By Bob Socci
Late Thursday a lefthander who’s fanned more than 3,000 batters in a near three-decade-long professional career took a third strike in his 50th summer. Jamie Moyer was released by the Toronto Blue Jays, just as he’d been in preceding weeks by both the Colorado Rockies and Baltimore Orioles.
Following a spring in which the 49 1/2-year-old marvel returned from reconstructive elbow surgery to become the oldest winning pitcher in major league history, Moyer again confronts baseball mortality. Ever since the early 1990s, when three different organizations let him go in a 17-month span, Moyer has routinely turned such supposed dead ends into mere detours.
Persevering with eight major league clubs, he’s totaled 269 victories. Twenty-one of them came at the age of 40 for the 2003 Seattle Mariners. Five years later, as the National League’s oldest player, he was a 16-game winner for a world champion; despite pitching primarily at Citizen’s Bank Park, hitter-friendly home of his Philadelphia Phillies.
With the Rockies, whose own Coors Field is unforgiving in the thin air of altitude, Moyer started this latest comeback campaign reasonably well. Through April his ERA was 3.14. But by the end of May, it rose to 5.70. As the victim of more home runs (522) allowed than any other big-league predecessor, Moyer gave up 11 in his 53-plus innings with the Rockies.
Cut loose with a 2-5 record, Moyer quickly signed with the Orioles, who assigned him to Triple-A Norfolk. Three starts into his audition with the Tides, he was 1-1 with a 1.69 ERA. With no opportunity awaiting in Baltimore, Moyer opted out of another minor league start. At his request, the O’s made Moyer a free agent for the seventh time. That’s when the Jays picked him up for a brief audition with their Las Vegas affiliate. He went 1-1 with an 8.18 ERA.
At word of Toronto’s decision, popular opinion in the blogosphere and Twitterverse asserted it was time for Moyer to finally call it quits.
Watching Moyer bid to make the Orioles, with whom he pitched from 1993-95, there was little reason to doubt his time with the Tides would mark yet another beginning. In his first outing, on an early-June Saturday in Buffalo, he had hitters spinning themselves into the ground, swinging at servings of soft tosses. The lone blemish on a five-inning line, featuring 52 strikes among 84 pitches at Moyer’s customary 70-80 miles per hour, was a ground-ball single.
To Norfolk manager Ron Johnson, an initial first-hand look at the lefty resembled the numerous other times he’d seen Moyer on television.
“Everybody’s timing was disrupted…you saw the front-foot swings…the big foul balls way foul…guys (getting) locked up on fastballs up, breaking balls down…a lot of swings at balls in the dirt,” Johnson glowed. “I mean it was vintage Jamie Moyer.
“His stuff moves, it darts and it dips. Then you throw in the deception of his delivery. He kind of jumps at the hitters…It’s very hard to sit here and talk about it. He is who he is. He’s been in the major leagues a long time and he’s had success. He is Jamie Moyer, and his stuff is Moyeresque.”
Maybe not in relation to the All-Star of ’03, a 20-game winner for the second time in three seasons. But certainly the stuff wasn’t all that different from the source of 42 wins as a mid-40s Phillie from 2007-09. J.C. Romero saw Moyer then, and saw him again, while trying to stage his own comeback with Norfolk.
“When he was in his twenties somebody told him he couldn’t pitch at (a high) level,” said Romero, whose first of two victories as a reliever in the 2008 World Series completed a Game 3 start by Moyer. “Now he’s 49 and still pitching at this level. He’s admirable.
“To have that type of command and have that type of attacking mode the way he has through the years, you’ve got to be fearless out there.”
Contradicting conventional thought overly influenced by the readings of radar guns, Moyer has long pitched on personal conviction. Where others doubted, he believed. With a faith made stronger by both work ethic and attention to detail.
“I can honestly say that I probably haven’t had conviction with every pitch I’ve ever thrown in my career, but I think a lot of it comes from mechanics,” Moyer explained. “If you’re comfortable with your mechanics, that allows you to be more comfortable with your conviction in making your pitches.
“You always strive for perfection, knowing that perfection probably won’t happen. But you try to create the most and the best consistency that you can create.”
Introduced to pro ball as a 21-year old in 1984, Moyer evolved into a craftsman, modeling his approach in the mold of respected teammates. Early on he observed the pitching diligence of Rick Sutcliffe and Scott Sanderson, while noting the everyday professionalism of Andre Dawson. Infielder Vance Law showed Moyer the value of keeping a written history of at-bats, copiously categorizing every confrontation of pitcher and batter. Later influences as teammates included Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken Jr.
