Baseball's roots to the 80s may be gone
In recognition of this (possibly) impending occurrence, we here at MiLB.com wanted to commemorate the quartet of uber-veterans who, by playing in 2012, provided us all with an unbroken link to a long-gone decade: Jamie Moyer, Omar Vizquel, Darren Oliver and Jim Thome (only Vizquel has officially announced his retirement, but there is a strong degree of uncertainty regarding whether the other three will play next season). Their departure from the scene is a cause for reflection -- not just on their storied careers but also regarding how much the world of Minor League Baseball has changed since the decade of Ronald Reagan, Top Gun and an inadvisable over-reliance on the synthesizer in popular music. Let's take a look:
Jamie Moyer: Moyer turns 50 on Nov. 22, and though one should never count him out, it appears unlikely that he'll be offered a job next season given a 2012 campaign that consisted of a 5.70 ERA in 10 starts for the Rockies (as well as two brief Triple-A stints, with Norfolk and then Las Vegas). There are many near-unfathomable aspects of Moyer's longevity -- he is the oldest pitcher to ever garner a Major League win, after all -- but at or near the top of the list is this: he made his professional debut in 1984 with the New York-Penn League's Geneva Cubs. That club relocated to Williamsport in 1994 (where they are now known as the Crosscutters), and the only other player on that '84 Geneva squad to even touch the Majors was the magnificently-named pitcher Laddie Renfro, who made four relief appearances for the 1991 Chicago Cubs. Moyer was the last active player with a link to the Geneva Cubs (outlasting reliever Brendan Donnelly by three seasons), but his manager that year is still going strong. That would be Tony Franklin, who has piloted the Eastern League's Trenton Thunder since 2007 and was named the circuit's Manager of the Year in 2012.
Moyer next suited up for the Winston-Salem Spirits in 1985, a Carolina League entity that changed its name to the "Warthogs" in 1995 and then to the "Dash" in 2009, and it was while with the Spirits that he played with future Major League battery mate Damon Berryhill for the first time. The fast-rising southpaw was then promoted to the Pittsfield Cubs of the Double-A Eastern League, a short-lived franchise that was then in the midst of the first of what would only be four seasons of existence.
Moyer then opened the 1986 campaign in Pittsfield before being promoted to Triple-A Iowa, a still-active franchise which, at that time, was a member of the now-defunct American Association (Iowa entered the Pacific Coast League upon the AA's dissolution following the 1997 campaign). That 1986 Iowa squad also featured the likes of Terry Francona and Greg Maddux, but Moyer wasn't there for long. On June 18 of that year, he made his Major League debut for the Cubs, facing off against his boyhood idol Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies. At the time, no one could have expected that more than 26 years later, Moyer would still be an active baseball player. His last appearance of 2012, and possibly of his career, was a rocky outing for Triple-A Las Vegas on July 3.
Omar Vizquel: Though a youngster by Jamie Moyer standards (and only those standards), Vizquel played his final season in 2012 at the age of 45. And Vizquel, like Moyer, also began his professional career in 1984. His subsequent journey through the Seattle farm system illustrates the "change is the only constant" reality of Minor League Baseball, as none of the teams he played for prior to making his MLB debut in 1989 currently exist. It began at the age of 17 with the Pioneer League's Butte Copper Kings (this team became the Casper Rockies in 2001 before moving to Grand Junction, Colo., prior to 2012), where the native Venezuelan hit .311 over 15 games. Vizquel moved up another rung on the short-season ladder in 1985, this time suiting up for the Bellingham Mariners of the Northwest League (Bellingham relocated to Salem-Keizer in 1997, where the team is known as the Volcanoes). A full season awaited Vizquel in 1986, as he played 105 games as a member of the Wausau Timbers at the age of 19. Wausau moved to Kane County, Ill., in 1991, and Vizquel's retirement marks the end of the era in that he was the last active Wausau alumnus in all of professional baseball.
Vizquel was also the last active alumnus of the California League's Salinas Spurs, whom he played for in 1987, and this trend continued the following season as well. He spent the bulk of the 1988 campaign as a member of the Vermont Mariners, the last Eastern League team to have played in the state (that franchise later moved to Canton, Ohio, in 1989 and is now known as the Aeros). Vizquel was joined on the 1988 Vermont team by none other than Ken Griffey Jr., who had made his pro debut with Bellingham the season prior. The two likely Hall of Famers would go on to be teammates in Seattle from 1989 through 1993, but Vizquel still had one Minor League stop left. That would be the Pacific Coast League's Calgary Cannons, whom he played for parts of 1988 and 1989. The Cannons competed in the PCL through the 2002 season, and with Vizquel's departure, the next most senior team alumnus is Alex Rodriguez (who was just 18 when he played for the club in 1994).
Darren Oliver: Oliver, a 42-year-old reliever who in 2012 was a teammate of Vizquel's on the Blue Jays, has not yet decided whether he'll return in 2013. But he, too, has roots in the 1980s. After being drafted in 1988, he made his debut in the sweltering backlots of the Gulf Coast League as a member of the GCL Rangers. Then, in 1989, Oliver pitched for the Gastonia Rangers of the Class A South Atlantic League, where his battery mate was often 17-year-old Ivan Rodriguez. (But on the other end of the age spectrum, it is worth noting that 44-year-old Tug McGraw came out of retirement and pitched one game for that 1989 Gastonia club.) The South Atlantic League fielded a club in Gastonia through the 1992 campaign, at which point the franchise relocated to Hickory and became the Crawdads. And, yep -- you guessed it: Oliver is the last remaining player to have played for Gastonia. His career, like that of Vizquel and Moyer, truly marks the end of an era.
Jim Thome: And finally we have the 42-year-old Thome, who, like Oliver, has not yet decided whether he'll return in 2013. Thome's 1980s experience is the briefest of this venerable foursome, as it was limited to 55 games as a member of the 1989 GCL Indians. The most shocking thing about this stint? Thome garnered 213 plate appearances and failed to hit a single home run. From 1990-2012, he managed to bash a mere 677 -- 612 in the Majors and 52 in the Minors.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com.