10 Degrees: Time takes toll on aging players

“A person is startled when he hears himself seriously called an old man for the first time.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Athletes age differently than the rest of us. From the time they start playing competitive sports, all develop a common enemy: defeat. It is wired into their brains as unacceptable, and so the idea of bowing to something as nebulous as growing old almost never registers. It’s just a matter of another day, another week, another month – always just a little more time.

In asking out of the New York Yankees’ lineup Saturday night, Jorge Posada(notes) – five-time All-Star and Silver Slugger, one quarter of the Core Four and, in baseball years, an old man – wanted more time to avoid the indignity of batting ninth, where his manager, Joe Girardi, had slotted him. So what if Posada was turning 40 in three months? Who cares that he couldn’t lift his batting average over .175? He was close to figuring it out. He had to be.

Jorge Posada took batting practice Sunday, but was not in the starting lineup against Boston.
(AP)

This was too much for Posada to take. Already Girardi had removed his catching duties. Posada did not take kindly to that. He oiled up his catcher’s mitt this spring ready to use it. Never happened. Forget that Posada’s wet-noodle arm and propensity to let pitches get away made him a liability. In the funhouse mirror of baseball, where old is young and productivity is just another day away, he still deserved that job. He’d get better. He really would.

Here’s the stark truth about aging in sports: With very few exceptions, once you lose it, it’s gone. Maybe Posada is close and will get better and is the lucky one. Remember, for every David Ortiz(notes), who took a defibrillator to his career last year amid speculation that he was cooked, there are 100 players whose fight against Mother Nature ends with a lopsided knockout.

Posada played good soldier Sunday and apologized to Girardi and planned on apologizing to general manager Brian Cashman, whose bluntness regarding older players gets more and more redolent of George Steinbrenner. Once this run of left-handed starters ends, Posada should find himself back in the lineup at designated hitter.

Hitting seventh? Eighth? Ninth? It’s almost all the same. Lineup construction matters so little to actual run-scoring. Any beef with the batting order comes straight from that tiny area of the consciousness that looms so large in matters like these.

Ego drives everything in sports – the contract squabbles, the on-field jawing, the inability to recognize one’s professional mortality. Posada isn’t the only one aging gracelessly. With the decrease in steroid use, realistic post-prime performances returned to the game, and the days of 40-somethings looking and playing like someone half their age disappeared almost overnight.

Those who try to stretch their careers can do so because previous success keeps alive that sliver of hope. And it’s why the Yankees didn’t out-and-out cut …

1. Jorge Posada after the mess that was Saturday. Well, that, and the $10 million they owe him for the rest of the season, and the respect they maintain in spite of Posada’s occasional foray into divahood.

For an operation as wonderfully streamlined and eminently businesslike as the New York Yankees’, the Posada hubbub amounted to a rare failure in corporate governance. And it proved that no matter how strong the brand and how smart the management – both exceedingly so with the Yankees – the ability to stay on message goes only as far as the individuals that comprise the business are willing.

Posada, unhappy at Cashman’s comments during the game, sneered on Saturday, “That’s the way he works now.” Of course, in the meantime, his wife had taken to Twitter and concocted an excuse for his self-benching – “back stiffness” – that proved overstated. Little did Posada realize the moment he asked for the day off, he lost the P.R. war. He got called out very much in the same fashion …

2. Derek Jeter(notes) did during his contract negotiations with the Yankees this offseason. Cashman challenged him to get a better deal than the Yankees were offering. It was bold, brilliant and, most of all, ballsy. And its success – Jeter, 36, wound up back with the Yankees mostly on their terms – emboldened Cashman again Sunday.

Jeter, meanwhile, has reverted to his usual self since his two home run game last Sunday. He went 5 for 27 with no extra-base hits and one walk this week. Of his 22 outs, 13 came on the ground. Four went to second base; 4-3ter lives.

