— SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The Chicago Cubs had seen all they needed to see from the veteran pitcher.
They had drafted him, traded him, and brought him back again as a free agent. They knew him well, but just didn’t see a place for the 29-year-old left-hander in their rotation. So in the final week of spring training, they cut him loose.
The year was 1992, and the pitcher was Jamie Moyer.
“We were saying ‘it’s time to get a real job,’ ” says Karen Moyer, Jamie’s wife of 24 years.
The Moyers never quite got around to that job hunt. Jamie spent the rest of the 1992 season in the minor leagues, and went on to pitch in the majors for the next 18 years, bouncing from Baltimore to Boston, Seattle to Philadelphia. He won 267 games and compiled a 4.24 ERA over the course of his 24-year career, and earned a World Series ring as a member of the 2008 Phillies — a fine resume that would make any pitcher proud.
So when an elbow injury brought a sudden and premature end to his 2010 season, and a full year of rehabilitation stared him in the face, it only seemed sensible that this was the end. Time to hang up the cleats and finally prepare for the next stage of his career.
If you think that, you don’t know Jamie Moyer.
“I remember him saying (after the injury), ‘I just hope I can play catch with my kids,’ ” recalls Karen. “Then he said ‘I might be able to pitch (to my son’s team).’ Then it was ‘I think I can make a comeback.’ ”
And so Jamie Moyer finds himself at Colorado Rockies spring training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz. He’s a 49-year-old hoping to beat out a host of much younger athletes — some young enough to be his sons — to earn yet another season playing the game he loves.
“My motivation is that I want to play,” says Jamie. “I don’t think I’d be standing here if I didn’t think I could play. Having this opportunity, I still feel like I can contribute.”
“EVERY DAY YOU ARE LEARNING SOMETHING”
When you think professional athlete, a picture of Moyer doesn’t leap to mind. He’s not particularly big, at 6-foot and about 170 pounds. He doesn’t run fast or jump high, and by the standards of major league pitching, he doesn’t throw hard.
Stephen Strasburg, the rocket-armed young talent of the Washington Nationals, is the type that scouts look for, dazzling hitters with a fastball in the high-90s and a changeup that clocks in around 90 mph.
Moyer’s fastball, conversely, barely cracks 80 mph, and the rest of his repertoire — an assortment of sinkers, curveballs, sliders, cutters and changeups — come in even slower.
So if you think it’s improbable that Moyer could successfully pitch against the best baseball players on the planet at age 49, keep in mind that he’s been proving scouts wrong and outsmarting hitters his whole career.
Moyer admits he was probably intimidated as a 23-year-old rookie with the 1986 Cubs, facing legendary sluggers like Dave Winfield and Dave Parker — “two quite large human beings who were quite good at what they did.” He knew he wasn’t going to blow these hitters away. But gradually, he figured out that, more often than not, he could get hitters out.
“I think your mind allows things to be what they are,” Moyer says. “If you allow yourself to be intimidated, then you’re intimidated. You’ve got to focus on the task at hand. I think that’s what I’ve learned over the course of my career. … If I know in a couple days then I have a way to prepare for it. If it’s happening on the fly, then I have to adjust on the fly, because if you don’t the game will pass you by.”
Moyer learned to study hitters. To look for tendencies and patterns, weaknesses he could use to his advantage. He might not embarrass them with blazing fastballs, but he could keep them off balance and frustrate them with an assortment of fluttering pitches that always seemed to miss the sweet spot, turning would-be hits into harmless fly balls or soft grounders.
“He’s a very, very intelligent guy,” says Rockies manager Jim Tracy. “He’s a student, even while he’s pitching. He studies swings, he goes from count to count. He’s gathering information that gives him the direction he’s going to go with the next pitch. He always gives the impression that he’s one pitch ahead of the guy that he’s pitching against.”
Seattle catcher Miguel Olivo, a teammate of Moyer’s with the Mariners from 2004-05, echoes Tracy: “He’s there for a reason, because he’s smart and he knows how to pitch. He’s still learning. He told me one day, ‘No matter where you are, every day you are learning something.’
