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Subsisting Saunders
2005-01-20 17:40
by Mike Carminati

It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire from sight and afterwards return again.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Retire me to my Milan, where

Every third thought shall be my grave.

—William "Author" Shakespeare , The Tempest, said by Prospero upon returning to Milan to resume his role as the duke. He never pitched in Tampa Bay though.

On May 26, 1999 Tony Saunders was just a 25-year-old Devil Ray lefty trying to rebound from a 6-15 season, one in which he went 16 straight starts without a win. He had combined for a one-hitter with two relievers on April 22, the only hit coming on a two-out Mike Bordick single, which sent Saunders to the showers. Saunders had had an up and down early season a lot of bad (9 runs to the White Sox in 4.1 IP in his start after the one-hitter, 6 runs in 3 IP to the Tigers in the next) and some good (the one-hitter and a three-hit, 7-K, 8-inning effort on May 15). On May 26, Saunders entered the third inning with a 3-0 lead against the Rangers at home, but as the inning ended the Rangers had tied the score (led by a leadoff homer to Roberto Kelly), and Saunders had left the game after breaking the humerus bone in his pitching arm.

Saunders was out for the season and was trying a comeback in 2000, when he broke the same bone again in minor-league game on August 24. He retired two days later saying, "It's so hard knowing you're done… I can't do it again."

Apparently, he can. Saunders signed to a minor-league contract with the Baltimore Orioles yesterday. Given the general quality of the Baltimore staff, I would say he has a decent shot of making the team.

Saunders has been out of baseball for five full seasons. This got me to thinking if he made the O's would it be such an unusual achievement. I mean, Salomon Torres and Joe Roa recently made it back to the majors after being away for four years. But then again, they were plying their trade in the minors, not retired. However, there's Jose Rijo, who was out of the game for five years and even received Hall of Fame votes but then returned briefly to the majors a few years back.

So I decided to look it up. I did a quick query and found that 359 men had five-year gaps in the major-league career but did make it back to the majors again. And they aren't all Minnie Minoso types: 151 were younger than Saunders will be if he does make it back (31).
Here are the ones from the last thirty years (with comeback year and age):

Jim Crowell200430
Damon Hollins200430
Marc Kroon200431
Carlos Pulido200331
Jose Rijo200136
Kip Gross199934
Larry Luebbers199929
Efrain Valdez199831
Brent Knackert199626
Ravelo Manzanillo199430
Chuck Jackson199431
Steve Fireovid199235
Donnie Scott199129
Warren Cromartie199137
Mike Norris199035
Danny Boone199036
Kevin Hickey198933
Ron Tingley198829
Jose Alvarez198832
Dan Firova198831
Mike Kinnunen198628
Phil Huffman198527
Vicente Romo198239
Alex Taveras198226
Milt Ramirez197929
Jim Breazeale197828
Jim Bouton197839
Chuck Hartenstein197735
Minnie Minoso197653
Rick Bladt197528

As far as Saunders being young to attempt such a comeback, consider that Piggy Ward made it back to the majors after a five-year hiatus at age 22. Ward was a journeyman second baseman, who finally became a major-league starter in 1894 at age 27, playing 98 games mostly at second for the old Washington Senators. Unfortunately, he played a poor second base (5.11 Range Factor compared to 5.71 league average) and never played in the majors again.

Here are the youngest to complete a Saunders-like comeback:

Piggy Ward188922
Taylor Shafer189023
Joe Nuxhall195223
Glenn Liebhardt193625
Joe Quest187825
Henry Luff188225
Rowdy Elliott191625
Jim Curry191825
Mike Lehane189025
Ron Tompkins197126
Lefty Stewart192726
Brent Knackert199626
Josh Clarke190526
Bobby Darwin196926
Bob Miller196226
Buck Freeman189826
Johnny Bassler192126
Bill Smiley188226
Alex Taveras198226
Paul Ratliff197026
Art Reinhart192526
Hack Eibel192026
Danny Murphy196926
Frank Leja196226
Con Murphy189026
George Borchers189526
George Yankowski194926
Tom Loftus188326
Jack Calvo192026
Jack Jenkins196926
Hi West191126
Charlie Blackburn192126

By the way, given that Saunders broke his arm on May 26, he's been out of the majors for almost six seasons. Only 220 men have come back after layoffs of that length.

To carry this out to its most picayune conclusions, here are the men with 10-year gaps:

Jim Baumer196130
John O'Connell190230
Al Epperly195032
Harry Smith188933
Jack McFetridge190333
Ken Penner192933
Chick Keating192634
Joe Cicero194534
Ralph Buxton194935
Roy Schalk194435
Ralph Winegarner194939
Rudy Sommers192639
Bobby Schang192740
Clay Touchstone194542
Lou Polli194442
Paul Schreiber194542
Clyde Sukeforth194543
Fred Lake191043
Fred Johnson193844
Gabby Street193148
Charley O'Leary193451
Jim O'Rourke190453
Minnie Minoso197653
Satchel Paige196558

Finally, here are the players who missed fifteen or more straight seasons before coming back to the majors:

Paul Schreiber19454221
Charley O'Leary19345120
Gabby Street19314818
Clay Touchstone19454215

Schreiber was the Yankees BP pitcher for many years who pitched in relief on September 4, 1945 in a blowout against Detroit's Dizzy Trout. He threw 3.1 innings of no-hit ball but the Yankees lost, 10-0.

Charley O'Leary was a Browns coach pressed into duty on the last day of the 1934 season at age 51 as a oinch-hitter. He singled and later scored.

Street was the Cardinal manager in 1931 and inserted himself as a catcher for the last three innings of one game, a 6-1 loss to the Dodgers, on September 20. He does throw out the only man who attempts to steal against him, Babe Herman. As a player, he was Walter Johnson batterymate and appeared in Strange But True Baseball Stories, one of my favorites as a child, catching a ball from the top of the Washington Monument.

The inappropriately named Clay Touchstone was a wartime replacement for the White Sox. That was also the year that Babe Herman made it back to majors, also at age 42. (On July 8, he pinch-hit twice and on one hit tripped over first.)

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