Jamie Moyer’s comeback at age 49 with the Rockies certifies him as a ‘freak’ worth savoring
The old man on the pitcher’s mound is a freak, and he’s a freak because of what he isn’t. He isn’t big or tall or strong or fast or intimidating or exciting or radiant or any of the freak touchstones. He is slight and normal and weedy and slow and calming and lackluster and gray. None of these things makes an athlete, and all of them make Jamie Moyer, 49 years old, pitcher for the Colorado Rockies.
“In a way, we’re all kind of freaks,” he said, and by example he brought up Justin Verlander, the Detroit Tigers starter whose velocity increases as the innings wear on. That is freakish. So is Tim Lincecum’s stride toward home plate, Mariano Rivera’s ability to thrive on the same pitch all the time, Aroldis Chapman’s fastball breaking land-speed records. Beyond that, really, there are a lot of terribly unspectacular pitchers in baseball. Truth is, they’re not all freaks.
And honestly, there have been hard throwers and one-pitch wonders and mechanical marvels and late-inning velo spikes. Nobody now, on the other hand, and almost certainly nobody ever has been like Moyer. Other pitchers live on that eighth of an inch that separates ball from strike, and others throw into their 40s, and others recover from a blown-out elbow, and others dance with the devil in radar-gun readings that wouldn’t merit a ticket on most interstates. Never has one commingled the four into such an impossible-to-fathom left arm that refuses to go away.
What Moyer provides, then, is that true one-in-a-million player in a sport whose graveyard is littered with rejects – with those who weren’t talented enough or smart enough, those who didn’t care or cared too much, those whose bodies or gifts betrayed them, even those with stinking bad luck. In 29 years of organized baseball, Moyer has witnessed the writing of epitaph after epitaph.
Careers die hard in baseball. Just not Jamie Moyer’s.
Of all the odd roommate pairings on the 1984 Geneva Cubs, the short-season Class A New York-Penn League affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, the oddest was Brew and Vern. Jeff Brewer was a loud, brash, didn’t-give-a-damn right-hander in his second year with the team. Jamie Moyer was a quiet, contemplative, mild-mannered left-hander in his first season with the organization, and everyone called him Vern because he looked so damn much like Ernest P. Worrell.
Chicago sent its advanced college pitchers to Geneva to see how they handled the competition. Moyer dominated immediately. After a rocky 1983 season, Brewer was almost as good as Moyer, and he better fit the profile for a prospect: 6-foot-4, 240 pounds of hard-throwing anger.
“Everyone,” said Tony Franklin, the manager of that ’84 team, “thought he had the potential to be in the big leagues.”
Franklin has won nearly 1,000 games managing in the minors and seen as many players walk through his clubhouses. Most of them from that Geneva team are a blur. He didn’t remember Scott Ninneman or Tim Reid or Robert McCandlish or Brian Tuller.
And yet he’ll never forget Jeff Brewer, not his stuff – a low- to mid-90s two-seam fastball, before-its-time cut fastball and slider, with a working-on-it changeup – nor his blond hair. Characters like Brewer tend to imprint themselves indelibly rather quickly.
Before a game one night, Brewer approached Franklin with a confession.
“I had a dream last night,” he said.
“What’s that?” Franklin replied.
“I dreamt I hit Herman Cunningham with a pitch,” Brewer said.
The Cubs were playing Oneonta, the New York Yankees’ affiliate, and the teams didn’t like each other. All Brewer needed was a trigger, and when one of his outfielders didn’t hustle for a ball, it set him off. He had gone to school at Eastern Connecticut State, where he won a Division III national title, and he hated losing. Loafing especially irked him, and soon thereafter up stepped poor Herman Cunningham, who was plunked from the moment Brewer’s REM cycle ended.
Cunningham threw down his bat, and that didn’t sit well with Brewer, either, so next time up, with two strikes, Brewer went inside. The sinker hit Cunningham on the hand and ignited a massive brawl. When fans clambered onto the field, it gave Brewer a good excuse to go into the stands and chase down the one who had heckled him all game. This was not what Moyer would’ve done. He was too reasoned. Brewer’s fight instinct was strong. He was sure it would take him places.
“I was there,” Brewer said, “to do what I had to do to get to the big leagues.”
On a good evening these days, Jamie Moyer’s fastball will reach 80 mph. Normally, it parks itself in the 70s, the bell bottoms of baseball pitches. His slider and changeup dabble in that range, too, while his curveball lurks somewhere around 68 mph. Moyer has lived in this neighborhood much of his career, which began before a quarter of the ballplayers in the big leagues last season were even born.
His career reads like a trivia nerd’s fantasy. Like, if Moyer actually makes the Rockies’ rotation and wins a game, he’ll be the oldest pitcher in history to do so. One appearance will make him the fourth oldest to pitch, behind Satchel Paige (59, in a publicity stunt), Jack Quinn (50, in a limited relief role) and Hoyt Wilhelm (49, relieving as well).