And yet because shortstop has devolved into a position of relative offensive ineptitude, Jeter’s struggles do not put him in any danger of losing his starting spot. In order for that to happen, a shortstop needs to be indescribably bad. In other words …

Miguel Tejada.
(AP)

3. He needs to be Miguel Tejada(notes). The mere idea of Tejada playing shortstop for defending champion San Francisco reinforces that Giants general manager Brian Sabean likes two things to be old: his wine and his everyday players.

To call Tejada – now at third base in lieu of Pablo Sandoval(notes) – the worst offensive player in baseball this year necessitates no exaggeration. He is the human sad trombone. He hits for zero power and doesn’t get on base. He clogs them when he does get on. Tejada turns 37 next week, and he looks every one of those years, plus a couple.

And so comes the choice: to euthanize or not to euthanize a career. It’s an issue every team with an older player must face. The Mariners did with Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) last season, the Atlanta Braves with Tom Glavine(notes) the year before, and on and on and on. Even MVPs stop playing well, and in a National League West that should remain close all year, one win can stand between the postseason and an October at home.

The internal options are slim – start Mike Fontenot(notes) and Mark DeRosa(notes) until Sandoval’s return? – so the Giants bide their time, plumb the trade market and pray for Tejada to start hitting or a solution to materialize. If only one were right there …

4. Like the Phillies have with their Raul Ibanez(notes) mess. Domonic Brown(notes) awaits at Triple-A, a sprain in his thumb delaying his return by a week. All Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. needs to do is push his Easy Button. Which, because of the history behind Ibanez coming to Philadelphia, is the antithesis of easy.

When Amaro signed Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million contract before the 2009 season, he handed out an anachronism. The multiyear deal for an aging and defensively inept player exists only for franchises that care to ignore history. At 39, Ibanez’s offense has regressed to the level of the defense it used to mask when he could still hit.

It took a hot streak to push Ibanez’s season line to .230/.288/.348. Even worse: His defense is more brutal than ever. Which takes some doing. So far this season, Ibanez’s Ultimate Zone Rating is minus-8.4, which means his fielding has cost Philadelphia more than eight runs this year. While UZR is a fickle metric with waning levels of veracity, its principle inputs judge the number of plays a fielder makes in his defensive area, and balls drop around Ibanez like he’s the pin on a putting green.

Yanking him from the lineup would amount to a concession that Amaro misjudged the deal’s length, and a bad month won’t prompt that. Especially with Ben Francisco(notes) playing just as poorly. Anyway, Ibanez can ride the misguided optimism borne of another player’s success, and …

Jim Thome.
(US Presswire)

5. Jim Thome(notes) smashing 25 home runs last year at 39 provides a template for the sanguine. Unfortunately, Thome’s 40-year-old season has gone about as poorly as last year went well. After re-signing with the Minnesota Twins for $3 million, Thome’s back and oblique started acting up and sent him to the disabled list during a forgettable April.

Thome managed just two home runs in 56 at-bats before hitting the DL. The Twins have been far and away the worst team in baseball, their latest losing streak of eight games dropping them to 12-26. Thome called manager Ron Gardenhire on Saturday to say he may return sometime this week, though this weekend’s interleague series could push his return to early next week.

Gardenhire can only hope last year’s Thome returns, because the one seen thus far would have a tough time mustering the nine home runs necessary to get him to 600. Though it’s not like he’s turned into …

6. Juan Pierre(notes) or anything. Exactly what Pierre brings to the Chicago White Sox anymore remains unclear. His offense is Tejadan and his defense Ibanezish. The one attribute Pierre retained until this year, his basestealing ability, joined his bat and glove in heaven.

