For 49-year-old pitcher Jamie Moyer, slow and steady wins the game
To the long list of sounds associated with the first pitch of a baseball game on a beautiful spring day — birds chirping, fans murmuring, the distinct "pop" of a catcher's mitt — add this one: laughter.
What's funny about the pitch isn't immediately clear. It doesn't end up far from its intended target; in fact, it's a strike. After the umpire has raised his arm, a significant number of the 25,860 fans who have skipped work the afternoon of April 12 to attend the Colorado Rockies' second home game of the season clap in appreciation. But not the man standing next to me. Like a lot of those crowded into the concourse directly behind home plate, his eyes have just returned from the radar gun in the Rockies outfield that measures the speed of each pitch and the type thrown. And what he's read is something that, in a league where pitchers often throw balls measured in the triple digits, may never be seen again.
"A 78-mile-per-hour fastball," he says. "Unbelievable."
The source of the man's disbelief — a slim-shouldered, left-handed pitcher named Jamie Moyer — stands on the mound some 100 feet away. Between him and us are barriers, some visible — the net meant to protect fans from foul balls, a row of stands, an elderly security guard eyeing three teenagers walking up to the top step of what are arguably the best seats in Coors Field — and some not: namely, the gap between what a fan sees and how the man in the batter's box interprets the same thing.
"Dude," says one of the approaching teenagers to his friends, "isn't this guy like sixty years old?"
Moyer is not sixty, as the teen believes; he's actually 49. But should he win today, he'll still do something no other player in baseball has ever done: win a game at the end of his fifth decade on Earth.
The Rockies are well aware of this fact, and it's prominent in their "Game Notes," the crib sheets stacked high in the press box directly above us. Thanks to Elias Sports Bureau, the fact-checkers of organized play, the Rockies are also aware of another fact: The difference in age between Moyer and Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants' promising 22-year-old lefty and the starting pitcher taking the mound against him today, is the third-largest gap in Major League Baseball history.
To the reporters on hand, the stat is irresistible. At 162 games, baseball has, by far, the longest regular season in professional sports. Beat writers who fly from city to city following their team often struggle to relay to fans what separates one game from another (usually because there's not much that does), so when a recognizable theme — old vs. young — arrives on their doorstep not just gift-wrapped, but with a bow attached, they have little choice but to open it and share what's inside with readers.
Ahead of today's match-up of Moyer and Bumgarner in the record books are two games, both of which featured Satchel Paige, who is to baseball what Strom Thurmond is to the Senate: the body's all-time oldest member. A talented pitcher unlucky enough to have been born during an era when it was still considered necessary to have a league only for black players, the then-59-year-old Paige made history on September 25, 1965, when his Kansas City Athletics faced off against 29-year-old Bill Monbouquette's Boston Red Sox.
At the time, the Athletics were owned by Charlie Finley. A master marketer, Finley had a gift for attracting attention — he once replaced the Athletics' elephant mascot with a live mule and experimented with orange baseballs during spring training — and Paige was another manifestation of that gift. Signed by Finley for just one day, Paige reportedly spent his time between innings sitting in a rocking chair in the bullpen being served coffee by a "nurse." Finley also rigged it so that his prize would make a grand exit: While he took the mound for the fourth inning, Paige was pulled before he could record an out. Then the lights were dimmed, and the PA announcer led the crowd in a rendition of "The Old Grey Mare." (As an attempt to win the game, Paige's start was a success: He only allowed one hit. As a publicity stunt, it was a failure: Only 9,000 fans showed up.)
Late last year, when Jamie Moyer, nearing fifty and fresh from a surgery that would have ended most careers, told baseball teams he wanted to try to come back and pitch one more year, he was wary of being treated the way Finley had used Paige.
"All I wanted was an opportunity," he says now. "I wanted to be taken seriously. I didn't want to be a carnival act."
Judging from the fans standing in the concourse behind home plate, Moyer might have been right about being treated like a novelty. When he throws his second pitch and the radar gun flashes "72 changeup," the man next to me laughs again, and the people gathered behind him whisper the number as if playing a game of telephone. But then comes one more voice, this one with a question.
"If he throws so slow," asks an older woman whose husband has been trying, and failing, to explain the curiosity that is Moyer, "how does he get anyone out?"
The list of pitchers who've kept playing well and well into their forties is short. It's also easily split into two different groups. In the first are the hard-throwers who enjoyed long careers because they were able to avoid injury while maintaining most of the velocity that first brought them success. In this group are players whose names might be familiar even to non-baseball fans: Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson.
