Age may not be such a bad thing for these Phillies

The age of reason? A.J. Burnett, 37, checks in with manager Ryne Sandberg. The pitcher said joining the Phillies "was about my wife. It was about my kids."
The age of reason? A.J. Burnett, 37, checks in with manager Ryne Sandberg. The pitcher said joining the Phillies "was about my wife. It was about my kids." (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: February 18, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - "Too old," these Phillies have been told, long before they've reached the starting gate.

Why bother even showing up when you could have an opening-day lineup with seven guys who are 34 years of age or older, including two guys - Marlon Byrd and Bobby Abreu - who had to prove themselves still worthy of being in the big leagues by playing in other countries?

(Before you start sending e-mails, Abreu could be the designated hitter on opening day because the Phillies start the season on the road against the Texas Rangers.)

One ESPN writer justified ranking the Phillies 29th out of 30 teams because, well, they're old. Dave Schoenfield, who has been doing this a long time, noted that only four teams in history have had five regulars who were 34 or older get 400 plate appearances in a season.

The list, with their records afterward: the 1945 Chicago White Sox (71-78-1), 1985 California Angels (90-72), 2002 San Francisco Giants (95-65), and 2007 Giants (71-91). Based on those numbers, it would seem like the Phillies have half a chance to turn old into gold, but we won't know for a while which direction this whole thing is headed.

What we do know for sure in the infancy of this Phillies season is that growing old isn't all bad when it comes to playing the game of baseball. For proof, we offer the two guys who received the most attention Sunday following the team's workout at Bright House Field.

One was righthander A.J. Burnett, whose signing became official and who officially excited manager Ryne Sandberg.

"He's the belated Christmas present and Valentine's Day present that I've been waiting for," Sandberg said at Burnett's introductory news conference. "A little late, but I'll take it. He's a difference maker for us."

Burnett is also 37, but he was far better in his last two seasons with Pittsburgh than he had been in his previous three with the New York Yankees. Part of the reason may have been the switch back to the National League, where his career started when he was 22 with the Florida Marlins in 1999.

Maturity and wisdom that can only come with experience may have been the bigger part.

"I found out who I was again," Burnett said. "I went [to Pittsburgh] - and I'd never put myself as a [Roy] Halladay - but as far as being a mentor and player-relationship wise, that's what I became over there. I never really looked at myself as that guy, but as soon as I walked in that door, that's who I was. I had no say in the matter, and it showed me who I could have been for a long time and wasn't. And it brought out a lot of me that wasn't there [before]."

Burnett, dealt away by the Yankees for two fringe minor-league prospects two seasons ago at this time, went 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts the last two seasons with the Pirates. Last year, he helped them return to the postseason for the first time since 1992.

He had the time of his life, but when it was time to make a decision about this season, he decided to think about his wife and children and strongly considered retiring. Philadelphia's close proximity to his home in Maryland played a huge part in his decision.

The extra cash the Phillies threw his way also helped put him in the clubhouse of the team he competed against as a kid with the Marlins and beat with the Yankees in the pivotal Game 2 of the 2009 World Series.

"I'll put it very simply," Burnett said. "This was the first time in my career I made a decision that wasn't about A.J. Burnett. It was about my wife. It was about my kids. It was about playing somewhere where I'm at home and can still do what I love."

Anyone who has ever worked in a place they did not like should be able to relate to what Burnett is feeling, and happy workers are usually the best ones.

The other guy with a big smile Sunday afternoon was Abreu, who, after sitting out last season, is getting a chance to play for the Phillies again because he performed so well with his winter-league team in Caracas, Venezuela. He arrived early, words rarely written about Abreu during his first go-around here.

It was Abreu's first day back at Bright House Field since 2006, the year he was traded to the Yankees. Look at the team's career offensive leader board, and he's in the top 10 in most categories. But he left unfulfilled and pretty much unloved because the Phillies never reached the postseason during his tenure.

Still, he loved Philadelphia. So much, in fact, he never sold his home in Cherry Hill.

Abreu will turn 40 next month, and all the Phillies want him to do is provide a strong lefthanded bat with some power off the bench.

"I know age is a number that will make people think you can't perform, but everyone here knows how to play the game," Abreu said. "So you just have to go on the field and show what you can do. I know I'm not the same when I was 25, 26, but I'm still fine. I can still hit. I just love this game, and I feel that I can still play the game. Believe me, I'm going to enjoy this like you don't have any idea."

With age comes a new appreciation. With age comes wisdom. With age comes maturity.

We'll see what else age brings the Phillies this season.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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