DENVER » Jay Payton’s beard has turned gray, the only hint of his advancing age.
Otherwise, the 37-year-old veteran outfielder is still as muscular as ever, still as good a contact hitter as always.
After tearing it up all season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, Payton had his contract purchased yesterday by the Colorado Rockies.
And just like that, Payton is a major leaguer again for the first time since 2008.
"Seems like it’s been 10 years," said Payton, who hasn’t suited up in the big leagues since Sept. 27, 2008, as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. "I’m happy to be back — real happy to be back."
The team also purchased the contract of catcher Paul Phillips and recalled right-hander Edgmer Escalona, along with designating reliever Taylor Buchholz for assignment.
All three were in uniform last night against Cincinnati.
Payton has been keeping close tabs on the Rockies in recent weeks, realizing he probably would only be promoted if the squad remained in contention.
Should the team slide, an up-and-comer would more than likely get the nod.
But the Rockies’ recent surge has them in the thick of the NL wild-card chase and Payton has become a beneficiary of the success.
"Fortunately, it worked out," he said. "Nice to be back."
Payton has played 11 seasons in the majors with six different teams, but sat out last season. His best year was during his first stint with the Rockies, hitting .302 with 28 homers and 89 RBIs in 2003.
This summer, he feasted on burgeoning pitchers as he hit .323 with the Sky Sox.
Not that Payton really envisioned playing five months in the minors. He figured if he wasn’t called up early in the season, he probably wouldn’t be at all and would have to ponder his baseball future.
But he stuck with it, hoping for another shot in the majors.
"I’m not much of a quitter," Payton said, smiling.
Even an injury to his side — the result of being hit by a pitch — and a slow start in the second half of the season couldn’t derail his quest.
"I got that second wind and got re-motivated," he said. "I wanted to grind it out."
For that, Rockies manager Jim Tracy is appreciative. He even summoned Payton into his office before the game yesterday, just to chat with him.
"There is a point and time where, as a leader, you look at a guy like this and you say thank you," Tracy said. "This is a veteran guy who’s been very, very successful as a major league player. He persevered."
The players in the clubhouse quickly greeted him, slugger Jason Giambi coming over and wrapping him up in a friendly embrace.
"At the end of the day, this is what I wanted — to put a big league uniform back on," Payton said. "Yeah, I would’ve liked to have been here a little sooner, but I’m glad now I stuck it out. It was definitely well worth it."
Payton even left the door open for a possible return in 2011, something he will fully consider after the season.
"I feel good, but I also know it’s the way of the young man now," Payton said. "I’m not the young man. The last couple of years, it’s been tougher for the older guys to get gigs.
"Hopefully, somebody who watched me play down there in the Springs this year, thinks I played like I was 25 and not 37. If somebody liked what they saw, thinks I still have something left in the tank, maybe they’ll give me an opportunity."