The second group includes athletes like Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and Jack Quinn, who are less recognizable in part because they didn't win as many games, but also because they rarely used what's commonly referred to as "the king of pitches": the fastball. Niekro and Hough were both knuckleballers; what they threw fluttered rather than rushed to the plate. Quinn was one of the game's last spitballers — someone who actually applied a liberal amount of his own mucus to the ball in order to make it spin in unnatural ways. Although the pitch was banned in 1920, Quinn and fifteen other players who primarily relied on spitballs were grandfathered in and allowed to use the illegal pitch until they retired. Quinn rode that exemption for another thirteen years, becoming the oldest pitcher ever to win a major-league baseball game and Moyer's foil in his current chase for the record.
Collectively, these men and those like them live under a label — "junkballers" — that tells you a lot about what those inside the game think of pitchers who rarely throw fastballs. "Baseball people call them 'trick pitches,'" says Rob Neyer, who, as co-author of the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, literally wrote the book on the subject. In baseball, if it's thrown relatively straight and very hard, it's considered a fair fight; if it's not, it's a sucker punch.
Jamie Moyer doesn't belong to either group. "Moyer found a different way to win at an advanced age than anyone else has ever found," says Neyer. "That's what makes him unique."
Unlike Niekro, Hough and Quinn, Moyer throws his fastball often. According to the website Fangraphs, in 2010, the last year in which Moyer pitched (he missed all of last year after tearing two ligaments in his throwing elbow), he threw his fastball roughly half the time. But unlike Ryan, Clemens and Johnson, Moyer doesn't actually throw the ball fast — at least relative to the tiny subset of physical freaks who are able to toss a tightly wound sphere of yarn and twine hard enough to kill a human being. Two years ago, Moyer's fastball averaged 80.9 miles per hour. That same year, Cincinnati Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman threw a pitch clocked at 105 miles per hour. Most decent high-school pitchers throw harder than Moyer — some a lot harder — a fact that still amazes the man credited with discovering him.
"How does a guy not throw a pitch above 80 miles per hour and get a guy out?" asks Billy Blitzer, the Chicago Cubs scout who signed Moyer. "If I were to go see a high-school kid today who threw like Jamie, I'd probably never go see him again. Now, doesn't that sound crazy?"
Here we have a baseball mystery: A player is widely understood not to have the skills necessary to succeed in the sport, and yet he's not only succeeded, he's done so in a way completely unique to the game.
Solving that mystery first requires seeing what Blitzer saw in Moyer some thirty years ago. The Brooklyn-born scout had earned his job by identifying and nurturing a wiry twelve-year-old named Shawon Dunston, who would go on to become the Cubs' shortstop for more than a decade. On Labor Day weekend 1983, at an off-season tournament in York, Pennsylvania, Blitzer got his first look at the then-twenty-year-old Moyer, who was playing with a handful of other major-league hopefuls.
Moyer had been raised in nearby Souderton, a small town an hour north of Philadelphia where his mother and father had also grown up and run a dry-cleaning business that had been in the family for two generations. Like a lot of boys, Moyer played catch with his father, Jim. But unlike a lot of boys' fathers, his had been invited to two tryouts with major-league teams. And though he had never made a roster, Jim Moyer had inadvertently taught Jamie early on how to practice like a pro by aiming for a small target. "He had this catcher's mitt from his Army days," says Moyer. "It was so small, it was like a mitten. It had no webbing, no thumb. Just this one spot where you could catch the ball. But when you hit the spot right it would, like, POW! It would get my juices going."
Despite throwing three straight no-hitters at Souderton High School, Moyer was only recruited by two schools: Temple and St. Joseph's, two basketball-mad universities that didn't have home fields for their baseball teams. Moyer chose St. Joe's, in large part because when Temple's coach came by for a home visit, he made the mistake of not wearing socks. "My parents are very traditional," Moyer explains. "As soon as he left, my mom turned to my dad and said, 'Well, he's not going there....' Even when we lived in Seattle, where it rained every day, the family rule was still that you didn't show your feet; you always had to wear shoes or slippers in the house."
When Blitzer first saw Moyer, he was impressed, but not for the conventional reasons a scout might be impressed by a college pitcher. Scouts had only recently begun using radar guns, and already the effect was noticeable. "You always looked for someone who threw hard, but before the radar gun, you never knew how hard," says Blitzer. "Once it came around, you no longer had to guess." That day in York, Blitzer had his radar gun — and the numbers it generated when Moyer pitched were far from extraordinary. "He couldn't break a pane of glass," Blitzer recalls.
But Moyer had an ability that was rare in such a young player: the ability to pitch rather than just throw. "In high school, a lot of hard-throwers can get guys out with their fastball because no one can catch up to it," Blitzer explains. "As they get older and the competition gets better, just throwing hard stops working. Jamie never had that velocity in his arsenal, so he had to learn how to pitch at a much younger age."
