Originally created 05/23/00

37-year-old makes major league debut



MIAMI -- Joe Strong sits at his locker, staring at the floor and trying to recall all the places he's been.

So many cities, so many sights. So many memories that the Marlins' reliever struggles to recollect every stop in perfect sequence.

He's getting better, though. Especially now, after countless interviews during his two weeks in the majors.

Everyone wants to meet Strong, a 37-year-old right-hander who became the oldest player to make his major-league debut in nearly 40 years when he took the mound May 11 for the Marlins.

"It's been an unbelievable experience," Strong says.

His numbers aren't staggering. In six innings, he has allowed four hits and four runs. His story, though, is overwhelming. For his teammates, for his father. Even for him.

Strong, having been recalled just hours earlier from Class AAA Calgary, pitched 1 1/3 hitless innings as the Marlins beat the Atlanta Braves 5-4.

Center fielder Preston Wilson cried as he watched Strong take the mound. Manager John Boles called it "heartwarming."

"Joe Strong? He's 37 years old ... and he got out there on the mound and he's throwing 95 at the knees and I'm thinking, `Wait a second here. Where did you come from, Joe?' This is Sid Finch," Boles said.

The oldest player to make his big-league debut since pitcher Diomedes Olivo on Sept. 5, 1960, for the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 41, Joseph Benjamin Strong IV spent 11 years in the minor leagues with five organizations. He pitched in five countries -- the United States, Taiwan, Korea, Mexico and Canada.

In 343 minor-league games, Strong was 49-57 with a 4.22 ERA. Last year alone, he pitched in AAA Durham, AA Orlando and Mexico City of the Mexican League. This year he was 1-1 at Calgary with a 4.67 ERA and three saves in 10 games.

Strong has bounced around so long it takes him 15 minutes to remember all the places he's pitched.

Drafted in the 15th round in 1984 by the Oakland Athletics, he spent three years in the A's organization. But from 1987 until 1993, he was a baseball drifter, playing in semipro leagues, independent leagues and eventually Taiwan.

Reggie Waller, then a San Diego Padres executive, brought Strong back to the United States in 1993, but he was diagnosed with a torn shoulder cartilage. Following surgery, it took him years to regain his lost arm strength.

He was out of baseball in 1997, driving a forklift at a Sears warehouse in Seattle. That's when he started a rigorous weightlifting program. He laughs as he recalls playing catch with his warehouse coworkers, who often scattered when he unleashed a fastball.

"They'd blame it on the lights," he says.

Strong pitched for Korea's Hyundai Unicorns in 1998, after he was urged to try out for the team and threw 96 mph in his first attempt.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays took a chance on him last year, but Strong finished the season in Mexico. It was there Marlins scout Tim Schmidt, one of Strong's college coaches, rediscovered him.

Even after six appearances with Florida, Strong's father, Joseph Benjamin Strong III, still gets misty-eyed when his son takes the mound.

"I broke down a couple times," the proud father says. "They're not tears of sadness; they're tears of joy."