Jamie Moyer's comeback at age 49 embodies baseball's ageless ideals
With the Rockies, Jamie Moyer is entering his ninth organization and 25th season
Moyer is 49 and is returning from reconstructive Tommy John surgery last year
Though Moyer's comeback defies age, it exemplifies baseball's timeless spirit
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- "Why am I doing this?"
Jamie Moyer first considered the question by repeating it, which gave the left-handed pitcher the appearance of an artist taking a step back to examine his work. Ever analytical and never rushed -- if you have seen his fastball you get the idea -- Moyer used the moment of repeating the question to ruminate on how his great broadside mural of a baseball life brought him here, to the Colorado Rockies, his ninth organization and what would be his 25th major league season.
Near him in the same row of lockers in the Rockies' sumptuous spring training clubhouse, a right-handed pitcher named Tyler Chatwood changed into his clothes. Chatwood was born in December of 1989. By then, Moyer already had pitched in four seasons, played for four managers, and been traded once -- the first of six times that teams traded or released him.
It is remarkable enough that Moyer is here as a non-roster invitee, wearing number 50, which happens to be his age at his next birthday, Nov. 18. It is all the more extraordinary knowing that this father of eight last pitched in the big leagues July 20, 2010, after which he required Tommy John surgery to rebuild his elbow.
"Number one, I feel I can continue to pitch," the artist explained. "That's the first part. Number two is proving to myself that I'm healthy. And number three, I love the contribution part of baseball -- the opportunity to be able to come to the ballpark every day and do something to help the team win. Most of the pitchers here are young. If I can make the team, it's a great fit for me."
Moyer long has been accustomed to being a curiosity to be playing this kid's game at the onset of middle age. He already has established records as the oldest pitcher -- deep breath here now -- to win a game for the Phillies (44 then), to start an NLCS game (45), to throw a shutout (47) and to beat the New York Yankees (47). He is also the only pitcher ever to throw a shutout in four decades. The 49-year-old has pitched in 49 ballparks. (The Marlins' new park looms as his 50th.)
But this latest attempt to defy age and logic is most remarkable of all. Moyer could become the oldest pitcher ever to win a major league game. Only three pitchers to even make an appearance were older, but none were true starting pitchers or earned a victory then: Hoyt Wilhem, a relief pitcher at 49 in 1972, Jack Quinn, a relief pitcher at 50 in 1933, and Satchel Paige, who at age 59 was given a one-start cameo by Kansas City A's owner and showman Charlie Finley on the penultimate home game of the 1965 season.
Last fall, after his extensive rehabilitation after surgery, Moyer invited teams to watch him throw a 60-pitch bullpen. Airing it out, which for Moyer means sinking and cutting the baseball with surgical precision at all of about 80 mph, he wasn't sure how his arm would feel or if any club would want him. Something amazing happened.
"My arm," he said, "felt even better than it did before I got hurt. The next morning I woke up and it felt like I didn't even throw. It's like I have a brand new arm. I feel great."
Eleven teams scouted what would be three such showcase bullpen sessions. Nine of them were interested. Moyer had one request to any interested team: Give me a spring training invitation and let me throw 20 to 25 innings in any kind of spring game -- intrasquad, split squad, morning B games or regular games. The Rockies, whose scouts reported that Moyer looked no different than when he led the 2008 world champion Phillies in wins with 16, enthusiastically granted him that chance.
"Here I am," Moyer said, "just trying to make the team. It's a new organization. I don't know many people here. It reminds me of when I got called up to the big leagues in 1986 with the Cubs. I walked into the clubhouse -- I wasn't in big league camp that year -- and I didn't really know anybody on the team. That's what it feels like now. I feel like a rookie all over again."
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Baseball's greatest stage is the World Series, the crescendo of a grueling run of eight months. Nothing else about baseball has greater historical import. Nothing else commands a bigger audience.
But 93 percent of the teams don't play in the World Series. It is, for many fans as well as players, exclusionary by definition.
When it comes to cultural importance, however, there is nothing quite like spring training. It is our harbinger of not just spring itself, but of hope, of renewal. It is the idea that this year will be different. It is the opposite of the World Series: sunshine, daylight and palm trees and it is inclusionary. Everybody participates in the exercise of hope.
Part of this appeal is the annual search for the phenom, the Kirtland's Warbler of baseball. Every camp at least has hot prospects, and their newness alone -- their lack of definition as ballplayers -- beguile us with possibilities.
But this year, making a comeback at age 49, Moyer is the best story out there among the 1,800 or so players in major league camps fighting for the 750 available jobs. He already has made about $83 million in his career, won a World Series and amassed 267 victories. In these times when the drug cases of Ryan Braun and Manny Ramirez have injected reality into our spring daydreams, there is Moyer to remind us why we love baseball. We want players to cherish the gift of playing major league ball the way we think we would, and Moyer represents that ideal better than anybody.
"To me, I look at it as an honor and an opportunity to have him here," said Rockies pitcher Matt Belisle. "He has seen so much and knows so much -- and on top of that he's such a great person -- that everyone here should get a little better just by him being here."