What Blitzer meant by "pitch," he summed up in the laudatory report he sent to his bosses at the Cubs. Moyer, he wrote, "kept hitters off balance," "mixed his pitches," "varied locations" and "changed speeds." He may not have been able to throw the ball past someone who knew what was coming, but Moyer had something even more valuable: a talent for keeping the hitter from knowing not only what was coming, but also how fast it was coming. "Jamie's always said the same thing," says Blitzer. "He wants to disrupt a hitter's timing."
The next season, in his junior year, Moyer did everything he could to validate the faith Blitzer had placed in him by setting school records for wins, strikeouts and ERA. Yet despite the accomplishments, only one other team was interested in Moyer: Moyer's favorite, the Phillies. "I still thought it was going to come down to one of the two of us," Blitzer says.
On the day of the draft, Blitzer left his home in Brooklyn and headed south. The Cubs had the third overall pick, which they were hoping to use on a "can't-miss" high-school outfielder named Shawn Abner from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. (Says Blitzer: "He missed.") But somewhere between New York and a pay phone off I-95 in New Jersey, the New York Mets, who had the first overall pick, selected Abner. One hundred thirty-four picks later, the Cubs took Moyer. And so it was that Blitzer drove back home, dialed Moyer's house and discovered his own mystery: The newest Chicago Cub, a kid who, like so many others, had dreamed his whole life of the day he would be drafted, wasn't there to take the call.
It isn't just that the center fielder drops the ball. It's that everyone in the stadium hears him call for it first.
It's the top of the sixth inning, and the Colorado Rockies are playing the same way they've played in all of this season's early games — which is to say, like a team indifferent to winning. In Moyer's first start of the year, the Rockies lost to the Houston Astros, a team widely considered to be one of the worst in the league, and had as many runs scored (three) as errors committed, leading Moyer's father to say that the whole team "looked like Little Leaguers out there." This game against the Giants appears to be a repeat of the first, albeit with its own particular humiliations.
Those include the fact that, thus far, the Rockies have yet to record a hit. The Giants have managed two runs on five hits, but very few of them have been hit hard. And Moyer still looks strong when he throws his third pitch of the inning, one that the Giants' second baseman turns into a routine fly ball that center fielder Dexter Fowler calls for loudly enough to be heard clearly in the press box — "I got it!" — before dropping.
The crowd groans. Moyer stands with his hands on his knees like a father waiting patiently for a newborn to crawl to him. Or maybe he just looks that way because he has eight children.
In the stands, Karen, Moyer's wife of 24 years and mother of those eight children, answers her phone. On the other end is her father, Digger Phelps, the ex-men's basketball coach at Notre Dame and an ESPN analyst famous for always holding a colored highlighter that matches his tie. "Did you see it?" she asks. "Uh-huh.... Has there ever been a trade in April? I don't know.... We should go to Texas. Some place where they'll score runs for him. If you only give up two runs in Coors Field, you should win."
Around Karen are more than a dozen people who have flown out for the game, all part of Team Moyer. There's Larry Platt, the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and co-author of Moyer's upcoming memoir; Moyer's parents; his sister, Jill; and two members of the Moyer Foundation, the philanthropic group that Jamie and Karen founded in 2000 that funds camps around the country for children dealing with the loss of a parent, or one with substance-abuse problems. Also present are six of his kids, including the two daughters he and Karen recently adopted from Guatemala, and the family's realtor, who helped the Moyers find the $1.8 million home in Cherry Creek that they're renting while he plays for the Rockies.
"The story of Jamie Moyer is the story of a guy that no one believed in," says Karen.
Sitting on a couch in that rental home a few days after the loss to the Giants, Moyer recalls the first time he can remember someone saying that he couldn't play baseball for a living. Moyer looks tired — in the past week alone, he's appeared on just about every morning show and evening newscast in existence — but it only takes him a second to remember the name. "Bill White," he says, snapping his fingers. Bill White: a former major-league first baseman, broadcaster for the New York Yankees and, as president of the National League in the early '90s, the highest-ranking African-American executive at the time in any sport. In high school, Moyer played basketball against one of White's sons. As he remembers it, before the game, White told his basketball coach that Moyer was too small to play in the majors, an opinion that the coach, for whatever reason, then shared with his player. "And I never forgot it," he says.
Moyer's ability to recognize, catalogue and retrieve past slights makes him not unlike every other successful professional athlete, a breed that sustains itself on umbrage. What makes Moyer different, though, is that, as an undersized, soft-throwing pitcher in a game that values the opposite, he's had more material than most to work with.
