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Today in Oakland A’s history (4/25): Tony Phillips and 40-year-old A’s

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On this day, Phillips homered on his 40th birthday.

Oakland A’s

The 2020 MLB season is on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, so we’ve got some time to burn and a baseball void to fill. Fortunately, there are decades of Oakland A’s history to look back on, and even rerunball is better than no ball at all. Let’s reminisce!

Here’s the latest “this date in history,” though this time it comes courtesy of John Hickey of Sports Illustrated:

Happy birthday to Tony! The late Phillips would have turned 61 today.

Back in 1999, though, Phillips turned 40 while still an active MLB player. After opening his career with eight years in Oakland, and then playing elsewhere for nine more, he had returned to the A’s for what proved to be his final season. He was productive right up until the end, posting a 107 wRC+ and nearly 2 WAR in that final campaign — in his last-ever game he went 2-for-2 with a homer and two walks.

On April 25 of that season, he celebrated his birthday with a game-winning homer off then-Orioles closer Mike Timlin. Facing a 10-8 deficit in the 9th inning, Phillips blasted a three-run dinger, scoring Eric Chavez and Hall of Famer Tim Raines, himself just five months shy of his own 40th birthday. That long ball gave the A’s a lead at the end of a wild game, one in which they’d earlier blown a 6-0 advantage by allowing 10 unanswered runs, but this time they held on for the victory.

According to Hickey, the homer also put Phillips in rare company by going deep on his 40th. Of course, that’s an extremely specific record, but more than anything it just highlights how few players keep going that long.

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How rare is it? In the A’s 52 seasons of Oakland history, only four position players have taken the field for them after turning 40. Here’s the entire list:

  • Joe Morgan, 1984
  • Reggie Jackson, 1987
  • Tony Phillips, 1999
  • Frank Thomas, 2008

Four more close calls:

  • In 2004, utilityman Mark McLemore played the final game of his career in green and gold, just two days shy of his 40th.
  • In 2002, second baseman Randy Velarde played in Game 5 of the ALDS (also the final game of his career) seven weeks before his 40th.
  • In 1999, the aforementioned Tim Raines cut his season short in July due to a diagnosis of lupus, missing his 40th by two months. But he did return to action for a couple other teams in 2001-02.
  • Of course we can’t have this conversation without Rickey Henderson, who played his final game for the A’s at the end of 1998, three months shy of his 40th. He went on to play four more seasons split among five other teams.

But the true 40+ club features only four hitters, three of whom are now in the Hall of Fame. Phillips is the exception, but even he is a feature member of the Hall of Very Good with his 50ish career WAR. As for the other three, here’s a quick word on each.

Morgan spent the prime of his career in Cincinnati, where he won two MVP awards and two rings. He almost won a third title with the Reds, in 1972, but they lost to the A’s in the World Series; a dozen years later, he joined the enemy for his final season. He still managed to be productive, with a 105 wRC+ and 1+ WAR in 116 games, and as usual he walked nearly twice as much as he struck out.

Jackson famously opened his career with nearly a decade on the A’s, winning an MVP and three rings, but then he left for 11 years to play on three other teams. Like Phillips, he came back for one last hurrah at the end in 1987, turning 41 in May of that season. He didn’t have a good year, with a sub-.300 OBP and a negative WAR, but he still managed 15 homers in 115 games.

Thomas had nearly won an MVP for the A’s at age 38, making a late-career comeback in 2006 after a long tenure with the White Sox. He then moved on to Toronto, but in 2008 the Blue Jays released him and Oakland gave him one more chance. He rejoined the A’s in late April, played up through his 40th birthday on May 27, and then the next day went on the injured list with quad tendinitis. He returned to action for all of August, hitting one final homer, before going back on the shelf and ultimately calling it a career.

The list of Oakland’s 40-year-old pitchers is much longer:

  • Doug Jones, 1999-2000 (thru age 43)
  • Tommy John, 1985 (42)
  • Goose Gossage, 1992-93 (thru 42)
  • Fernando Rodney, 2018-19 (thru 42)
  • Tom Candiotti, 1998-99 (just shy of 42)
  • Tom Burgmeier, 1983-84 (thru 41)
  • Rick Honeycutt, 1995 (41)
  • Don Sutton, 1985 (40)
  • Dennis Eckersley, 1995 (40)
  • Russ Springer, 2009 (40)
  • Bartolo Colon, 2013 (40)
  • ... and in 1975, Jim Perry came within three months of his 40th

I turned 35 this year and my back hurts so much I can barely move most days, so my hat is off to all of these incredible athletes who continued to compete at the highest level after turning 40.

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More this-date tweets from A’s info manager Mike Selleck, over the past few days:

  • 4/18: On April 18, 2003 Barry Zito tosses a six-hit shutout to defeat Texas, 9-0. The Rangers leadoff hitter that day was current A’s bench coach Ryan Christenson. #ThisDateInAthleticsHistory #RhinoMask
  • 4/19: On April 19, 1981 the A’s defeat the Seattle Mariners 6-1 in the first game of a double header at the Coliseum to run their record to 11-0, a Major League record at the time.
  • 4/20: On April 20, 1971 Jim Hunter tosses a three-hit shutout as the A’s win at California, 4-0…Sal Bando homers twice and singles while driving in three runs.
  • 4/21: On April 21, 2018 Sean Manaea tosses the seventh no-hitter in Oakland history and the 12th in Athletics history in a 3-0 win over Boston…he walks two and strikes out 10.
  • 4/22: On April 22, 1969 Rollie Fingers tosses the first of his two career shutouts, a five-hitter in the A’s 7-0 win at Minnesota.
  • 4/23: On April 23, 1988 Dave Stewart goes the distance in the A’s 3-2, 10 inning win at Chicago to improve to 5-0…Stewart would go on to win his first eight decisions.
  • 4/24: OK A’s fans from the mid-80’s, it’s time for #ThisDateInAthleticsHistory trivia. On April 24, 1986 this pitcher strikes out 14 Seattle Mariners after fanning a club record 16 batters in his previous start. Can you name him? (Check the comments section of this article for the answer!)
  • 4/25: April 25 has a couple of milestones for #ThisDateInAthleticsHistory. In 1987, Dennis Eckersley pitches the final 2 1/3 innings of the A’s 7-3 win over Seattle for his first save as an Athletic…in 2002 Miguel Tejada hits his 100th career home run in a 6-2 win over New York.