Commentary

Thinking rotation, not retirement

47-year-old Jamie Moyer plans to pitch until the game tells him he can't

Updated: March 20, 2010, 2:58 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Jamie MoyerAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesEven after a trying offseason, Jamie Moyer, 47, couldn't say no to a 26th spring training.
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The easy way to find the definition of "ageless" is to click over to dictionary.com.

But here's a better idea. You really want to find the definition of "ageless?" Try locating the pitcher's mound in Bright House Field, where a man named Jamie Moyer just keeps showing up for work, whether the rest of the planet thinks he should or not.

He might be the most amazing story in spring training. And just about nobody seems to notice.

This is his 26th spring training -- yeah, his 26th. He's eight months away from his 48th birthday -- yeah, his 48th. He's had three surgeries -- yeah, three -- since September. And if he starts this season in the Phillies' rotation, all we can say is: Alert the historians.

Want to know the last team to start a season with a pitcher as old as Moyer in its rotation? You'd have to travel back in time nearly a quarter-century.

That team was the 1987 Cleveland Indians, proud employer of 48-year-old Phil Niekro. Except Niekro, as a couple of thousand still-aggravated hitters will recall, was a knuckleball king. So let's rephrase the question:

What's the last team to start a season with a non-knuckleballer as old as Moyer in its rotation? Now you've got a much longer journey in the old wayback machine.

That team would be the 1931 Brooklyn Dodgers, who started 47-year-old Jack Quinn on Opening Day and then never started him again. So let's rephrase the question one last time:

What's the last team to start a non-knuckleballer older than Moyer more than once in a season? Any season? And the answer to that is: You can't find one. Ever.

But if Moyer stays on his current path between now and Opening Day, that's exactly where you'll be finding the Ancient Ex-Mariner in a few weeks: right there in the rotation of the defending NL champions. What a tale.

He's four years older than the next-oldest starting pitcher in the big leagues (that knuckleballing Tim Wakefield) and nearly 10 years older than the next-oldest left-handed starter (Andy Pettitte). But when that nasty word "age" came up in the conversation this spring, Moyer was having none of it. As always.

"I don't think age really comes into play with me," he said, perfectly serious. "I think the media in general will use that however they want to use it. Some people will say, 'You're too old. Why are you doing this?' Hey, I'm doing it because I can. I feel like I can. You know what I mean?

"I've always said this. The game is going to tell me I can't. … And right now, I don't feel like the game has told me I can't."

Not that the game hasn't sent Moyer a few messages he wasn't real fond of over the past year. He got bounced out of the Phillies' rotation in August, for instance. That wasn't exactly his favorite message ever.

Then he crumpled to the ground one night in late September, after tearing three tendons in his groin and abdomen. Not only did that wipe out any shot he had of becoming the first 46-year-old in eight decades to pitch in October, it kicked off a painful barrage of medical misfortune that sent him to the operating room three times in three months.

So if this were anyone else -- and we do mean anyone -- we can almost guarantee the only sport he'd be playing right now would involve a pitching wedge. But in the case of Jamie Moyer, we're talking about one of the most unique human beings ever to play any sport.

Almost 19 years ago, the Cardinals gave him a little career advice: Bag that crazy idea that he could pitch for a living and become a pitching coach. Nearly two decades -- and 224 big league wins later -- it's time for him to give us a little advice:

Quit trying to tell him what he can't do.

"When I go back and look at 1991, when I was told it was time to quit and become a coach, I didn't feel like it was time," Moyer said. "And right now, I feel the same way. I don't feel like it's time."

Only a few months ago, though, no one was too sure what to think -- including Moyer -- when the trips to his friendly neighborhood surgeon just kept on coming. First there was the groin/abdomen surgery in October. Then a second operation to control a postoperative infection a few weeks later. Then a third surgery in January to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.

None of those issues would have been viewed as career-threatening if he were 27, or possibly even 37. But at 47? Who wouldn't assume the worst?

"I had to sit and watch the playoffs, and then the World Series," Moyer said. "And then I had to ponder, all winter long -- 'What if? What if? What if?' -- not really knowing anything … wondering what was going to happen."

He wasn't the only one.

"When he went down with the [groin] injury, it turned out to be more serious than I thought it was at the time," said his manager, Charlie Manuel. "And when he kept having problems, I was very concerned about him."

So Manuel had no idea what he'd see this spring, either. Which means he was as surprised as anybody when what he saw was "the same old Jamie."

Naturally, it was Moyer who became the first Phillies pitcher to throw three innings in any game all spring, even though it came in a 10 a.m. "B" game. Naturally, he hasn't missed a drill -- any kind of drill -- all spring. And naturally, said his friend and protégé, Cole Hamels, "he blows by us every single day out there" on the practice fields.

