They always say, if you're lefthanded and you're breathing, you can pitch forever," Darren Oliver was saying a couple of weeks ago. This, Oliver knows from experience. His first 12 years in the major leagues amounted to what appeared to be a continual attempt by Oliver to kill his own career. Between 1993 and 2004 he pitched in 306 games, starting 228 of them, for six teams, and had an ERA of 5.07. He was sure he'd done the deed in 2005, when at age 34 he had a 9.38 ERA in Triple A, was cut by three organizations by May and failed to make a major league appearance.
The winter meetings that December happened to be in Dallas, where Oliver lives, and his agent suggested a beer. Oliver found himself sitting with two Mets executives, who were less concerned with Oliver's résumé than with the hand with which he raised his glass. If New York was to invite him to spring training on a nonroster basis, they asked Oliver, would he come? He would.
And thus Oliver began his second baseball life, switching full-time to the bullpen. Over the next five seasons he was 20--6 with a 3.07 ERA and made the playoffs five times—once with the Mets, thrice with the Angels and last year with the Rangers. At age 40, he is in the second season of a two-year, $6.25 million contract he signed in December 2009 with Texas.
Still, Oliver is neither the oldest nor the most highly compensated lefthanded reliever on his own club. Those honors belong to Arthur Rhodes, whom the Rangers signed as a free agent in December. Rhodes is making $3.9 million to pitch his 20th major league season, for his eighth franchise. He is, at 41, the fourth-most senior player in the majors. (Oliver ranks ninth.) "I am not saying A. Rhodes is old," observed the noted Twitter wit who goes by the handle Old Hoss Radbourn in mid-April, "but he did once strike out Nebuchadnezzar back in the Nineveh League."
Rhodes knows not of Radbourn's cheek. Social networking does not rank among his interests. "I don't do the Twitter, I don't do no Facebook, I don't do none of that crap," he says. "I don't have time to be on the computer and chat with people." Also not among Rhodes's interests: his own statistics. Last year, when he was with the Reds and a first-time All-Star, he struck out 26 lefthanded batters while walking just one; only two pitchers in history had ever had seasons in which they struck out more lefties while walking one or none. That information came as news to him.
The extent of Rhodes's pastimes can be neatly summarized: "Going out there and throwing strikes and getting guys out," he says. Oliver's and Rhodes's continuing ability to do those things led Jon Daniels, the Rangers' 33-year-old general manager, to sign them to lucrative free-agent deals in consecutive winters, not any particular fetish for aging lefthanded setup men who happen to be African-American, of whom there are currently two. "We're going to see if Chuck McElroy and Ray King are available," jokes Daniels, referring to two other (retired) longtime African-American southpaws. "It was really an individual thing with Ollie and Arthur. They were two guys we targeted because we felt they were winning pieces in the bullpen."
Among lefthanded full-time setup men who pitched more than 50 innings last season, Rhodes—buoyed by a 33-appearance streak from April to June in which he allowed no runs—ranked third in ERA (2.29). Oliver was fifth, at 2.48. Both still possess fastballs that average around 89 miles per hour and sliders they throw roughly a quarter of the time, both of which they throw for strikes. Rhodes walked 18 of the 217 batters he faced last season, Oliver just 15 of his 244.
At last count Rhodes has pitched to 970 different major league hitters, Abbott to Zupcic. One of his most frequent adversaries has been Twins slugger Jim Thome, who debuted two weeks after Rhodes in 1991, and who is now, along with Rhodes and Oliver, one of baseball's 11 players over 40. "The Dinosaur Club, we call it," says Thome. "We've had some great battles, even since Double A. I don't think I've gotten many hits."
In 26 career plate appearances against Rhodes, Thome has one single, one double and two walks. "He's a guy I respect, an old-school guy. Darren Oliver, same thing," says Thome. "They have gotten lefthanders out, or they wouldn't be here."
Neither one, it should be noted, struggles against righthanded batters either. Since 2006 Oliver has held righties to a .241 average. Rhodes, in his 20 seasons, has held them to .243. But it's their work against lefthanded hitters that has kept them in the game and highly valued. (Of the Dinosaur Club's members, only Mariano Rivera earns more than they do.) Over the past six seasons lefties have hit .238 against Oliver. During his career lefties have hit .214 against Rhodes.