With 267 victories already, Moyer ranks 36th all time, a staggering notion considering his first true, consistent, full-time starting duties came with Seattle at 33 years old. Moyer went to Seattle with 66 wins after intermittent starting duties in Chicago, Texas, St. Louis, Baltimore and Boston, with a minor league pit stop in Detroit. His propensity to give up home runs – he’s one of two 500-homer club members among pitchers – and his lack of strikeouts stigmatized him as perhaps the worst thing a pitcher today can be: someone with fringy stuff and an inability to miss bats. Labels can kill careers. One almost did Moyer’s.
It’s just that he was stubborn. Moyer never tried to change himself because he couldn’t. Pitchers whose big arms disappear try to evolve into what Moyer was born with. He couldn’t go slower, not until he found success. So he nibbled the corners like a famished rat, indulging in every last morsel, refusing to let baseball spit him out like he’d seen it do to so many.
In May 1985, word of Moyer’s exploits in the Cubs minor leagues put him on the prospect radar alongside Greg Maddux. Bill Harford, the team’s assistant farm director, praised Moyer to the Chicago Tribune: “He doesn’t overpower you, but he never beats himself.”
Which any scout will say is pretty much the exact same thing on every Moyer report nearly three decades later.
Forget a quarter-century in the major leagues. Jeff Brewer didn’t think Jamie Moyer was a big league pitcher. Period.
“No,” he said. “Even when I saw Maddux. We heard this guy is big and throws gas. I see this little kid standing over on the side. We drafted that?”
In the background, Brewer’s wife gasped.
“I’m telling the truth, Jean,” he said. “That’s how I felt. I don’t know how people couldn’t hit him.”
Jamie Moyer has thrown 57,620 pitches in the major leagues and another 10,000 or so in the minor leagues, plus tens of thousands more in spring training games, off-day bullpen sessions, warm-ups and offseason workouts. It’s not inconceivable to think Moyer threw a baseball well over 100,000 times before his elbow finally stopped working.
Any one of those pitches could’ve torn the ulnar collateral ligament. Hundreds of teenagers every year undergo Tommy John surgery in which a doctor takes a healthy ligament and uses it to reconstruct a pitcher’s elbow. Some pitchers need it twice. Moyer’s lasted for 47 years before it snapped during a winter ball game in 2010 and offered him a choice.
He could retire and go back home with his wife of more than 20 years and eight kids and his successful foundation and his $82 million from playing and do TV commentary or attend his children’s games or be like the rest of his friends from the ’84 Geneva Cubs, long gone from the game they loved. That team wasn’t great. It wasn’t terrible. It was just another team with two future major leaguers.
Moyer also could undergo surgery and rehab the injury with 2012 in mind. When Dr. David Altchek stole a ligament from his wrist to give Moyer a new elbow, the decision was made: He’d try to pitch again, past his 49th birthday, as long as a team would have him.
He recalled an oft-repeated axiom from Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame general manager under whom Moyer thrived in Seattle and Philadelphia: “The hitter will dictate how good or bad you are.”
Unless something else does first.
Meal money in Geneva was $11.25 a day. The Cubs expected their players to find three squares on that. Problem was, Jeff Brewer gave half to Jean so she could eat, which left him scouring local grocery stores for a loaf of bread and some bologna. If either was on sale, he would splurge on cheese or mustard.
It felt like a good year anyway. Brewer started 14 games and went 7-2 with a 2.36 ERA. Sure, he was repeating low Class A at 22, but his stuff would play at higher levels, and the team liked his attitude. One day, when the Cubs were in a deep hitting slump, Brewer stood before the team and told the group he could hit better than everyone combined. Franklin, the manager, thanked him, then proceeded to scream the same thing.
In between starts, Moyer tried to teach Brewer his changeup. He gripped the ball with his fingers in an OK sign, better known as a circle change, which would grow into one of the most popular pitches of the era. For Moyer, it came naturally. Brewer tried to move past his diamond ethos – hard, harder and hardest – but never could muster the patience. Throwing hard was going to get him to the major leagues, and it was supposed to send him to the fall instructional league that year until his back started to act up. It was supposed to be him and Moyer, friends, roommates, future stars.
Only Moyer went.
All these years and Moyer is still screwing with people’s heads. He doesn’t consider what he does a trick nor does he see it like he’s outthinking hitters. It’s deeper than that to him, something much more psychological: Moyer preys on the frailty of athletes, the palpable sense of failure that even for the best baseball player ensconces 60 percent of his at-bats.
“I feel like I succeed because everyone has an ego,” Moyer said, “and I go against that ego.”
Getting beaten by Moyer is embarrassing. He throws with the velocity of an average high school pitcher. When Moyer twirled four perfect innings against the San Francisco Giants less than a week ago, the first reaction was: Wow, Moyer still has it, huh? And the second was: How dreadful are the Giants if a geriatric can shut them out?
