Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

The Curious Case of Jamie Moyer

In Baseball, Long form on April 18, 2012 at 9:17 am

He left it up. Damn. He thought he could sneak another changeup past Martinez, but he had left it up, and Martinez had knocked it out into left field. The scoreboard flickered: 3-0 Astros. You’re welcome, cheap seats. Enjoy your souvenir.

He’d gotten careless. He’d fooled the rookie Martinez into biting on the 1-0 change. Rookies ate that kind of stuff up. You’re just up from the minors. You need to impress someone — this might be your only chance. So, you wait for that fat 1-0 pitch, and you’re going to knock the hell out of it. But instead of cowhide, all you hit is air — not a crack, just a whoosh. Rookies were a lot of things, but smart wasn’t one of them. Rookies didn’t know 1-0 was the perfect count for a changeup.

Jamie Moyer wasn’t a rookie. After 25 years, he’d learned 1-0 was a changeup count. He’d also learned the importance of keeping the ball down. Nobody likes the ball low and away, but if you leave it up, every hitter is Babe Ruth. Jamie left it up 1-1, and he paid for his mistake.

There had been a lot of those moments in his career. After 25 years, there had to be: The first one he gave up as a rookie to Juan Samuel, the lead-off he gave up to Tracy Jones, the walk-off he gave up to Alfonso Soriano. He was mad at himself each time, but he’d learned — next time, stick with the curve, next time, pitch him inside, next time, knock him on his ass. He’d file this home run in his mind to save for future at-bats, future 1-1 counts. He was mad at himself now, but it would pass. It would pass because the Rockies were only down 3-0. It would pass because he was still in this game. It would pass because the pitcher’s mound was still his. It would pass because he was still playing baseball.

Baseball has a unique effect on those who watch it. Hockey fans are loyal. Football fans are devoted. But a baseball game turns every fan into a poet. The lazy days of summer, the green of the grass, the passage of time tracked through at-bats and innings pitched: each element of the game seemingly turns into a verse from some forgotten romantic stanza.

But for the players, baseball is something else entirely — fleeting. The average rookie plays his first major league game at 24. He can expect his career to last 6.85 years. In the entire history of Major League Baseball, fewer than half of all players have made it to a fifth season. Moonlight Graham didn’t even make it to a second game.

The conventional wisdom holds that a player reaches the peak of his performance around age 27. When he turns 30, he enters his decline phase, and the baseball version of the Elysian Fields is not far away. Less than 1 percent of all players make it to season 20. And the older you are in your first season, the less likely you are to return for a second. Baseball is a young man’s game.

The Chicago Cubs drafted Jamie late. They didn’t take him until the sixth round of the 1984 draft. He hadn’t expected to be a first-round pick, a “bonus baby” whose development would be scrutinized like a science experiment. Everyone knew that Mark McGwire out of USC would be drafted in the first round, and Jamie knew that he wasn’t Mark McGwire. He could even understand the Atlanta Braves taking a chance on a high school pitcher like Tom Glavine before him. High school guys were high risk, high reward. The message from a team that drafted you in the sixth round was clear: “We hope you can help us win, kid. But keep your suitcase packed.”

Jamie pitched well in the minors, well enough that the Cubs called him up to the major leagues in 1986. Congratulations, kid. Enjoy your 6.85 years. His first assignment: Take on the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that had won 88 games in 1983, that started Mike Schmidt at third base, and that had just played in the World Series. Those Philadelphia Phillies. And who were the Phillies sending to the mound? Steve Carlton. Four-time Cy Young Award winner. Ten-time all-star. That Steve Carlton. Jamie was a Philadelphia kid, and if he couldn’t pitch for the Phillies, this was the next best thing. Twenty-seven outs later, and Jamie was in the record books. His line: W, 6.1 IP/2 K/5.68 ERA. Maybe being Moonlight Graham wouldn’t be so bad.

If the average major league career lasts 6.85 years, Jamie was right on track. He finished out 1986 with the Cubs with a 7-4 record and a 5.05 ERA. Not bad for a rookie. In 1987, his first full major league season, he went 12-15 with a 5.10 ERA. Not good for a starter. By his third year, he settled down. He shaved a run and a half off his ERA, lowered his walk rate, and pitched 202 innings. The Cubs traded Jamie to the Texas Rangers in 1989, but a sore shoulder kept him on the disabled list for most of the season. After a disappointing 1990 season, the Rangers released Jamie. He’d been in the majors for four years — half of a career was gone.