Uh, wait a second. Did he really just use the expression "blows by us?"

"Yeah, that's kind of a funny figure of speech," Hamels laughed, "considering he only throws 80 miles an hour. But it makes him feel good about himself."

[+] EnlargeJamie Moyer
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireLast season, Moyer had a significantly lower BAA as a reliever (.152) than as a starter (.293).
At Moyer's age, though, he has no choice but to keep blowing by those young whippersnappers, because when you're 47 years old, the reality of life is this: You're always going to be one lousy start away from hearing "You're done."

Moyer learned that lesson once again last summer, when he was just a kid of 46. He arrived at the All-Star break with a 5.99 ERA. And the Phillies promptly went right out and signed Pedro Martinez. So whose spot in the rotation did Pedro take?

"That was my decision all the way," Manuel said. But when the manager informed Moyer of what he was doing and why, Moyer listened, thought about it and then returned to the manager's office the next day for a second meeting to plead his case.

"I've never told anybody about that before," Manuel said. "But I'm telling you now. … He was very professional about it when I told him [the first time]. Then the more he thought about it, he still wasn't convinced and I had to talk to him again."

Moyer actually had a better case to stay in that rotation than most folks realized. After what even he admits was a "horrible" first two months (3-5, with a 7.42 ERA), he then went 7-2, 3.82, over the 11 starts he made from May 31 through July 27. And lost his job anyway.

So when lobbying with the manager didn't work, he expressed his unhappiness publicly via a brief statement to the media. He said he was "disheartened." He also said the Phillies "misled" him by promising over the winter that they wouldn't send him to the bullpen. But he still promised that he would "deal with it" and wouldn't become a distraction.

Nevertheless, the initial reaction in his town was that, by saying all that, he'd already become one.

"You know what? It was my opinion. That's all," Moyer would say, seven months later. "Just like you [media] guys are entitled to your opinion, and the fans are entitled to their opinion and the organization is entitled to its opinion, I'm entitled to my opinion, too. So I made my point. And then it was done. And over with."

Well, not totally, of course. The debate raged on for weeks. But one guy who had no problem with Moyer's stance was the only guy who had a vote that counted -- his manager.

"To be honest, I think he handled it very well," Manuel said. "The biggest thing was he went to the bullpen and he didn't say nothing. And when he got a chance to pitch, he came out and pitched good. And that was the right statement."

Starting with Moyer's first relief appearance, on Aug. 18, he put up a 3.26 ERA over the last month and a half of his season, allowing only 36 baserunners in 38 2/3 innings and a .206 opponent batting average. It was, by almost any measure, the best he pitched all year.

Still, it was tough to know what the future held for this man. But when the Phillies said "So long" to Pedro and traded Cliff Lee, they opened the door for the Ancient Ex-Mariner one more time.

This spring, the fifth starter's job would be Jamie Moyer's to lose.

The $7.75 million the Phillies owe him -- for the final year of the unprecedented two-year contract he signed (at age 46) after the '08 World Series -- has a lot to do with that, obviously. But while that money buys him time and opportunity, he knows that, with two weeks left in spring training, he still has no guarantees of anything except a paycheck.

His only real competition, Kyle Kendrick, rolled up a 1.29 ERA through his first 14 spring innings. Moyer, meanwhile, wasn't even scheduled to pitch a real Grapefruit League game until Sunday. Instead, he made three straight starts in those "B" game early bird specials that don't even count. And the last of those three starts -- eight hits and five runs in three rocky innings the other day -- has turned this into an official mano a mano.

But the oldest non-knuckleballer of modern times wouldn't have it any other way. His motto about stuff like this is: Attitude is everything.

"A lot of what we do in life," Moyer said, "is in how we approach things."

So how is he approaching what might be his final spring? By savoring every moment.

"I've thought about this a lot this spring," he said. "People say, 'Why don't you retire? Aren't you tired of playing?' But honestly, I've played a long time. And I've played on many, many, many talented teams -- but also, many of those teams were not very successful.

"And right now, I have an opportunity to continue to play on a very successful baseball team. These guys know how to act. And they know how to win. They're very professional. And it's very exciting to be a part of it. And maybe that's some of what I don't want to let go. And I feel like I can add something to it."

If he can, that's fine with everyone around him. If he can't, then they'll all just have to figure out a way to make the final chapter of this remarkable saga turn out as happily as possible.

But for now, it's way too soon to start typing that chapter -- because the Ancient Ex-Mariner has some history to make.

"One of these days," said Charlie Manuel, "there is a Father Time. And it catches up with everybody. … So how long can he keep doing this? I don't know. But I guess we're going to find that out -- 'cause he's still pitching."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com