That's part of the reason he wasn't home that day when Billy Blitzer called. A few days before the draft, he'd asked a friend for a ride to a summer league that was five hours away. The friend balked. "He asked me, 'Why should I drive you all that way when you're just going to get drafted and have to come right back home?'" says Moyer before adding: "He mf'd me the whole way home." Despite Blitzer's assurances, Moyer wasn't entirely convinced he was going to be selected — because while he'd never doubted his own ability, he had grown used to doubting the ability of others to recognize it. And for the first decade of his career, he was justified in those doubts.
After three years with the Cubs, Moyer was traded to the Texas Rangers, who released him two years later. That same scenario played itself out twice more in the next two years — first with the St. Louis Cardinals, and then again with the Cubs, who were so convinced of Moyer's inability to be a major-league pitcher that they offered him an assistant pitching coach position in the low minors, an offer Moyer politely rejected. "It just didn't feel like the right time to quit going after my dream," he says.
The turning point in Moyer's career came in 1993. Karen had just delivered their first kid and was pregnant with their second. They had recently built their dream home not far from Notre Dame, but Moyer had only made $12,000 the year before pitching in the minors for the Detroit Tigers. "Things were starting to get a little dicey," he says. "Karen had taken a part-time job working retail so we could buy groceries. We were six months away from putting the house up for sale." Signed by the Baltimore Orioles, Moyer started his year at the team's Triple-A affiliate in Rochester, New York, where one of the first things he and Karen saw was a daylight shootout between police officers and a robbery suspect. "Rochester was rough," he says. "She was saying 'Go! Go!' and I was wanting to watch it."
By then Moyer had already pitched in the majors for ten years and was a known quantity. Or, as he puts it, "I wasn't a prospect, I was a suspect — someone they didn't trust." Yet that time spent as a journeyman had also given him the chance to do something he does as well as anyone in the league: collect data. "When you're in the big leagues, you have access to all the knowledge and all the info in the world," says Aaron Sele, a good friend who pitched with Moyer in Boston and Seattle. "That doesn't mean people are going to digest it. But Jamie devours it."
From a pitching coach early in his career, Moyer had learned the trick of putting a smooth rock under his left heel when he was warming up, to ensure that he was balanced on the toe of his plant foot. "That's still one of the first things I do in spring training," he says. "Go find a rock." From a Cubs teammate he saw writing down notes after every at-bat, Moyer learned the art of tracking each batter he faced. An iPad he uses today is pre-loaded with thousands of at-bats. "He's one of the only starters who asks us to do this," says the Rockies' video guy. From his agent, he took the suggestion to visit Harvey Dorfman, co-author of The Mental Game of Baseball and the game's most influential sports psychologist. "The best $2,300 I ever spent," he says. And from a fellow left-handed pitcher, Moyer learned the cut fastball, a pitch that breaks in on right-handed batters and acts as the perfect complement to the tailing-away change-up he'd become known for — a pitch that fools hitters by looking like a fastball but arriving at the plate slower. In Moyer's case, sometimes much, much slower.
Moyer didn't just track hitters, either. He studied other coaches — the Minnesota Twins' old manager Tom Kelly, for example, who Moyer says would always try to steal a base on the first pitch after his team had just gotten a big hit late in the game — and pitchers, too.
At the age of thirty, Moyer went 12-9 for the Orioles and, with the exception of one lone rehab start later in his career, officially ended his life as a minor-league pitcher. Three years later he was traded to the Mariners, where he pitched for the next ten years, became the club's all-time leader in wins, made his first All-Star team, and met pitching coach Bryan Price. The night before Moyer pitched against Kevin Appier and the rival Oakland A's — at the time, the A's and Mariners were taking turns winning the American League West — Price and Moyer were talking about how while most pitchers liked to kick a hole in front of the rubber in order to get a strong foothold, Appier practically excavated an archaeological site. "So Jamie says, 'You know what? I don't want him kicking out that hole,'" remembers Price. "'I think it'd really set him off.'" Moyer then went in search of the Mariners groundskeeper. Price isn't sure what happened next — he thinks the groundskeeper applied some sort of extreme heat to the clay in front of the rubber, while Moyer insists the man simply didn't water it the way he normally would — but remembers what he saw the following day, when Appier first went out to the mound and tried to dig his hole. "He was kicking so hard," says Price, "that I swear I saw sparks coming off of his cleats."