The St. Louis Cardinals signed him in 1991 as insurance, a low-risk, high-reward player. But after seven starts and no wins, the Cardinals sent him to the minors. In the off-season, St. Louis released him. Jamie attempted a comeback with the Cubs in 1992, but Chicago cut him after spring training. The Detroit Tigers called, made an offer, and Jamie accepted. Seven years after his first game, Jamie went back to the minors.

He was probably finished. He had just turned 30, baseball middle age. The Tigers had released him. He’d had his time, and it was over. Eventually, you knew when your playing career was over. You could fool yourself into thinking that you still had a few years — they called it, “something left in the tank” — but sooner or later the aches didn’t go away, the ball didn’t jump off the bat, and the curve didn’t bend like it used to. Jamie thought he had something left in the tank. Averages be damned, he thought he could still play.

“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

-Satchel Paige

After stints with the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, Jamie landed with the Seattle Mariners. He was 34, with his seventh organization, and surrounded by low expectations. But something happened. Something was different. Jamie started winning. He won 17 games in his first full season with the Mariners. He won 15 games the next year. In 1999, Jamie went 14-8, struck out 137 batters, had a 3.87 ERA — and finished sixth in the Cy Young Award voting. He was 36. In 2001, Jamie won 20 games for the first time in his career. He placed fourth in Cy Young Award balloting. Then he celebrated his 39th birthday. Two years later he was named to his first All-Star team — Bob Feller was an All-Star at 19. (He also retired at 37.)

Jamie spent 11 seasons with the Mariners. He won 145 games and became Seattle’s all-time franchise leader in wins, starts and innings pitched, all after his 33rd birthday. He could have gone home in retirement. Instead, he went home in a trade.

He had made his major league debut against an aging Steve Carlton. Now, Jamie had taken Carlton’s spot as the aging veteran. He won five games for the Phillies in 2006. That was good enough for Philadelphia to offer him a two-year contract. Jamie would be around until at least age 45.

Athletes try a little harder during their contract years. Sure, they’re supposed to play hard every game, but when money is on the line, everyone gives a little extra effort, stretches out further to make that catch, and hustles faster to beat out that ground ball. In 2008, Jamie pitched like an athlete looking for a new contract. He went 16-7, tallying a 3.71 ERA in nearly 200 innings pitched. Jamie won more games than Cole Hamels, a man who could have been his son. He struck out more batters than Joe Blanton, a man who could have watched Jamie pitch during a field trip. And at the end of the season, he rode in the Phillies’s World Series championship parade, just like the one he’d cut class to watch in 1980.

The Phillies rewarded Jamie with another two-year deal, one that would keep him in Philadelphia through 2010 — his fourth decade in the major leagues. He won his 250th career game in 2009, but he tore three muscles in his groin that September and missed the rest of the season. In 2010, he strained a ligament in his elbow while pitching against the Cardinals. He didn’t pitch again that season. His contract expired, and the Phillies didn’t offer him a new one. Jamie was 47, out of work, and he had a damaged elbow. Reporters asked him if he’d pitched his last game: “It could be. It potentially could be. But so could have last year. So could have two years ago, so could have five years ago.”

The Colorado Rockies visited the Houston Astros April 7, 2012. Jamie Moyer started the game for the Rockies. He pitched five innings, surrendered four earned runs, and took the loss. He struck out Brian Bogusevic, 28, and Lucas Harrell, 26, both of whom were born when Jamie was preparing for the MLB draft. He surrendered a home run to Jordan Schafer, 25, who was born after Jamie’s major league debut.

Jamie is 49. Yesterday, he became the oldest player in major league history to win a game. It was his 268th career win. He is the third-oldest man ever to play in the majors after Satchel Paige and Jack Quinn. The average major league career lasts 6.85 years. But all averages have outliers.

Another “Curious Case” put it well: “Some people were born to sit by a river. Some get struck by lightning. Some have an ear for music. Some are artists. Some swim. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers.” And some people are born to be left-handed pitchers. They just get a late start.

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