Moyer's career longevity is one for the ages

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PHILADELPHIA – Into a fading afternoon, baseball's oldest player strokes his gray goatee and stares at yet another batting practice.

Jamie Moyer(notes) does not need to be here. He is 47 now. Back in Florida, his wife and eight children stay at the family home until school ends in June, leaving him alone in this city, just miles from his hometown (Sellersville, Pa.). He is not really one with his Philadelphia Phillies teammates who laugh as they jump in and out of the hitting cage. Many are half his age. In the clubhouse, a giant silver stereo with all kinds of flashing lights oozes strange beats from an empty locker next to that of shortstop Jimmy Rollins(notes). And it's when the music starts that Moyer feels the most detached.

Moyer's ERA

Jamie Moyer, at age 47, has an ERA of 4.38 this season, only slightly higher than his 24-year career average of 4.22.

Source: MLB

But still he can pitch. On May 2 he baffled the New York Mets just enough with his 82 mph fastball, then five nights later shut out the Atlanta Braves on two hits to earn his 261st victory. It made him the oldest pitcher in baseball history to throw a shutout.

Only five other men have done what Moyer is doing now, pitching into their 48th year of life. The last of those, Phil Niekro, retired more than two decades ago. And yet at this moment, sitting in the home dugout of Citizens Bank Park, he contemplates his place in the team's social structure: hardly an outsider and yet not exactly in the middle of the fun.

''I'm in limbo,'' he says, but there's no sadness in his voice.

It is more the reality of being older than some managers and nonetheless dressing and traveling with the players. A man trapped between two worlds – one past, one present. Oddly, he is the one here who needs the game the least. He has his children's lives to watch, youth games to coach and a foundation he and his wife, Karen, run that is creating bereavement camps for children who have lost someone they love. Already they have 28. Earlier this year they raised $100,000 for Haiti relief.

His life does not have to be throwing a baseball.

Instead he continues to pitch, working into his 24th season, mixing his slow, perfectly placed fastballs with even slower changeups, leaving hitters lunging at deft pitches that wobble tantalizingly out of reach. He does this well enough that he has been the Phillies' second-most dependable pitcher this season; 4-2 with an ERA of 4.38.

And yet for what? He says it's not for the $8 million he is guaranteed to make. He has already earned more than $74 million in his career. Nor is it a burning consumption to keep pitching. Yes, he loves the game, but he has thought a lot in recent years of walking away, always to conclude that it is not time, that he still wants to be here.

Moyer is asked if he is afraid of retiring. His face clouds. He tugs at the goatee.

''That's a really good question,'' he says.

But after a moment of thought he is sure this is not why. That it is something different, something stronger than the lure of simply pitching well.

''Why not?'' he says. ''That's the easiest answer. Why not keep pitching?''

It seems as good a reason as any.

He comes from a time that is lost now in baseball, an era when nobody fretted about pitch limits and radar-gun readings. Of all the poisonous trends to seep into the game over the past three decades few have done more damage to pitchers than the obsession over pitch counts. No minor league manager early in Moyer's career ever raced out of the dugout to yank him in the middle of the fifth inning because he had reached the magic number of 75 pitches. No jittery big league general manager fretted that his tender rotator cuff would explode in a tangle of frayed ends. He pitched until he could no longer get anyone out or the game was over.

Which, in many ways, is the physical reason he is still pitching now.

''The kids today don't get a chance to pitch out of jams in the minor leagues now,'' says Billy Blitzer, the scout who signed Moyer in 1984.

Last year, Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ(notes) shut out the Toronto Blue Jays. Later, he revealed to pitching coach Rich Dubee that it was the first complete game he had ever thrown, at any professional level. Dubee was stunned. Even as a mediocre minor league pitcher in the 1970s, Dubee completed 13 percent of his starts. Everybody finished the games they won.

''That's the way you were brought up in this game,'' he says. ''You pitched.''

So as Moyer's younger, stronger teammates with their blistering fastballs throw 60 pitches in an off-day bullpen session, careful not to surpass their prescribed pitch counts, Moyer throws at least 100, or until he gets the feel for those pitches that have been troubling him. If, for instance, he has been struggling with his fastball up and in to right-handed hitters, he will throw dozens of those fastballs until he finds the touch. Sometimes he might have three or four pitches he thinks he needs to work on. The bullpens can stretch for half an hour.

''He likes to experiment,'' Dubee says.

And he craves feedback, urging Dubee to tell him what is working and what isn't.

''He's a touch-and-feel guy,'' says former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, who has had Moyer on his teams in Baltimore, Seattle and now Philadelphia. ''Like a guy who is a concert pianist who has to learn to feel the music through his fingers.''

