PHOENIX - Last week, on the night before his first spring training start on this most improbable major league comeback, 49-year-old Jamie Moyer had a hankering for a cheesesteak.
So we headed over to Corleone's, a sandwich shop run by Philly ex-pat Giovanni Caranci, who almost started hyperventilating when he saw the former Phillies pitcher walk through the door.
"Thank you for the World Series," Giovanni said before setting us up with a couple of Wiz Wits.
Moyer, who led that magical 2008 team in wins with 16, remembered Giovanni and his son, who had seats that year overlooking the Phillies bullpen: "I gave you guys some balls, didn't I?"
Moyer and I are working on a book together, which comes out next year. So every couple of months, I get a firsthand view of his stirring refusal to release his grip on baseball. He's in the Colorado Rockies' spring training camp, feeling, he said, "like a rookie again." Now, on the night before his first start, after having pitched two shutout innings in relief 4 days earlier, it became clear that the continuing education of Jamie Moyer is alive and well.
"I watched video today of my two innings and saw that my right hip was leaning too far to the plate on my leg kick," he said. "I have to work on that." Then, right there in the sandwich place, he started demonstrating this most infinitesimal mechanical glitch - a nuance so subtle it eluded my eye even as he slowly demonstrated.
But that's Moyer. With his Souderton, Pa., blue-collar roots, he is always working on something. He has had to; it's not like he can rely on a blazing fastball to get him out of trouble. Instead, he's become something like baseball's living embodiment of Kaizen, the Japanese business philosophy that seeks to continually improve all functions. "Continually" is the key word; it's self-improvement as a process, not a destination.
That ethos is what drives him to dissect his leg kick while wiping Cheese Wiz from his mouth. And that's what drove him, in the middle of the 2009 World Series, to add another pitch to his repertoire. Before Game 4 against the Yankees, his boyhood idol, Steve Carlton, was to throw out the ceremonial first pitch; Moyer was to catch it. Prior to the ceremony, the two legends practiced. Carlton threw in a couple of his famous, tightly wound, sliders. Moyer, always looking for an edge, thought for a moment. "Can you show me that?" he asked. An offseason later, a nasty cutter (differing from Carlton's slider only in its degree of spin) became one of his go-to pitches. Pitching coaches marveled. Who adds a pitch in their late 40s?
It's no accident that Moyer refers to going to the ballpark as "going to work." But why is he still at it? The sports media has lately been all abuzz about his comeback, and piece after piece have focused on the novelty of a 49-year-old coming back from Tommy John surgery. (When he wins his first regular-season game this season, he will be the oldest pitcher in baseball history to do so.) But, amid the hype, it's easy for his body of work to go unnoticed. It's not just that he's an old pitcher; he may be the game's greatest old pitcher ever. Moyer is baseball's 36th winningest pitcher in history and the ninth winningest lefty ever in the game. He has won 267 games, right there on the all-time list between Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Bob Fellercq.
After we harden our arteries, Philly-style, we head back to Moyer's temporary digs in Phoenix, where we watch one of his favorite movies, "Despicable Me," and where he hears from his eight kids back in San Diego, where the family lives amid a sort of baseball Diaspora. Vince Coleman, Trevor Hoffman and former Phil Mike Sweeney all live nearby. In fact, Sweeney recently coached 8-year-old Mac Moyer - who brought the gas pitching against a team of 11- and 12-year-olds. Mac struck out the side in the first; Charlie Manuel likes to joke that Mac already throws harder than his old man.
Moyer knows what many of us have come to learn in middle age - that speed kills. He's had to think his way to success.
"Pitching is the ultimate game of Truth or Dare," he says; his changeup in the low 70s continues to befuddle young, aggressive hitters.
"I use their egos against them," Moyer likes to say. He does that by lulling batters into thinking they are getting their pitch - when they're really getting his.
"If a guy takes a swing and hits off his front foot, if his hands are drifting forward, I know I have the advantage, because he's off-balance," Moyer says. "Then I'll jam him, get him to hit the ball above the label, foul it off. Now he's thinking, 'I should've hit that ball.' Now the game within the game has begun. Now my catcher and I are in control, and we can get him to start swinging at pitches he doesn't want to swing at."
Moyer says he's still pitching because he thinks he can, and because if he didn't try, he'd always be haunted by his own "what-if" narrative. But I think it goes deeper. I think he's still pitching because he's always done the unexpected, and always defied his doubters. This is the guy, after all, who, after being cut by three teams by age 30, turned down the Cubs' offer of a pitching-coach position in favor of $12,000 for a season of minor league mop-up duty in Toledo. Does he ever think what would have happened had he listened to virtually everyone else and taken that Cubs job?
"I'd be fat and miserable today," he says.
The reason Moyer's quest is resonating with anyone north of 40 is that we've seen, and relate to, the ultimate battle athletes wage - against the calendar. In recent years, we've seen Michael Jordan, Brett Favre and Roger Clemens all fight the clock; all were, if not tarnished in the attempt, certainly diminished. We may have admired their effort to reclaim past glory, but, when Jordan missed that dunk in the 2003 NBA All-Star Game or when Favre limped off the field after that last flurry of interceptions, we were saddened by the spectacle. But Moyer's story isn't one of an aging jock hanging on too long. Instead, he's arguably the first star athlete who has actually kept getting better deep into his 40s. Hall of Fame pitcher and three-time Cy Young winner Tom Seaver, for example, posted a 52-62 record between the ages of 36 and 41. At the same ages, Moyer was 88-52, including two 20-win seasons, at 38 and 40. In his last four seasons, between the ages of 44 and 47, Moyer's record was 51-38.
Of course, the Seaver trajectory is the norm. The careers of great athletes tend to be contracted versions of the typical lifespan. They peak in their mid-20s and physical decline begins thereafter, well before it does for mere civilians. Major league pitchers peak at 27; most are out of baseball by their mid-30s. It's easy to forget just how much of a young man's game it is. Moyer's Seattle teammate Ken Griffey Jr. played until he was 40, but his peak power years were from ages 26 to 29. Even a legend like Joe DiMaggio, who retired at 36, had his best year at 22. Dwight Gooden pitched until he was 35, but never came close to the season he had at 20. Moyer, though, has defied the script.
Last Sunday, against the White Sox, Moyer went three innings and got the win, giving him a 1-0 record with a 1.80 ERA this spring (5 days later, after tweaking his groin, the Rockies had him sit out a minor league game he was scheduled to pitch, though he was expected to return to the field a few days later). But, as Moyer will tell you, it's not about results - it's about seeking to get better every day, even at 49. His outing on Sunday ended with a runner on second and A.J. Pierzynski, who only struck out 23 times last year, at the plate. There was a 72 mph curveball that fluttered in midair as though it were in a Looney Tunes cartoon. There was a 65 mph changeup that had Pierzynski twitching nervously at the plate. Then came the 78 mph fastball on the outside corner for strike three. As the batter made his walk of shame back to the dugout, the fans erupted - especially those of us who, like Moyer, know the lyrics to songs on classic rock stations. Jamie Moyer had once again given the middle finger to mortality, which made us all feel a little more inspired about our own chances.