“I broke into the game in the the Cubs organization and remember a lot of the things I was taught back then,” said Moyer, sitting before his locker in a quiet clubhouse in Buffalo, three days after his Tides debut. “I feel like I was taught the right way to do things…how to act, how to respect the team across the field, how to respect your teammates, how to carry yourself as a professional.
“You learn to respect the good things that are happening, but knowing that you’re going to go through struggles…You see these guys that are very successful on the field, but you also see the way they respect the game, respect their teammates and approach their jobs. When you see that done the right way, obviously it teaches you a lot of lessons.”
In the same way, of course, Moyer has long been imparting those very lessons in younger teammates, atop and away from the mound. For much of that time, of far more importance, he’s also proven one of sport’s authentically great humanitarians; his off-the-field reach touching literally thousands of kids. Across this country, and beyond its borders. Even into the third world.
As parents of eight, including two daughters adopted from Guatemala, Jamie and wife Karen created The Moyer Foundation, which operates free youth camps for those impacted by both loss and addiction.
Camp Erin was started to help children and teens overcome their grief. With 40 sites, including every major league city, it helps youngsters ages 6-to-17 who’ve experienced the loss of loved ones. More recently, they founded Camp Mariposa to assist kids 9-to-12 who are living with an addict. The Moyers hope to grow the camps, seeking to fund them long enough to eventually become self-sustainable.
In both outreach efforts, the more Jamie’s pitched, the longer he’s extended his career, the more good he and Karen have been able to do.
“It’s allowed us to stay on that platform of being an athlete and wife,” says Moyer, whose family ‘vacations’ often involve charity work in places like the Guatemala City Dump, where an entire impoverished subculture exists. “Being on that platform we feel like we should take advantage of it and use it in a positive way, and show people that there’s many less fortunate people in our country and in our world.
“These people in a lot of cases, especially these kids, children in distress, they don’t really ask to be in these situations. What we’re trying to do with both (camps) is teach kids how to learn and grow from the situations they’re in, that they didn’t ask to be in. Give them skills, give them coping skills.”
Camp Erin provides counseling, Moyer explains, “to teach these kids to remember their loved ones in a positive way, but give them skills to move forward in their life and not fall between the cracks.” The mission of Camp Mariposa is to break cycles. Or, as Moyer says, “getting (kids) to understand that they don’t have to follow the footsteps of the people living under the same roof.”
It all amounts to why we should all be rooting for at least one more team to offer at least one more chance for Moyer. Especially if it means one more dollar to help one more kid.
Of course, society will always need more good samaritans. And baseball too will always need more good citizens who give back to a game that’s given them so much.
If we’ve seen the last of Moyer out of the wind-up or from the stretch, his playing career — right up to its final days — will be best remembered for moments like two recent scenes in a minor league setting.
On his first Tuesday as a Norfolk Tide, three days after facing Buffalo, the man with a quarter-century of experience in the big leagues held court with his newest of teammates. Shortly after six o’clock, as storm clouds gathered in Western New York and a stadium announcer warned of an impending downpour, Jamie Moyer remained in the bullpen. Toeing the rubber, he gestured as if to reinforce the points he was making. Intently listening alongside were veteran coach Mike Griffin and Chris Tillman, a 24-year-old prospect still trying to pitch to his major league potential.
Though everyone else in uniform was headed for cover, they appeared impervious to the darkening sky and intensifying wind. Only interference by the grounds crew, in need of covering the bullpen mounds, finally adjourned Moyer’s discourse.
About an hour later the heavy rain had come and gone, when the first figure, of thin frame and average height, re-emerged from the third-base dugout.
Ascending the steps, he tucked a water bottle into the right pocket of his black windbreaker, and began walking the warning track toward the left-field corner. A third of the way there, he stopped to oblige a handful of autograph seekers.
If not for the lines marking his years — like the creases in his forehead or the crow’s feet of his eyes — he easily could have been mistaken for someone less than half his age. His enthusiasm was that of a kid just up from the low minors, beating all the others out of the clubhouse. They stayed inside, perhaps to play one last hand of a rain-delay card game, or one more song from an iPod.
Writing his name with a pen in his right hand, opposite the left hand that had delivered nearly 60,000 major league pitches, once more Jamie Moyer was showing a sign of respect for the game and its the fans — as the last to leave and first to arrive.