To date, the playing careers of 17 major leaguers have touched on four decades. Who among those active today will — five and 15 years from now — join them?

First of all, a point of order: Most lists of four-decade players you see will include 25 men. I have taken it upon myself to excise eight players from this list:

Minnie Minoso, Deacon McGuire, Jack Ryan, Nick Altrock, Kid Gleason Jack O’Connor,Jim O’Rourke, and Dan Brouthers.

I did this because the appearances that got them to their fourth and – in the cases of Minoso and Altrock – fifth decades were either stunts or cameos. To me, to truly qualify for the designation of four-decade career one must be at least a bench player in the years leading up to the changing of the final decade of one’s career and, ideally, have a definite role in the year (or subsequent year) that allows one to get one’s fourth decade. A number of the players listed above hadn’t seen the light of the major leagues in over five years when they reappeared to claim a fourth decade. In Altrock’s case, most of the appearances he made to claim his third decade were of the novelty variety.

In fact, if you combine the appearances that gained the banished eight their fourth decades, you get 18 games played, 31 at bats (with seven hits), and two innings pitched (0 runs allowed). To my way of thinking, to qualify for this baseball novelty, one cannot have taken in part in baseball novelties. One could argue that Tim McCarver got his fourth decade in much the same way. He joined the Phillies after the rosters expanded in September of 1980 and made six appearances, one of which was a start. The difference between McCarver and those listed above, though, is that he had a major league job in the last year of the previous decade (1979 in this case).

The same might be said of Eddie Collins in that he only had two at bats in 1930 and a handful more than that in 1929. Again, though, there was at least some continuity. Jerry Reuss pitched in just four games in his swansong year of 1990, but, again, he started 26 games the year before. Mickey Vernon had only eight at bats in 1960, but was active in ’59 and a semi-regular in ’58.

Having said that, here are the 17 who do qualify in my version of the universe:

PLAYER              began        ended   starting age   finishing age
Rickey Henderson     1979        2003        20             44
Jesse Orosco         1979        2003        22             46
Mike Morgan          1978        2002        18             42
Carlton Fisk         1969        1993        21             45
Rick Dempsey         1969        1992        19             42
Bill Buckner         1969        1990        19             40
Jerry Reuss          1969        1990        20             41
Nolan Ryan           1966        1993        19             46
Jim Kaat             1959        1983        20             44
Tim McCarver         1959        1980        17             38
Willie McCovey       1959        1980        21             42
Early Wynn           1939        1963        19             43
Mickey Vernon        1939        1960        21             42
Ted Williams         1939        1960        20             41
Bobo Newsom          1929        1953        21             45
Jack Quinn           1909        1933        25             49
Eddie Collins        1906        1930        19             43

Their average age at the start of their careers was 20. At the end, it was 43 — but several didn’t need to last that long to achieve the four-decade milestone. McCarver was the youngest starter and finisher, Jack Quinn the oldest on both counts. Nolan Ryan had the earliest first-decade jump (the ‘six’ year) along with Collins. Almost half the players made it to the ‘three’ year of their final decade – including Ryan. Six of them snuck in with the bare minimum: playing in the ‘nine’ year to start and the ‘zero’ year to close. (This might not be a good time to undermine this whole concept by suggesting that the first year of a decade is actually the ‘one’ year and the last is the next ‘zero’ year. This debate was visited frequently before Y2K, as you’ll recall. The Zero-year lobby carried the day, but thousands were killed in the process. Am I remembering that right?)

There are six Hall of Famers in the group, one sure thing (Rickey Henderson) and one who may or may not ever get there but who is sure to get a lot of votes along the way (Jim Kaat). It helps to be great, obviously, but being useful or having the reputation of usefulness (see: Buckner, Bill) is also helpful.

198? To 201?

There were around 50 men active in 2004 that had made their major league debuts in the 1980s. Several of them (Edgar Martinez, Ellis Burks, Todd Zeile, Barry Larkin) have retired. We can assume that another 40 or so are bound to be sifted out by the cruel hand of time. Who, then, are the most likely players to be in a position to grab a piece of the four-decade glory? Here are some suggestions:

Omar Vizquel: Although he was born in 1967 and would turn 43 just after Opening Day in 2010, he is signed through 2007, so that’s half the battle, right?

Barry Bonds: As I’ve argued before, if Bonds can be the most productive man in the game at 39, can’t he still be significantly above replacement level five years from now at 44? Certainly he can do everything and more that Julio Franco is. (And let’s not count Franco off this list while we’re at it.)

Ken Griffey, Jr.: Believe it or not, of all active players who began their careers in the ’80s, Griffey is the second-youngest (born November 21, 1969). It would seem that he could go on like this indefinitely, doesn’t it? Play some…get injured…rest. Players of his caliber play to 40 with great frequency. Can he stay interested in fighting the constant injuries long enough to qualify? Juan Gonzalez is just a month older than Griffey and is following the same career path of late.

Sammy Sosa: One would have to assume that there will be a place for a player with Sosa’s resume when he is 41, regardless of how much he keeps slipping. That would be his playing age in 2010. Gary Sheffield is only three months older than Sosa, so keep him in mind, too. Maybe by then, his bat speed will have slowed to the same as everyone else’s.

Wilson Alvarez: The interesting thing about Alvarez is that he had been out of the majors until the third season of this decade. That’s behind him now. He just turned 35, making him the youngest active player who reached the majors in the ’80s. If he can keep approximating what he did in 2004, he should be a lock. There are a couple of other pitchers out there who might be able to jouneyman their way around for another five years: Mike Stanton turns 43 in the midst of the 2010 season and Kent Mercker will be 42.

199? to 202?

The trickier bit is predicting who among the young men of today will still be suiting up for a big league team in 2020 and beyond.

Here are the five youngest active players who broke in during the ’90s:

It hasn’t been an easy road for any of these players, but, obviously, Beltre is the one who has taken his career in hand and could easily be playing 15 years from now. Or, he could revert to form and be done with it all by the age of 35.

Some other possible candidates include these players born in 1978: Aramis Ramirez and Vernon Wells. Neither is turning out to be the kind of superstar that gets to keep playing past 40 if they so choose, but they definitely have a leg up on Dee Brown and Cristian Guzman, two other players born the same year who began in the ’90s – unless Guzman turns into the next Jose Offerman. Tony Armas is out there, too. Will Gil Meche still be pitching at 41? It doesn’t seem likely, but his Seattle teammate Jamie Moyer had career stats about the same as Meche’s at the same age juncture:

Meche: 479 IP, 34-28, 4.58 ERA
Moyer: 490 IP, 28-34, 4.61 ERA

The birth-year class of ’77 would require its members to still be playing at 42 or 43 to grab a piece of that four-decade action. Some of the more intriguing possibilities are:
Eric Chavez, Roy Halladay, and D’Angelo Jimenez. Roy Halladay will be 43 a month after the start of the 2020 season and Kerry Wood and Odalis Perez will be right there, too. Andruw Jones is still only 27, believe it or not. He certainly appears relaxed enough to weather any storms that might blow into his career. Carlos Beltran turns 43 on April 24, 2020.

Of course, things could happen in the medical world during the next 15 years that will render this portion of the discussion moot. In the end it might be a player we didn’t even cover today – someone who is already 30 years old but who is going to beat the odds and still be at it at 45. On the other hand, nobody could make it. That’s what happened in 1970 as no player with 1940s beginnings was still at it 21 years later, unless you count the largess of Bill Veeck in his dealings with Mr. Minoso six years after the decade dawned.