A couple of weeks ago Darren Oliver got a knot in his stomach. The recently retired 43-year-old began his professional career at age 17, which means this time of year has meant one thing for his entire adult life.
“I said ‘oh man, I’ve got to go to spring training.’ When you get to be my age, you get that knot in your stomach because you know you’re going to hear it from your wife,” Oliver says. “And now I’m not even going so I thought ‘wow, what a relief.’”
Oliver sounds sincerely pleased to be retired instead of preparing for the grind of another season. But he’s not missing out on spring training altogether.
Twenty six years after beginning his professional career as a third round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 1988, Oliver is returning to the Rangers as a special assistant. He’s planning to travel to Surprise, Ariz., where he’ll join the Rangers at their spring training facility starting Sunday. This time, it’s only for a week.
“I get to come back home, so it’s a little bit different,” Oliver says. “When I told my wife about that she said ‘it’s just a week? Go ahead, have fun.’”
Though he expects to contribute to the Rangers throughout the season and may return to Texas’ camp later in the spring, he’ll be able to spend more time with his family than ever. The new routine has its perks -- more time for golf and family -- but it means Oliver hasn’t thrown a baseball all winter. That means the arm that retired 5,747 big league hitters isn’t exactly in game shape.
“It’s terrible. I’m sure I’m going to have to do that next week,” Oliver says. “That’s going to be ugly. I’m going to need a lot of Advil in the next couple of weeks.”
He posted a 3.86 ERA with 40 strikeouts against just 15 walks in 49 innings for the Toronto Blue Jays last year, but he wanted to leave on top.
“I’d rather go out like that than hang on and get beat up on the mound and have the fans boo you,” Oliver says. “No one likes to go out like that.”
Oliver didn't have to. He posted a 2.70 from age 40 on, and after a 20-year career with time on nine teams, there’s no question he lasted more than most.
“I played longer than I should have anyways, so I’m happy with the way things worked out,” he says.
Despite another strong season from Oliver, last year’s Blue Jays started slowly, battled injuries and finished with a 74-88 record. The veteran left-hander says the disappointing season can be traced back to pitching.
“You look at the teams that win the World Series -- especially the Red Sox -- I mean no one thought they were going to do what they did, but if you look at the rotation that they had, especially what they did in the post-season, it all comes down to pitching and defence,” he says. “You’re not going to go too far if you don’t have those things.”
For the Blue Jays to contend they’ll need more contributors behind veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle.
“All you really had in the end that was stable was Buehrle and Dickey. How far can you go with just Buehrle and Dickey? You definitely need other guys to step up and do their part,” Oliver says.
“Any time you have that number one starter, that ace who’s going to go out there and shut down those teams -- somebody like a Brandon Morrow could do it. Ricky Romero was doing it a couple years back. Buehrle and Dickey are always going to go out there and give you 200 innings. They might not go out there and have a 2.50 ERA or a 3.00 ERA and strike out 200 batters, but they’re going to be consistent.”
Once the 2014 season begins, Oliver plans on watching his friends around the league, and his former Blue Jays teammates shouldn’t be surprised if they get the occasional bit of feedback from the 20-year MLB veteran.
“If I see something, there’s no doubt they might have a text message on their phone after the game whether they do good or bad,” Oliver says.