Then again, maybe touch and feel doesn't matter anymore.

Blitzer, who scouted Moyer at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, paid little attention to the radar-gun readings of Moyer's fastball. Allowing for technological advances that came along later to radar guns, Blitzer figures Moyer's fastball in those days was closer to 85 mph than the 83 displayed on the readouts. But the numbers meant little to Blitzer. What he loved was Moyer's combativeness on the mound, his ability to squirm from seemingly dire predicaments. The pitcher, he decided, knew how to get people out and keep runs from scoring. Which, after all, is the whole point of pitching.

He convinced the Cubs to pick him in the sixth round of the 1984 draft.

Sadly, says Blitzer, who still scouts for the Cubs, he would not be able to sell a young Moyer to the team today. At least not that early in the draft.

''Everything is velocity, velocity, velocity,'' he says. ''[Teams today] want to see if a kid can pitch, but that's secondary to how fast he throws.''

Moyer shakes his head at the notion. He has watched pitchers like him drift from the game more and more in recent years. Pitchers whose styles evoke words like ''crafty'' or ''wily,'' who pitch with deception rather than bravado.

''I don't agree with the way it's going,'' he says. ''I don't know if I understand the rationale behind it.''

Then he sighs.

''But if you're going to stay in the game, you have to be a part of it.''

A few years ago, Moyer came close to leaving. He was in his 11th season in Seattle – the place where he had the greatest success of his career, where his game took off after he turned 34 – and it seemed everything had finally fallen apart. He lost a game to the Angels in Anaheim late in the summer of 2006. It had been a bleak year for the Mariners: The team was languishing at the bottom of the standings and his record had fallen to 6-12. The end, he decided was here. He went back to the hotel, called his wife, Karen, and for a long time they talked about retirement. When he hung up, he was certain he would quit when the season was over.

The next day Gillick called and said he was working on a trade to bring him to the Phillies, who were fighting for a playoff spot. The retirement talk died. And he has been pitching ever since, buoyed not by playing in his hometown but by playing for a winner.

On the night Philadelphia won the World Series in 2008, his first championship, Moyer stood on the top step of the dugout at Citizens Bank Park, so many thoughts racing through his head. His sons were in the stands, as was his father. And when the last out was made he raced onto the field thinking, of all things, about his games in Little League and the practices that lasted until after dark back when baseball was innocent and played for fun, free of money and politics and public discourse on talk radio. And in that joyous pile of grown men he found that joy again.

Quit? How could he quit when he was having so much fun?

So he keeps coming back. His old friends from Seattle, players who have since retired like Aaron Sele(notes), Dan Wilson and Edgar Martinez(notes), tell him to keep playing as long as he can because once he steps into the other side he will lose a piece of himself forever. Their words resonate.

It is nearing game time and Moyer still lingers in the Phillies dugout. Shadows fill the stands as the stadium's lights burn through the haze. All around Moyer teammates are trickling into the dugout, their uniforms glowing white with red pinstripes. A few crack jokes and smack gloves or pound bats on the floor. Joe Blanton(notes), the night's starting pitcher, walks by. Moyer nods. ''Good luck, Joe,'' he says.

Still dressed in his batting practice jersey, he crosses his legs and stares out past the infield, lost now in a reverie.

Faces are coming to him from 26 years in baseball.

He can see Blitzer, who recently came to Moyer's home in Bradenton, Fla., to scout his oldest son, Dillon, who will play baseball next year at UC Irvine. How many scouts have done that? Signed the father and tracked the son? He smiles.

Then there is Bill Ballou, his first minor league pitching coach. They met on the Cubs' Single-A team in Geneva, N.Y., back in 1984. Ballou taught him everything that he still does today; the right way to work out, to prepare and to look. He told him to wear his cap pulled straight over his head, his belt in front and the pants halfway up the legs, exposing his stirrups with the lower arc in the front and the higher arc in the back.

Moyer looks at his leg, at the red stirrups pulled high. Now almost nobody wears stirrups anymore. And if they do, they are just white socks with a stirrup line printed on the side.

The thought makes him laugh.

''You're making me reminisce now,'' he says.

Late the night before he got a phone call from Dick Pole, who was the Cubs' pitching coach when he played for the team in the late 1980s. Pole could be gruff. But Moyer loved his blunt manner. Underneath, he knew, Pole cared deeply for his pitchers.

Pole had seen him pitch on television.

''You amaze me,'' he told Moyer.

Remembering this in a dugout surrounded by teammates a generation younger, Moyer smiles again. His eyes go soft.

Retire?

And let go of this?