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."