“He’s a good man, too,” Olivo continued. “He’s got a great family. I know Jamie Moyer a little bit, and my family got to know his family. He’s amazing. I hope he can make it.”
It’s ironic that a man who holds family so dear would spend so much time away from home, a point not lost on Colorado Rockies veteran Jason Giambi.
“I give him a hard time,” Giambi jokes with a small collection of reporters in the Rockies clubhouse. “I ask him, ‘Why do you hate your family?’ ”
The line draws laughs from the group in attendance, but elicits a quick, yet good-natured retort from Karen Moyer, who points out that Giambi, 41, is no youngster himself: “He’s one to talk.”
Karen is fiercely supportive of Jamie and doesn’t reveal the slightest bit of regret that her husband, who has been a professional baseball player the entirety of their relationship, continues to play.
“As a family, why not support it?” she says. “It’s like icing on the cake, and it’s a six-layer cake.”
The Moyers have eight children ranging from Dillon, a sophomore second baseman at UC-Irvine, to Katalina and Yenifer, 5-year-olds the Moyers adopted from Guatemala. High school senior Hutton is an infielder like Dillon and both will be eligible for the draft this summer, meaning there could potentially soon be three Moyer men involved in professional baseball.
The family got used to having Jamie at home last season as he worked to heal his elbow. Though Karen notes he was “a fish out of water times,” it was nice to have the extra driver around to help shuttle the kids to and from school and various sporting activities.
If Jamie is the engine of the Moyer machine, then Karen is the fuel. It is her unbending support that makes everything go. As the daughter of former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, she’s familiar with the lifestyle of big-time sports, and embraces it with gusto. “I’ve become really good at packing and unpacking and making anywhere we are home,” she says.
The younger children, used to having Jamie around, wondered “Why is Daddy going to Arizona?” The older kids embrace it. It’s what they know.
In addition to her home responsibilities, Karen is also Chairman of The Moyer Foundation, a non-profit charity that aims to help children, funding programs such as Camp Erin, which helps children dealing with the loss of loved ones, and Camp Mariposa, which serves those coming from families plagued by addiction.
Then there is Spouses in Sports, a web site that aims to support the wives of professional athletes.
“When Jamie left for spring training, it was his 26th time and I still get that lonely feeling,” she says. “It normalizes it when I talk to my best friend, who goes through the same thing. The team takes care of the guy, so now you’re going to have a site that helps the wife.”
THE NEXT STEP
Family and baseball. You might think those two things would be at odds with each other, yet the Moyers have made it work for 26 years. For the last decade, they’ve been answering questions about life after baseball. When is Jamie going to retire? What will Jamie do next?
Karen sees her husband one day teaching the game to players of all ages, but for now, she says questions about his future always get the same answer: “If you ask him, he’d say ‘I don’t know, I don’t think about it.’ And it’s legit.”
Now, as Jamie attempts a comeback from injury at age 49, he’s taking baseball just as seriously as he did during his rookie season in 1986. This is not a lark. Not some circus show. Not some attempt to become an interesting footnote in baseball history.
“Rest assured, he didn’t come to this camp to catch sun,” Tracy says. “He came with the intention of making this team. We brought him here to give him every opportunity to do just that.”
Fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Jamie hasn’t held back in camp. He looks fit, and has gone through all the same drills as his younger teammates, running the bases, going through fielding drills, working on the mound and with weights.
He was "pleased," if not excited, about his performance in an intrasquad game on Friday, his first action against hitters since July 2010.
Moyer says his goal is to be healthy and help the Rockies have a successful season. He wants to contribute not only on the mound, but in the clubhouse as well, by passing down his wisdom about baseball and life. He learned from legends such as Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken Jr. and Andre Dawson, Hall of Fame talents on the field, who taught not only by how they played, but by “how they treated me, the lessons they showed me in many cases without even saying a word.”
“I’ve got a lot of great memories throughout my career, believe me,” says Jamie. “And it’s because of baseball, but not baseball, you know what I mean? I feel like I can look back and smile, and I’ve learned a lot of life lessons in this business.”
He cherishes his time in the game, all that it has given him, and all he has given it. And he’ll continue to play the game.
Because he can.