the world lucky enough to call himself a major league baseball player. You feel regret. A slight sense of panic. And a new sense of urgency to soften up your mitt with a little neats-foot oil.
Then there's the retirement of the last player who was active in the big leagues before you were born. For me, it was Nolan Ryan, who pitched his first MLB game three years before my birth and, astoundingly enough, was still at it into my 25th year on the planet.
Soon enough, your contemporaries start dropping off the major league radar. As a Yankees fan, I remember watching the decline of Bernie Williams in the early '00s and thinking, "It can't be his age. After all, he's only a year older than I... uh oh." Jorge Posada looked old out there the last couple of years, and he's two years younger than I am. Derek Jeter, half a decade my junior, is now locked in a ferocious battle against Father Time, and at least for now, he's winning, with a tremendous second half last year. Still, wasn't it just about 15 minutes ago that he was a 21-year-old rookie?
Now that Wakefield's gone, the oldest player in the majors with a guaranteed contract is the seemingly-ageless Mariano Rivera, who's four months my junior. Armchair athletes of my age now have to look to the record books for solace. Hall Of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm's 1972 season, when he pitched in 16 games for the Dodgers at the age of 49. Julio Franco hitting a home run for the Mets at 48. Minnie Minoso and Nick Altrock making appearances on a major league field in their 50s.
More recently, Jamie Moyer, who won his first game during the Reagan administration, was still a reasonably effective pitcher as late as 2010, when he was 47. This despite having a fastball with so little velocity that it sometimes appeared to be going backward. And Omar Vizquel, never an offensive juggernaut even in his prime, managed to hang on last year at age 44, thanks to his skills in the field. Both Moyer and Vizquel are looking to return to the bigs this year, but while one should never say never, it seems safe to say "probably never."
It's slightly depressing to know that this year I'll be following a sport that's entirely populated by people who are younger than I am, but I suppose it could be worse -- I could be a fan of college sports, where the players are generally less than half my age. I should also take some solace in the fact that, by all standards apart from those of professional athletes, I'm theoretically in the prime of my life. I'm in good health, I'm physically active (meaning I'm able to pick up my daughter without throwing my back out and have a martini without being hung over the next day), I even have a full head of hair, even though much of it is gray. But Tim Wakefield has made it clear that, by the standards of Major League Baseball, I might as well be dead. Or a coach.