On Sunday in a Rockies clubhouse that had virtually emptied for the day, Moyer stood only in his shower shoes and baseball undershorts and held out a baseball with his left arm to show Belisle how he throws his cutter. Moyer calls it a cutter, but it's essentially a baby slider, and Belisle, looking for more consistency out of his slider, asked Moyer for help with the grip and release of the pitch. Moyer showed him how he turns his wrist just slightly at extension -- to about 11 o'clock -- and concentrates on staying on top of the ball to get spin and then depth. Moyer learned a cutter from Buddy Groom at Triple-A Toledo in 1992 -- yes, Moyer was in the minors at age 30 -- and later received his master's in the pitch from Steve Carlton, the guru of the slider.
"When he told me Steve Carlton," Belisle said, "I was like, 'Wow.' Nobody threw a better slider than Carlton."
These are the moments Moyer enjoys nearly as much as standing on the mound and playing the role of the fiendish feline in his cat-and-mouse game with hitters. And in a world built on Groundhog Day numbness (how many times has Moyer covered first base in Pitchers' Fielding Practice over a quarter of a century?), he cherishes every moment. To find him during workouts, if you are too far to see the gray in his stubble, look for the lefty who sprints between practice fields as groups of pitchers move from one station to another.
Moyer never was in a position to take much for granted. At age 30, stuck in Toledo, his career record in the big leagues was 6-20. From ages 27-35, he bounced from the Cubs to the Rangers to the Cardinals, back to the Cubs, to the Tigers to the Orioles to the Red Sox to the Mariners. It was in Seattle where his career finally reached a state of equilibrium. He won 145 games in 11 years with the Mariners.
Then, one night in 2006, the fire went out. After surviving years when teams kept telling him he wasn't good enough, Moyer decided to quit baseball after a game in Anaheim against the Angels. He had pitched decently enough that night; he gave up three runs in 6 2/3 innings. But he took the loss in a 5-2 Mariners' defeat, dropping his record to 6-12. It was the eighth straight loss by Seattle, a last-place team 12 1/2 games out of first place that would finish 78-84.
"I was so tired of losing, and the atmosphere was really pretty awful on that club," Moyer said. "I got back to my hotel room that night and called my wife and said, 'I'm done.' I meant it. It was not a good feeling to be around a team that didn't care enough. We probably talked for an hour, hour and a half. But I had my mind made up."
He went to bed planning to retire. He woke up to a request from the Mariners: Would he waive his trade-veto rights as a 10-and-5 player?
"Sure. Where to?"
Two days later, the Mariners, with Moyer's help, worked out a deal with the Phillies. (Moyer, working without an agent, actually negotiated part of the deal with Phillies GM Pat Gillick during one of the Mariners' games.) The timing was extraordinary. Moyer's career and passion gained renewed life. He went 56-40 in Philadelphia and helped pitch the Phillies to the 2008 World Series title. It was the franchise's first title since 1980, when Moyer played hooky from Souderton Area High to watch the Phillies' victory parade.
* * *
Since turning 40, or since the start of the 2003 season, Moyer is 103-79 -- more wins than Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter in that same span, and just as many as Jake Peavy. Moyer was 34-54 in his 20s. It has been an upside-down career, one that grew better as he grew older and threw softer.
Moyer spent last summer "working the grill, a little bit of golf and watching the kids play" when not rehabbing his arm and offering TV commentary. When he accepted the Rockies' offer, Moyer called his son Dillon, an infielder and a 22nd-round pick of Minnesota last year who opted to attend Cal-Irvine.
"I told him, 'I'm sorry. I won't be able to watch you play,'" Moyer said. "And you know what he said? 'Good. That means you have a job.'"
Moyer began pitching in the majors not just before the Rockies existed, but also before the wild card, interleague play, digital cell phones, disposable contact lenses and the world wide web existed. At age 26 with the 1989 Texas Rangers, he would marvel at teammates Charlie Hough, 41, and Nolan Ryan, 42, and absorb their wisdom.
"And sometimes I have to laugh," he said, "because now I am Charlie Hough and Nolan Ryan."
The generations, like spring training camps, go by quickly. Moyer played on the 1986 Cubs with Ron Cey, who played on the 1971 Dodgers with Wilhelm, who played on the 1952 Giants with Max Lanier, who played on the 1938 Cardinals with Guy Bush, who played on the 1911 Phillies with Grover Cleveland Alexander. One hundred years of baseball connected by six links.
Said Belisle, "I asked him one day, 'What do you know now that has enabled you to pitch in the major leagues this long?' And he said, 'Two things are most important. Number one, up here,' -- he pointed to his head -- 'the mental part. And number two, recovery. Allowing your body to recover is just as important as the work.' And he said, 'That's something I wish I knew better when I was younger.' Man, I was so blown away I immediately wrote it down. You'd be crazy not to take advantage of having him around. We're glad he's here."
There is no guarantee that Moyer will make the Rockies. The team has Jeremy Guthrie, Jhoulys Chacin, Guillermo Moscoso, Alex White, Chatwood, Drew Pomeranz, Juan Nicasio and Esmail Rogers all with experience starting major league games. Of course, Moyer has more than twice as many wins (267) and starts (628) as the eight of them combined (98 wins, 302 starts). The last time Moyer came to a camp trying to win a job was way back in 1993, he said, with Baltimore. He was cut and sent to Triple-A at age 30.
"This," he said, "is a chance, and a chance is all I ask for."
And for a game that keeps no clock, what is more timeless than one more chance?
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