Thrill of Victory

Saluting Jamie Moyer and baseball's old men

From my perch in the left field bleachers at Coors Field on April 12, there was nothing remarkable about the left-hander occupying the mound for the Colorado Rockies that day. In fact, most about the man wearing No. 50 was decidedly unremarkable.

For starters, there was the fastball, which looked more like a change-up. It topped out at 78 miles per hour. There are high school kids in every state who threw harder than that.

His “out pitch” appeared to be his 76 MPH cutter, but it really wasn’t blowing it by much of anybody besides the opposing pitcher, San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, who accounted for two of Moyer’s three strikeouts in a 5 2/3 inning, two earned run performance that day.

Most everything else about Jamie Moyer, though, is quite remarkable. Somehow, the same guy who got released by both the Cardinals and the Cubs keeps coming back and pitching.

Lots of guys get released and come back as productive big-leaguers. But here’s the rest of the story: Moyer’s first and second releases came in 1990 and 1992. That’s not a mis-print; Moyer will turn 50 on November 18 of this year.

No matter the degree of adversity he faces, Moyer’s resiliency always seems to triumph.

In 2009, Moyer tore three muscles in his groin and lower abdomen while pitching for the Phillies on September 29. That kept him from pitching in the playoffs that season, but it didn’t deter him from returning the next year, during which he posted a 9-9 record with a respectable 4.84 ERA.

But that season, Moyer’s year once again came to a halt on July 20, when he sprained his ulnar collateral ligament and missed the rest of the season. He would need Tommy John surgery.

At 47, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Moyer would retire – but he didn’t. While working for ESPN, Moyer continued his rehab in hopes of playing this year. In January, the Rockies signed him to a minor-league contract, and invited him to spring training, where he eventually made the team.

So, the Rockies signed Moyer as a feel-good story to boost attendance… right? Hardly. Moyer pitched 13 innings in spring training, striking out 11, walking just three, and posting a 2.77 ERA. As of this writing, he’s now Colorado’s No. 2 starter.

Not bad for a guy who, when the Orioles signed him in 1993, team executives privately wondered if he had anything left.

Moyer’s story is certainly an extreme, but over the last quarter-century or so, baseball as seen a number of players hang on for a remarkably long time. According to Wikipedia, there have been 34 players who’ve played at least a game in the majors at age 44 or older. A large number of those players played in the earlier part of the 20th century, when baseball wasn’t as competitive as it is now, or as one-game publicity stunts, such as Satchel Paige’s appearance at 59 (1965) or Minnie Minoso’s in 1980 at 57.

Within the span of Moyer’s career, it seems to be easier to play into one’s 40s as a pitcher; Moyer’s joined in the Geezer Club by Phil Niekro, who played until he was 48; Charlie Hough, Tommy John, Randy Johnson, Jesse Orosco and Nolan Ryan, who pitched until age 46; and Roger Clemens, Gaylord Perry and Tim Wakefield, who threw until they were 45.

Niekro, Hough and Wakefield were knuckle-ballers, which puts them in a special category. Because a knuckleball puts so little strain on the arm, knuckle-ballers can pitch for forever and stay injury-free: Niekro went on the disabled list just once in 24 ML seasons, and that was when he was hit in the ribs with a ball.

John, Orosco, and Perry also fit into a category of their own: guys who (at least late in their careers) relied on guile more than velocity. John’s specialty was a slow sinker, and of course had his career extended by 15 years due to a surgery named after him.

Orosco’s fastball topped out between 89 and 92 earlier in his career, and was the beneficiary of a baseball-wide change in philosophy in which managers began to use relievers to pitch to or two hitters at a time. Thus, Orosco pitched the last 14 years of his career without ever topping 65 innings.

Perry, of course, had a reputation for throwing a spitball for most of his career – or at least making hitters think he did, as he didn’t actually get ejected from a game until his 21st season. Reggie Jackson once got so upset at Perry’s antics that he was kicked out of a game.

Johnson, Ryan and Clemens were in a class of their own, with each being among the most gifted players in the history of the game. Each still lit up radar guns to the very end, though it appears now that Clemens had illicit help through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

As for hitters, five guys during Moyer’s career played to age 44 or beyond: Rickey Henderson, Carlton Fisk, Pete Rose, Julio Franco and Omar Vizquel. Henderson played to 44, with Rose and Fisk going one more year, and Franco played all the way to 49. Vizquel, at age 45, is still playing with Toronto.

Among the five, it’s hard to say whose career was most remarkable. Henderson stole 25 bases in part-time duty at 42. Fisk caught 106 games at 43, and made the All-Star game that year. Rose had a .395 on-base percentage while playing 119 games at age 44, while Franco had a five-year run of .348-or-better marks between ages 42 and 46 as a platoon first baseman.

Vizquel, meanwhile, continues to do what almost no one before him has done: play shortstop effectively into his 40s.

When looking at the players across pitching and hitting lines, there’s no prototype for success. With some players, their talent was identifiable to all from the beginning; Fisk and Clemens were first-round picks, while Orosco and Johnson were second-rounders. Henderson was picked in the fourth round, and removed any doubts by hitting .345 and stealing 95 bases in his second minor-league season.

Ryan wasn’t picked until the 12th round, but that was an inexcusable oversight: he’s struck out 21 hitters in a high school game, and made his MLB debut at 19. Perry signed for a large sum of money in 1958 – several years before there was a draft – and Franco signed out of the Dominican Republic and was in the big leagues by 23.Vizquel signed out of Venezuela and had made the bigs by 22, and John was a combination football-basketball star who pitched in the majors at 20.

As for the others, Rose was a small kid whose uncle, a scout for the Reds, had to convince the team’s front office to sign him (again, this was before the draft existed). Wakefield was drafted as a hitter, and Hough’s career didn’t take off until he learned the knuckleball a few seasons into an unremarkable minor league career. Niekro didn’t make the majors until he was 25, and though Moyer was a sixth-round pick out of St. Joe’s, he wouldn’t have been released so early in his career if the talent had been obvious.

The moral of the story? There’s really no way to really predict who’ll be the next player who’ll go on to play for forever. Some players on the list were blessed with incredible talents and genetics, while others grinded through long careers through sheer determination.

There does, however, seem to be a couple points of commonality for the players on the list: they had incredible work ethics and out of trouble.

Rarely, if ever, did you see one of these guys on a police blotter. Some, like Rose, never smoked or drank. All stayed in good-enough shape to play; Henderson and Ryan were incredible physical specimens well into their 40s, and Fisk’s workout schedules were legendary.

Meanwhile, for every Rose, Ryan or Moyer, literally hundreds of their big-league contemporaries had hung up their spikes more than a decade before they were done. Many of those players were more talented, but didn’t have the habits or discipline of the 44-plus club.

Franco’s career was especially interesting, because he seemed headed for an early exit from baseball. By age 32, Franco had established himself as a successful big leaguer – he won the batting title in 1991 by hitting .341 – but was known for drinking, carousing and staying out late. But Franco was wise enough to know he couldn’t last with his lifestyle.

Thus began a marked change in how Franco did things. He ate 5,000 calories a day, but only things that were good for him – no sodas, or sweets, or alcohol. He got out of bed earlier and showed up before teammates to work out before games.

Fifteen years later, he was still playing big league ball.

“There are no magic bullets,” Franco told the New York Times in 2006.

Unless, of course, you learn to throw a knuckleball.