Age is but a number

One of the things that makes baseball different from the other three ‘major’ sports, is the fact that many players are able to enjoy much longer careers. Sure, a player — most often a pitcher — may have to undergo an operation or two, but many continue to have success for several more years. Roger Clemens, of course, is proof of that. At 44, the former Blue Jay right-hander made his first minor league start last night in preparation for returning for his 24th big league season — this time with the New York Yankees. Meanwhile, Jamie Moyer, the left-hander who started against the Blue Jays on Saturday night, is also 44 years of age.

So who is the oldest player on Toronto’s current roster? That honour goes to 39-year-old Canadian Matt Stairs, who beats out Frank Thomas by exactly three months (Thomas will turn 39 next Sunday). At 39 years, two months and 22 days old, Stairs ranks as the ninth-oldest player to don a Blue Jay uniform in team history. However, he will soon move up to eighth, passing Tony Fernandez, who, in his fourth and final stint with Toronto, played his final game at the age of 39 years, three months and seven days. How far up the list will Stairs climb? Well, it’s safe to say he won’t assume the No. 1 spot. That distinction belongs to knuckleballer Phil Niekro, who the Jays acquired in August of 1987 at the tender age of 48. He made his final appearance for Toronto just three weeks later at the official age of 48 years, four months and 28 days. To put things into perspective, Nelson Liriano, who hit leadoff and played second base for the Blue Jays in Niekro’s final start, hadn’t even been born yet when the knuckleballer made his major league debut on April 15, 1964.

Dave Stieb is a distant No. 2 on the list, at 41 years, two months and three days. Though No. 3 all-time, Dave Winfield is easily the most valuable ‘old man’ in Blue Jay history. In his final game in a Toronto uniform, which coincided with him delivering the hit that won the Jays their first World Series, Winfield was 41 years and 21 days old.

What about the other end of the spectrum? Well, Jesse Litsch, who enjoyed aLitsch spectacular major-league debut last week, is currently the youngest Blue Jay at 22 years, two months and 10 days of age. Litsch doesn’t hold a candle to Brian Milner though, who at 18 years, seven months and six days old, became the youngest player in Toronto franchise history. Milner, a catcher, was selected by the Blue Jays in the seventh round of the 1978 draft (held on June 6). In an unprecedented move, the Jays called Milner up immediately, and the 18-year-old made his debut on June 23, going 1-for-4 in an 8-3 loss to the Texas Rangers. Three days later he made his first start and enjoyed a big game, going 3-for-5 with a triple, a pair of RBIs and three runs scored during Toronto’s famous 24-10 rout of the Baltimore Orioles.

Despite his quick success (4-for-9 in two games) though, Milner was sent to Rookie-level Medicine Hat, where he batted .307 in 51 games, but also tore his stomach lining diving for a ball before the end of the ’78 campaign. This would be a sign of things to come, unfortunately, as Milner would endure several injuries over the next few seasons, including bone chips in his elbow, a hernia, and shoulder and knee ailments. Finally, after batting just .138 in 37 games at Double-A in 1982, Milner was released by the Blue Jays and never returned to the majors.

To this day, Brian Milner remains the only catcher to ever go straight from the draft to the Major Leagues.

The old man enjoys a big night at the plate, going 3-for-5 with an eighth-inning grand slam — the 10th of his career — to help lead Toronto to a 13-2 victory over the Phils. Though he’s had just 60 at-bats this season, Stairs now leads the team with a .317 average … The Toronto bullpen works 3.0 innings without allowing a run, a positive sign, indeed … Frank Thomas does not appear in Saturday night’s contest, leaving Aaron Hill as the only Jay to have played in all 42 games this season … Toronto turns to its youth tomorrow, as Litsch makes his second career start …


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