This is Moyer’s comeuppance. For all those people who supposedly knew the game that pegged him as nothing more than an organizational guy. For all of those blows they laid to his ego, trying to mold him into what they wanted him to be when he could only be his beautifully flawed self.
“No one ever would’ve thought Jamie Moyer established the credentials he did,” Franklin said. “The game is so velocity-dominant when you start talking about pitchers. He’s the complete opposite of that. He gets guys with his guile and wit and availability to figure things out on the mound. That’s what pitching is all about.”
To Moyer, pitching is an art worth savoring. For someone happy to challenge the sport’s mores – about age, ability, ways to succeed – Moyer is quite the protector of baseball as captured in amber. He’s not the old man on the porch exactly, but he does espouse the game’s human element, abhor replay and wonder what happened to those like him.
“Pitching is dead,” Moyer said. “Everything is velocity. The college kid or high school kid who does what I do isn’t getting the opportunity. I am probably the last of a dead breed.”
The breed died for a reason. Jamie Moyer is a freak. An oddity. An outlier. Any other pitcher who tries to do what he does would get pummeled. Every non-knuckleball pitcher with more than 100 innings last year threw his fastball at least 4 mph harder than Moyer’s. By now, it’s obvious Moyer has gotten along with something cosmic and special and inexplicable. Other pitchers navigate around a plate and change eye levels and speeds and breaks like Moyer. They just don’t do it demonstrably slower than anyone else and succeed.
There’s an element of luck to it, too, not to the results as much as Moyer being blessed with a body that watches after him. He takes care of it, certainly, sustains himself via diet, physical therapy, exercise – all of the requisites to compete in late age. And yet there’s more. Moyer betrayal didn’t arrive until past his 47th birthday, and even then, his bad luck passed with a knife, some stitches and some time to remind himself just how much he loved this game.
Jeff Brewer was laid off recently. He had been in loss prevention at Kmart – security, audits, safety, that sort of thing. He has worked in all sorts of jobs since his baseball career ended in 1985, a year after he and Moyer dreamt together of winning a World Series with the Cubs. Brewer pitched in 10 games for Class A Winston-Salem before the bulging disk in his back forced him to retire. He was 23.
He went home to Rutland, Vt., and stayed. Brewer played competitive softball, coached American Legion ball and taught his son, Garrett, how to play baseball the right way.
When Moyer landed with the Red Sox in 1996, Brewer and Garrett drove three hours from Rutland to Fenway Park for a game. Brewer requested a security guard let Moyer know he was there. Moyer came out to visit. Brewer asked if Moyer could get a program signed by some of his teammates. He came out with almost a full roster. They talked for 45 minutes – about Moyer’s success, Brewer’s disappointment. Neither ever would’ve guessed Moyer had another 2,800 innings in his arm. Moyer was a journeyman and the only other Geneva Cub to make it, a sidearmer named Laddie Renfroe, pitched all of 4 2/3 innings before retiring to Mississippi.
When the conversation turned back toward Brewer, he got to ask a question he had bottled up for more than a decade. He wore it daily, this medallion of regret. Brewer didn’t wish the bad back, the bad luck, bad anything upon anyone, certainly not Vern, but damn. It’s not like he asked for 47 years of fortune. He just wanted one taste, more than anything.
“Let me ask you,” Brewer said. “Do you think I would’ve had a shot?”
“Without a doubt,” Moyer said.
Jamie Moyer refuses to celebrate himself, his accomplishments, his comeback – any of the things that make him such a compelling person. Maybe if the Colorado Rockies choose him as their fifth starter sometime this week, he’ll relent and acknowledge what Karen Moyer keeps trying to tell him.
“My wife gets on me,” he said. “She’s ringing in my ears. She says the same thing, how unlikely this is. I’m just doing my job. This is my livelihood. So should I think I’m doing something pretty incredible? Well, I’m pretty fortunate to have these opportunities. I realize and respect that. But it’s my choice to play. So for me to sit back and think this is pretty cool? It’s what I do.”
It’s not just pretty cool. It’s amazing, even if the Rockies don’t see enough from Moyer to hand him that rotation slot. There are thousands of Jeff Brewers, guys who had better stuff, bigger potential, greater careers ahead until they faded away like a dream, here and gone, no obituary to mourn them. Just the woe that lingers still.
As grateful as Moyer is, he’s so used to defying long-held truths – from the scouts who doubted him to those who still find it mad for a 49-year-old to play a young man’s game – that he takes for granted the improbability of his doing so. At some point, that will stop. This job, if he really does see it as such, is finite.
“Says who?” Moyer asked.
“There’s an exception,” he said, “to every rule.”
Not every rule. There is one that has existed since the first ball was thrown, and it is simple: Careers die hard in baseball.
Even, whether this year or next or whenever his freak flag stops flying, Jamie Moyer’s.
More sports news from the Yahoo! Sports Minute:
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• World Series star David Freese faces new challenge with Cardinals
• Y! Finance: Frank McCourt exits baseball as its most successful owner ever
• Dan Wetzel: Should Augusta National purposely not invite a woman?