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40's just a round number

2/19/2010

Among the many things the Yankees don't need to worry about? Their 40-year-old closer, and he doesn't seem to be worried, either:

    New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has no concerns about entering the final season of his contract at age 40.

    Rivera doesn't know how many more years he wants to pitch in Major League Baseball but says, "I still think I can perform."

    "Take it a year at a time and see what happens," Rivera said before the Yankees' first workout for pitchers and catchers on Thursday. "See how things go, how things develop and go from there."

    Rivera went 3-3 with 44 saves in 66 games last season, helping the Yankees win their first World Series since 2000. He turned 40 on Nov. 29.

    "How old do I feel? I feel 40," a smiling Rivera said. "I think that age will not be a factor unless you put in your mind. 'Oh, I'm 40. I feel strong. I'm ready to go. I want to play the game I love to play."

The list of 40-year-old relief aces is small, but not quite as small as you might think.

You know about Trevor Hoffman, Doug Jones, and Dennis Eckersley. And there's also Hoyt Wilhelm, a knuckleballer who pitched brilliantly into his middle 40s. But there's also Don McMahon (Giants, 1970), Ellis Kinder (Red Sox, 1955), Woodie Fryman (Expos, 1980) ... a few others, but those are the post-World War II highlights.

Anyway, there's nothing magical about turning 40 (trust me). It's almost exactly like 39, and at 39 Rivera saved 44 games and posted the fifth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in his brilliant career. There is one slim reason for concern: Rivera's fastball/cutter speed, after holding steady at 93 for many years, dropped a tad last season.

It's probably nothing to worry about in 2010. Whatever Rivera's pitches might lack in sheer speed, they'll make up for with control. Maybe not when he's 42 or 43. There's never really been a good (let alone great) 43-year-old reliever who didn't throw a knuckleball or a spitball.*

* Well, with the possible exception of rookie (!) Diomedes Olivo.

Now, though? 40 is just a number, notable mostly for its roundness.