SURPRISE, Ariz. >> Adrian Beltre is long past going to spring training trying to make the team. The five-time Gold Glove third baseman with more than 3,000 career hits is quite a rarity.
Going into his 21st big-league season, Beltre is one of only two current players who have played at least 20 MLB seasons.
The other is his new teammate with the Texas Rangers, 44-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon.
“One, they’re extremely durable,” San Diego Padres pitcher Clayton Richard said. “And two, they have to be super talented, because to have that long of a career, you have to start really early and that means from an early age you’re talented enough to play with the best people in the world. So to combine those two things and play that long is one of the most impressive things in professional athletics.”
Of the 19,183 players listed by baseballreference.com as appearing in a big league game, only 156 have played at least 20 seasons . That is about one-thousandth of 1 percent of all players.
Carlos Beltran, like Beltre and Colon, played his 20th season last year. But the 40-year-old outfielder retired after finally being part of a World Series title with the Houston Astros.
Beltran was the 13th player since 2010 to end his career after playing that long, with Beltre and Colon the only others that could before 2020. It will be the fewest 20-year players finishing their careers during a decade since Hall of Fame members Hank Aaron , Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays and Al Kaline were among nine who made their final appearances in the 1970s.
“Well, 20 years is a long time. I think that you know the levels of conditioning and the demands of performance year in and year out just may take a greater toll now than they did in the past,” New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. “When you’re talking about position players, you’re almost exclusively talking about the American League because of the ability to DH. As far as pitchers are concerned, pitchers have a short professional life span anyway. Guys like Bartolo are unique.”
Nolan Ryan pitched a record 27 seasons before retiring in 1993, nearly a century after Cap Anson was the only other to play 27 big-league seasons (1871-97). Tommy John pitched 26 seasons from 1963-89, missing all of 1975 after being the first to have ulnar ligament reconstruction in his elbow, the surgery that now bears his name.
The workhorse pitchers were among 44 two-decade players whose final games were in the 1980s or 1990s — 22 in each of those decades. Rickey Henderson, the only modern-era position player to go 25 seasons , was one of 27 players who ended careers of at least 20 seasons in the decade that started the 2000s.
“I can’t even fathom playing for 20 years. I feel like I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career to stay relatively healthy,” said Chase Headley, the 33-year-old Padres infielder going into his 12th season. “But I know that it’s a challenge now to get ready to play every day, and for somebody to do it twice as long as I have, it blows my mind. I don’t really understand or comprehend how you could do it.”
There is the constant mental and physical grind of 162-game regular seasons, after six weeks of spring training and before any potential postseason play.
“I don’t think there’s a lack of desire by players,” said Trevor Hoffman, a reliever who had 601 career saves over 18 seasons and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. “I think that for the most part, most guys want that jersey ripped of them.”
Hoffman pitched his last game only two weeks before his 43rd birthday.
Ichiro Suzuki, the 2001 AL Rookie of the Year and MVP who won a pair of AL batting titles with Seattle, is back with the Mariners on a one-year contract. This will be the 44-year-old outfielder’s 18th MLB season after playing nine seasons in Japan.
“I think everybody’s goal is to play like that, but just the nature of it is most people kind of, you start fading off, or injuries or something like that stops you, or lack of performance,” said Kyle Seager, the 30-year-old Seattle third baseman going into his eighth season.
Players are also making more money now. The average salary is over $4 million a season, more than double what it was in 2000.
Ryan, the strikeout king who also threw seven no-hitters, became the first player with a $1 million annual salary after signing a $4.5 million, four-year contract with the Astros as a free agent after the 1979 season.
Over his entire career, Ryan made just more than $25 million in salary. About a dozen players will make that much just this season.
Beltre, who made his MLB debut at age 19 with the Dodgers in June 1998, will turn 39 just 10 days into this season. After last year becoming only the 31st member of the 3,000-hit club , Suzuki was the 30th, Beltre’s primary goal now is to finally win a World Series.
“It’s a different challenge every year,” said Beltre, whose only World Series appearance came in 2011, his first season in Texas. “But it’s the same excitement.”
Colon went to spring training on a minor league deal with the Rangers, his 11th big league organization. The portly pitcher who turns 45 on May 24 said his motivation is that he still likes being around the game and has always wanted to play a long time.
With 240 career wins, Colon is also only three shy of matching Juan Marichal for the most by a Dominican-born pitcher.
“I don’t throw hard anymore, but the thing that’s very important as a pitcher is throw strikes,” Colon said through a translator. “I’m a strike thrower. The one thing I do different than before is I put the ball wherever I want.”
As a rookie with the White Sox in 2009, Richard was a teammate of Colon’s for part of that season.
“I thought he was finishing up,” Richard said with a smile. “I thought he was about done, and he was gone for a couple of years and came back and essentially created another career for himself.”