- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2005

Faced with his own milestone birthday recently, the Fool had to admire the career achievements of aging baseball stars Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux this month.

All have passed the age when a player starts to slow or stumble, yet they continue to produce legitimate numbers. To put it in perspective, it’s not likely any of those three players, who are old enough to have fathered some fantasy baseball players who “own” them, are on the free agent wire in your league.

In fact, a number of players on the “Senior Circuit” are having superb seasons, the kind around which you can build a fantasy baseball team. Realistically, you could field a team of all old-timers — for our purposes, players 36 and older — and compete for a fantasy title.

The Fool has assembled this fogy fantasy team for your amusement and research purposes. It’s not likely you could get each name on this list for a team in a competitive fantasy league, but you might be able to persuade other owners to rid themselves of one or two of these aging wonders. If you play your cards right, you could end up with a steal (if not more stolen bases) and a league championship.

Catcher: Mike Piazza, 36. He shows more wear and tear than any player on the Fantasy Fool’s Fogies, but Piazza remains one of the better hitting catchers in the league. He fell to sixth in the Mets’ batting order last week and responded by going on a tear with two three-RBI games. His batting average will never get near .300 again, but catchers who have pop to go with a .260 average always have a home in fantasy baseball. Book him for 20 homers, which may lead all catchers no matter how many birthday parties they’ve had.

First base: Rafael Palmeiro, 40. Raffy seemed to heat up as he approached 3,000 hits, and the Orioles slugger hasn’t slowed down. In fact, he is on pace to have a better season than last year, when he was a spry 39-year-old. Players such as “Big Papi” David Ortiz and Albert Pujols probably went in the first round of your league’s draft; if you waited and picked up old hand Palmeiro instead, you’re certainly missing some numbers across the board, but your team isn’t suffering.

Second base: Jeff Kent, 37, and Craig Biggio, 39. Yes, the Fool is already waffling, but you try picking between these two relics. The only true differences: Kent’s batting average is considerably higher than Biggio’s, which has hovered around .280 for most of the season. But Biggio likely will steal five or six times as many bases as Kent, who had nabbed just four heading into the weekend. Even more impressive for these old-timers, their numbers compare favorably to the perennial pick as best fantasy second baseman, Alfonso Soriano, and this year’s surprise, Baltimore’s Brian Roberts. If you were to make the Fool pick just one for this club, though, he’d probably go with Biggio because stolen bases are hard to come by after 35.

Third base: Vinny Castilla, 38. This is where it gets ugly. If you were a real manager of this veteran squad, you’d have pulled Kent and Castilla aside and told Kent to play third while Vinny found himself a spot on the bench. But just like Nationals manager Frank Robinson has remained loyal to Vinny, the Fool must keep the faith and do the same with his self-imposed rules. So Vinny will drag down our average while putting up his worst power numbers in a full season since 1993, his rookie season in Colorado.

Shortstop: Omar Vizquel, 38. Another weak position on the Fool’s field of fogies, but not as poor as you may think. Shortstop has become a young gun’s position, so there are few options as old as Vizquel. But it would have been hard to imagine this Gold Glover producing like this at this stage of his career. Vizquel has his best batting average this century (.293 entering the weekend) and is well ahead of pace for his highest stolen base total since 1999. Considering it also is his first year in the National League after 16 in the American, we’ll take what we can get from Vizquel.

Outfield: Moises Alou, 39, Gary Sheffield, 36, Luis Gonzalez, 37. This trio has aged like cheese — they’ve gotten better throughout the years, if a tad more brittle. None will play a full season this year, though Alou, one of the top 10 batters in the league this year (.329 heading into the weekend) has become more of an everyday fixture over the last few years. That batting average alone — without Barry Bonds in the Giants lineup — was enough to land him a spot on our team. Sheffield just became eligible for our squad this year, his 18th in the bigs, and he’s providing his typical Triple Crown production: 21 homers, 80 RBI and a .302 average. He won’t score as many runs as he has in the previous two seasons unless the Yankees go on a tear, but he’s still the best run-producer among our old-timers. Despite a recent slump — and thanks partly to a severe injury to brittle Cardinals outfielder Reggie Sanders, who at age 37 has 18 homers for one of the best teams in baseball — Gonzalez is batting .281 and is a vital cog in the Diamondbacks lineup. His 13 homers are a bit low, even if you forget his 2001 season, when he hit 57. But considering he hit only one ball out of the yard in July, the Fool feels he’ll come around in time for the stretch run.

Starting pitchers: Roger Clemens, 42; John Smoltz, 38; Randy Johnson, 41; Kenny Rogers, 40. Clemens has just nine wins but has been one of baseball’s best pitchers. He still can outpitch kids half his age and would be a stud on any fantasy staff. Smoltz has returned to the Braves rotation and become one of fantasy baseball’s most reliable starters after three years as one of its best closers. His strikeout numbers are still good, too, with 114 in 1541/3 innings. That’s nowhere near as many as Johnson, who still is fanning nearly one an inning (142 in 148 innings). His ERA has ballooned to 3.95, but we have Clemens and, believe it or not, Rogers to help balance that out. Rogers has been as cruel to American League batters as he has been to cameramen, sporting a 2.77 ERA — second in the AL only to Roy Halladay, some 11 years his junior. We’ll keep an eye on Kenny, make him behave and just pay him to pitch — that seems to be the one thing he can’t mess up this year.

Relievers: Trevor Hoffman, 37, and Jose Mesa, 39. Hoffman once again is Mr. Reliable, his 27 saves ranking fourth in the majors. He got touched up a bit earlier this season but has settled down, striking out 34 batters in 35 innings while getting his ERA down to 3.09. Some might shudder to include Mesa in the same group as Hoffman, but the numbers don’t lie; Mesa’s 25 saves in 28 opportunities make him one of the National League’s best firemen. Mesa doesn’t have a good strikeout rate, and his ERA (3.92 going into the weekend) won’t make you smile, but from a 39-year-old vagabond on a miserable team, what more could you ask for? Hopefully, you took the Fool’s preseason advice and sneaked him on to your team late in your draft, for his saves should always come cheap.

So that’s how the Fantasy Fool’s Fogies would look. You have to be impressed with the numbers they’ve produced at an average age of 38.4. The Fogies would have trouble keeping up in a few categories, such as stolen bases and batting average, but the pitching appears solid — as long as the cameras stay a safe distance away.

Can these grizzled vets keep it up in August and September? If not, we may have to expand that age group next season.

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