In Seattle, Moyer finally became the pitcher he always knew he could be. He also did some things that ex-teammate Sele says he'd never seen before, or since. Like the at-bat against David Justice. At the time, Justice, who played for the Cleveland Indians, was one of the league's premier hitters. With the Mariners holding a large lead and Justice fouling off pitch after pitch, Moyer walked halfway between the mound and home plate and yelled, "Where do you want it?" After asking Moyer's catcher if his teammate was for real (he was), Justice held his bat up about waist high, exactly where Moyer threw the next pitch, which Justice hit for a home run. "One of Jamie's key things is getting guys out in as few pitches as possible," says Sele. "He knew at that point in the game that a homer might hurt him less than throwing five more pitches and letting the other team get their timing."
Years later, author Michael Lewis would witness a similar scenario while writing his blockbuster book Moneyball. Moyer once again stepped off the mound — for only the third time in his career, he insists — and asked the batter where he wanted him to throw it. To Lewis, it was a white flag, a sign of a pitcher conceding defeat. But for Moyer, who worked so hard thinking himself into the game that he's never left, it was simply another in a long line of strategic plays. "Anything to get an edge," he says.
Two years after being traded away from Seattle, Moyer realized two childhood dreams: playing for his hometown team and winning the World Series. Up until that point, he had been snakebitten when it came to the post-season. In 1997, he'd been forced to leave a playoff game against the Baltimore Orioles after only four innings because of an elbow injury. Three years later, Moyer suffered a freak kneecap fracture a day before he was to make his first start in the playoffs against the New York Yankees. (The Mariners would go on to lose both series.) It wasn't until 2008 that Moyer, after 22 years in the major leagues, finally won his first ring. The championship meant so much that he asked the Phillies grounds crew to dig up the pitching rubber for him, a trophy he now keeps in his bedroom.
Then in 2010, Moyer's elbow started acting up again. He had to end his season in July and was granted free agency by the Phillies at the end of the year. Temporarily out of work and 48 years old, he accepted an invitation to start his comeback with a winter-league team in the Dominican Republic, where he lasted only three games before throwing the pitch that tore two ligaments in his elbow. Dick Pole, a former pitching coach who had flown from his home in Florida to watch the game, remembers that his former pupil had a lump the size of a tennis ball on the inside of his left elbow. "We're sitting in the locker room," says Pole, "and he asks the trainer, 'How long is it going to take me to rehab?' And the trainer just looks at me like, 'Is this guy serious?'"
After Tommy John surgery that December, Moyer says he spent a few too many months sitting on the couch. "I got fat," he says, explaining that he weighed 200 pounds, fifteen more than normal. "Karen could see I was feeling down, so she and Jim (Bronner, his agent) started working on me about coming back." In a reverse of how his career started forty years ago in Souderton, Moyer began his comeback by playing catch with his kids at the family's home in San Diego. When he felt strong enough to audition, he invited teams to watch him pitch off of a mound in a friend's backyard. The scouts who came to see him wrote to their teams the same kind of glowing reports that Billy Blitzer had thirty years earlier. Rockies General Manager Dan O'Dowd sent three. "All of them said the same thing: He's still the same guy he was at 47," says O'Dowd. On January 17, the Rockies signed Moyer to a minor-league contract. On March 24, in what may be another first, O'Dowd's son's Dartmouth baseball team lost to a University of California-Irvine team that featured Moyer's oldest, sophomore infielder Dillon. Six days later, and apparently carrying no ill will from the loss, O'Dowd informed Moyer that he had pitched well enough to make the Rockies' starting rotation.
On April 17, five days after the loss to the Giants, Moyer takes the mound against the San Diego Padres. Behind him, his defense will once again do things that winning teams don't, like commit another two errors. But unlike in his previous two starts, the Rockies actually score runs, too. Center fielder Dexter Fowler, perhaps making up for the error that might have cost Moyer his last game, hits a two-run home run. And after star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki botches a routine ground ball, a miscue that costs Moyer two unearned runs, the team records three double plays, including one turned so smoothly that it causes Moyer to throw up both arms in mock celebration.
In the stories written the following day, the focus is on a few amazing statistics, all featuring the number 8. That Moyer, at 49, is older than a quarter (eight) of all the managers in baseball. That because of his longevity, he's now faced more than 8 percent of all the baseball players who've ever played. And perhaps most surprising to those who know little about him, that Moyer managed to win the game — dominate it, even — without throwing a ball faster than 80 miles per hour.
But the most impressive post-game stat gets barely a mention: In beating the Padres, Moyer also lowered his earned run average enough to take the team lead in the category. Which means that the man who only wanted an opportunity — and an opportunity not to be treated like a carnival act — is not just the oldest pitcher to ever win a game. He's also become something that means more to him than any record: the guy who gives his team the best chance to win.
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