Curt Schilling took it personally when someone (me) wrote on the eve of spring training that only one pitcher in the last 25 years had observed as many birthdays as Schilling has and won as many as 20 games in a season. For Schilling, that was just another voice to the chorus of those questioning whether the Schill was gone.
Last night, seven months to the day he turns 40, Schilling offered more compelling evidence in a 2-1 win over Seattle that this may be one joyous summer of turning back the clock.
How much sprier can a man look in spearing a comebacker barehanded, as Schilling did to throw out the incomparable Ichiro in the fourth inning? Or striking out the side on 14 pitches in the second, then whiffing Ichiro and Jose Lopez with a runner on third in the sixth to preserve his one-run lead, which had him practically step-dancing off the hill?
Schilling had to be at his best to outlast the purported geezer from Seattle who faced him, 43-year-old Jamie Moyer, who in 2003, at age 40, won 21 games for the Mariners. Moyer had base runners on in every inning but one of the six he pitched, but he stranded nine with his mix-and-match of mush that was every bit as effective as Schilling's fastball-slider combination.
No, Moyer said, he didn't watch Schilling much last night, but not because he lacked interest. ''The dugouts here are so miserable, you can't see," he said. ''And now that they put those fences up, everybody stands."
But he'd seen the stat sheet before the game, and knew Schilling has been throwing well. The whole notion of 40 being a meaningful barometer of a pitcher's remaining shelf life is rapidly being exposed as a myth in this age of ballplayers committed to year-round conditioning regimens, spurred on by financial rewards impossible to leave on the table. Five pitchers 40 or older took a regular turn last season -- Roger Clemens, David Wells, Randy Johnson, Kenny Rogers, and Moyer.
Look at all the old-timers who drew their team's Opening Day assignment this season: Moyer for the Mariners, Schilling for the Sox, Rogers for the Tigers, Johnson for the Yankees, and 40-year-old Tom Glavine for the Mets.
''I recognize it," Moyer said of the success his age bracket is enjoying. ''I think in today's game, guys -- I never want to say they take better care of themselves, but the medical field, the strength and conditioning, is so much more advanced than it has been, and so defined. If you want to work your abs, or your back, or your throwing shoulder, you can find someone."
Greg Maddux, who turned 40 last night, is 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA for the Cubs. Schilling became the first starting pitcher in either league to have three wins. He was at 100 pitches with Kenji Johjima at the plate and one out in the eighth, and there was no sign of anyone stirring in the Sox bullpen. Pitch 101 was a 94-mile-per-hour fastball that Johjima waved at and missed for Schilling's seventh strikeout of the night. He set down the last nine batters in order, did not walk anyone, and allowed just two base runners as far as second.
All this in a downpour, which proves no matter how old you are, you may not know enough to come in from the rain.
Moyer, meanwhile, already has made a persuasive case that aging does not mean infirm. It is 10 years since the Sox sent the one-time resident of Sudbury to the Mariners for Darren Bragg, a trade that over time has paid extraordinary dividends for Seattle. Surely Dan Duquette never imagined when he sent Moyer to Seattle that he'd still be pitching, almost a decade later.
''Probably a lot of people felt that way," he said. ''Did I think I would? Probably not.
''But I have my health," he said. ''As long as I feel I can contribute to a ball club, why not? Age is just a number. I started to feel last year, when I became a free agent, clubs saying, 'You're 43 . . .' So what? Look at the numbers."
Moyer also is Seattle's career wins leader with 139, nine more than Johnson had with the Mariners, and has thrown more than 3,000 innings in his career, 1,952 with Seattle.
Moyer this spring became the 10th pitcher to make 100 starts after his 40th birthday, a list on which two knuckleballers, Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough, rank 1-2, and Nolan Ryan is third with 196. Moyer is at 101, three ahead of Roger Clemens, who surely has taken notice of the Sox' fast start and notices how, with his 44th birthday beckoning (Aug. 4), he'd fit right into a rotation with Schilling and fellow ''old-timers" Tim Wakefield and Wells.
What did Moyer, who was Clemens's teammate in Boston, think of the possibility the Rocket will be pitching again this season?
''It'll be interesting," he said. ''I think the competitive aspect, you can't find that anywhere. You hear so many players who have retired say they miss the camaraderie in the clubhouse and the competition.
''You can't get it on the golf course. You can't get that in a business place. There's something to be said for that."
Of course, it gets harder as the years pass. The oldest of his six children, Dillon, turns 15 in July. ''It's a grind to stay in shape," Moyer said. ''The travel. But I enjoy it.
''It's a challenge."
The Mariners' future is embodied by just-turned-20 Felix Hernandez, a prodigy whom the Sox will miss this weekend. Mariners manager Mike Hargrove has likened Hernandez to Doc Gooden when he broke in with the Mets.
The Sox' future? There is Josh Beckett and Jon Lester in the pipeline and Jonathan Papelbon, the 25-year-old who closed out the win last night for his fifth save.
But the present? Neither Moyer nor Schill is ready to cede that yet to anyone, no matter what the calendar says.
''They're two different type pitchers," Hargrove said. ''Age is not irrelevant, but the health of their arms, staying in shape, keeping that edge, they kind of make age irrelevant."