Monday, April 14, 2008

Moyer Proves Resilient, Keeps Winning with Junk

I’m not that big a fan of Tim McCarver as a baseball announcer. He’s pretty obvious and cliche-ridden. He’s more like an ombudsman for baseball, rather than an original voice. His rap is also riddled with a lot of what I call “manly jock crap.”

However, I am a big fan of McCarver’s syndicated Sunday night interview program (broadcast locally on Nashville’s ABC affiliate, Channel 2). McCarver trots out old-timers and discusses their careers, and his subjects are not always the most obvious guys, which inevitably ends up being totally cool.

The other night he had on Jamie Moyer, who is an old-timer only by virtue of his chronological age. On November 18, 2008, Moyer will turn 46 years old, yet he is still pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies. The Moyer career story is both baffling and triumphant and bears rehashing.

I was living in Chicago in 1986, when 23-year-old Moyer came up from the minors to pitch for the Cubs. He was a promising new face, and even though he tended to give up well over a hit per inning, and his ERA that year was less than stellar (5.05), the guy was 7-4 and threw a shutout in 16 games. Moyer went 12-15 in ’87, again with a high ERA (5.10), but he made 33 starts and pitched 201 innings. Then he went 9-15 in ’88, and while he continued to give up too many hits, he pitched 212 innings and his ERA dipped to 3.48.

Then came an offseason trade. Moyer was shipped with a young Rafael Palmeiro to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Mitch (“Wild Thing”) Williams, a reliever who helped the Cubs to the playoffs in 1989.

Then Moyer hit the skids. From 1989 to 1991, with Texas and then the St. Louis Cardinals, the lefthander compiled a record of 6-20, including a 1991 ERA of 5.74. He was getting hit way too much and his control was only so-so. Things were so bad that Moyer got released by the Cards, then was re-signed by the Cubs, only to be cut prior to the 1992 season. He signed again with Detroit in May of that year, but never put in an appearance in a major league uniform that season. At the age of 29, Moyer looked washed up.

Then the Baltiore Orioles took a chance on Moyer prior to the 1993 season. He rewarded them with a 12-9 season, with a 3.43 ERA. Moyer slogged through the next few seasons with more general mediocrity, but he was allowing slightly fewer hits, and his control improved. In a 1996 season split between the Orioles and the Seattle Mariners, Moyer was 13-3, with an ERA just under 4.00.

Finally, at age 34, Moyer’s career took off. From 1997 to 2005, he was 133-73 for the Mariners. He kept his ERA mostly in the mid to lower 3.00s during those seasons, and his control was decent, and even though he kept giving up a lot of hits, Moyer somehow proved himself a tough, gritty competitor, but most of all, a winner.

What makes the Moyer story even more improbable is that he has managed to pitch into his mid-forties without the benefit of a trick pitch, like the knuckleball. He throws unadulterated junk. His fastball barely breaks 80 MPH. He throws change-ups and curves in the 70 MPH range. With limited physical skills, and a modest 6-foot, 170-lb. frame, Moyer has re-defined the notion of “crafty lefthander,” and he has now managed to tote up a career mark of 231-178, with a lifetime ERA of 4.22.

Yet in a 22-year career, covering 607 games, Moyer has completed only 31 games and thrown but nine shutouts. He’s the quintessential “Give me five or six good innings” kind of guy, and it’s astounding how he’s managed to parlay moxie and an apparent canny understanding of the hitters into such a long major league stint. It’s paid off big-time, too. Moyer has earned nearly $70 million in salary through the years. Not a bad haul.

Moyer’s got a bunch of kids, seven in all, including an adopted child from Guatemala. And he’s still married to Karen Phelps, daughter of former Notre Dame basketball coach and now ESPN analyst Digger Phelps.

Now that Julio Franco appears to be gone for good from baseball, Moyer is the oldest current player in the major leagues.

The message is: Never give up.

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