Even as Pierre’s five-year, $44 million contract finally runs out, it’s not a flop like Vernon Wells’,(notes) or even a payroll squeeze, a la Chone Figgins’.(notes) Pierre is just a guy whose career could well be over at 33, whether it’s the White Sox ending it or other teams’ lack of interest going forward doing the same. The slow attrition that plagues all athletes may be …

Chris Carpenter.
(AP)

7. Taking its toll on St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter(notes). He seems younger than 36 because the early years of his career were so pocked with injuries, and even more difficult to grasp is that Carpenter is the fifth-oldest starter in the major leagues.

So the erosion in 2011 dovetails with his age. Had he allowed one more hit Sunday, Carpenter would’ve been just the sixth player in the last 10 years to yield double-digit hits in four consecutive starts. As it was, Carpenter gave up nine, along with seven earned runs, and saw his ERA balloon to 4.95.

Hitters are squaring up Carpenter’s pitches with regularity, and it’s amazing that with the Cardinals’ best pitcher (Adam Wainwright(notes)) out after Tommy John surgery, their highest-achieving (Carpenter) a disappointment and their innings-eating stalwart (Jake Westbrook(notes)) busy consuming earned runs by the bucketful, they’re near the top of the NL Central.

The lesson: One pitcher does not ruin a team, something …

8. Javier Vazquez(notes) can attest to on multiple occasions. Vazquez’s spot in the Florida Marlins’ rotation isn’t hanging by a thread so much as some invisible-to-the-eye molecular structure that approximates the smallest thing in the world.

Florida shelled out $7 million for Vazquez this offseason in hopes that the velocity he lost last year with the Yankees would return. It didn’t. His fastball parked around 88, his ERA parked at 7.55 after another abysmal start Sunday, and Vazquez’s return to the NL has gone the typical sequel track: never as good as the first.

The next step is cutting him, and because he’s a pitcher, and because he’s 34, and because just two years ago he was so good with Atlanta, he may find another job. The pitchers’ world differs from the hitters’, where …

Hideki Matsui.
(AP)

9. Hideki Matsui(notes) could be playing his last season with the Oakland A’s, as unproductive designated hitters often don’t receive second chances on the job market. Matsui put up an .820 OPS with the Angels last season. His inability to find such success with Oakland as a 36-year-old has been acute. Overstock.com Coliseum is a wet blanket for hitters, and surely Matsui dreams of the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium

After winning World Series MVP in 2009, Matsui left the Yankees. They didn’t engage him seriously as a free agent. Cashman vowed to stray from the long-term contracts given to aging veterans because of who they were and what they’d done. Too much emotion went into those deals. Not enough pragmatism. Cashman learned his lesson when he gave …

10. Jorge Posada a four-year, $52 million extension after the 2007 season to keep him in pinstripes for the rest of his career. The Yankees won another World Series with him behind the plate. They’re also in a compromised position now, not wanting to turn into the Red Sox, a team known for unceremonious exits, but certainly not babying an underperforming player. Surely Posada doesn’t want to sulk himself into choosing between a lesser team and retirement, too.

His apology Sunday included all the right things. He called Saturday “a bad day … one of those days you wish you could take back.” Suppressed, for one more day, was the real issue.

Posada has stunk all year. He can blame some of it on luck. His .164 batting average on balls in play is by far the worst in baseball. He also can blame some of it on himself. His 11.4 percent line-drive rate is the seventh lowest. And there are plenty more numbers on the ugly ledger of Posada’s first 33 games. Enough that when he walked to the plate as a pinch hitter in the Yankees’ loss to the Red Sox – which dropped New York to a fifth straight loss and two games behind first-place Tampa Bay – no one expected much. Posada walked.

Now comes the part where he tries to escape his own head. It’s not just the physical issues of aging, the muscles that tighten as if cranked by a vise and the aches that linger for days longer than they should. It’s a battle with the brain, with knowing and feeling you belong despite your body’s revolt. The two work symbiotically, and once one turns, it’s difficult to keep the other from following.

Jorge Posada, old man, got his startle over the weekend. He can only hope just a little more time is enough.

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Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, May 16, 2011