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Hanging in There Only in Baseball

April 13, 2009
April 13, 2009

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April 13, 2009

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Hanging in There Only in Baseball

A new season is all about possibilities, and nothing says anything is possible quite like a 46-year-old pitcher with an 82-mph fastball in a major league rotation. For the Phillies, there's no doubt Jamie Moyer is a deserving starter

THERE'S A JamieMoyer in your bowling league, right? Some guy, 46 years old, not quite sixfeet, a buck-eighty-five, toppling pins with little finger flicks. Except thisguy pitches in the National League. Twenty-three years after his first majorleague win, over Steve Carlton, Jamie Moyer is still at it, throwing tissuepaper. On Sunday night, curtain up on the new season, Moyer was back inuniform, at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, taking in the packed house,playing catch, charting Atlanta's big young bats: catcher Brian McCann, 25;first baseman Casey Kotchman, 26; rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, 25. ¬∂ ButGrandpa (as shortstop Jimmy Rollins calls Moyer) is a wily operator. Yes, therewill be nights this year when guys light him up and the Phillies lose. Butthere will be more nights when Moyer's 82-mph fastball, his speed-limitchangeup, his what-was-that? curveball, many of them off the plate butirresistible, will leave batters feeling as if they got beat by a lefthandedgnat. Young, aggressive swingers, especially, are often confused by him,looking "fastball" inside, and getting way out in front of an outsidechangeup. Moyer thinks—and outguesses—hitters as well as any pitcher inbaseball. He has to. Watching him work into the sixth or seventh inning makesyou think that anything's possible.

This is an article from the April 13, 2009 issue

He started thenew season seven wins short of Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell's 253. Carl Hubbell,star of the '34 All-Star Game. Moyer knew him, talked pitching with him. That'show Moyer got to the majors, by talking and listening, watching, working,stretching. He'll tell you: "You gotta stretch."

What another Hallof Famer, Nolan Ryan, gave Moyer, he's giving to the Phillies' young ace, ColeHamels. (Moyer on Ryan's mental toughness: "We're both with Texas, andwe're at Fenway. Guy in the stands hits Nolan with a full cup of beer as he'swalking in from the mound. He never breaks stride, and he never looks up. Hejust goes to the dugout and sits there, all wet.") What Moyer's father gavehim—the game itself—Jamie's giving to his two baseball-playing sons.

Moyer was sharpin 6 1/3 innings as the Game 3 starter in last year's World Series, despite avirulent case of diarrhea. (Philly blew a three-run lead, then won it in theninth.) When the Phillies won the Series two games later, Moyer celebrated bydigging the pitching rubber out of the cold dirt of The Bank's mound. Thehomeboy—Moyer is a proud son of Souderton, Pa., the outer limit of where youcan still get a legitimate Philadelphia cheesesteak—saw his quiet andunassuming 77-year-old father, Jim, a retired glass installer and formerfast-pitch softball pitcher, in the beer-soaked clubhouse and said to him,"This makes all those backyard games of pepper worth it." A poignantfather-son moment. Norman Rockwell could have painted it.

O.K., so that'sjust part of the story. Moyer has been shaped, like a lot of us, by a lifetimeof baseball movies (his favorite is The Natural) and the familiar halftimespiels of old-timey coaches (his father-in-law is Digger Phelps, the ESPNanalyst and former Notre Dame basketball coach). The truth is, Moyer would haveloved those father-son late '60s backyard pepper games even if they hadn't ledto anything more than the bell for supper.

But that's notthe point. The point is that even after tours with seven major league teams,Moyer has never forgotten working-class Souderton. Yes, he's in the first yearof a two-year, $14 million contract, and the new house in Bradenton, Fla., hasa climate-controlled, 4,000-bottle wine cellar. But in the creases of Moyer'sface you see the back-and-forth routes from the majors to the minor leagues,through Winston-Salem and Pittsfield and Toledo and Rochester.

HE HAS alwayslooked more like us than them. Do you think any big-time college baseballcoaches—forget about professional scouts—found their way to Souderton Area Highin the spring of 1981 to watch a short-legged, 145-pound, 5'9" seniorpitcher with a batting-practice fastball and mediocre grades? They did not. SoMoyer enrolled in night school at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia,getting his grades up so he could try out for the baseball team, which wascoached by a high school science teacher. By day Moyer worked for the boroughof Souderton, painting crosswalks, collecting leaves, mowing bumpy municipalball fields. He'd pack a sandwich at breakfast and eat it while making thehourlong drive to school in his parents' baby-blue Pinto. "Bologna onwhite, mustard between the meat," Moyer recalled cheerfully during a recentall-day interview. (The man's a Hall of Fame talker.) "If you put themustard right on the bread, the sandwich gets all mushy."

For the firstcouple of months of the season Moyer will live alone in a stately Philadelphiatown house while the rest of the Moyer Nine (wife Karen, seven kids) willfinish the school year in Bradenton, about 80 minutes in traffic fromClearwater, where the Phillies conduct spring training. (Karen and Jamie met in1986, when he was a rookie with the Chicago Cubs and she, then a rising seniorat Notre Dame, had a summer TV job, fetching stats and coffee for broadcastersHarry Caray and Steve Stone. In '92, after the Cubs released Moyer, Phelps saidto his son-in-law, "Maybe it's time for you to get a real job." Thatwas a motivator.)

The move to atreeless development in Bradenton, from Seattle (where Moyer spent the mosttime in his pro career, 1997 until August 2006), was not for the convenience ofKaren, who runs a children's charity and owns an indoor cycle studio there.

The Moyers didn'trelocate to Bradenton for the Irish twins, McCabe, a five-year-old boy, andGrady, a four-year-old girl, who share a bedroom and act like an old marriedcouple. They didn't make the move for the baby in the family, two-year-oldYenifer, adopted as an infant from a Guatemalan orphanage. They didn't make themove for the two older girls, 13-year-old Timoney or 11-year-old Duffy. (Allthe kids, except the baby, have given names that are surnames on the Phelpsside of the family.)

Nope. They movedto Bradenton for Dillon, a 17-year-old shortstop. And for Hutton, a 15-year-oldsecond baseman. The family moved to Bradenton to further the baseballeducations of the oldest two boys. Dillon, a high school junior, and Hutton, afreshman, are enrolled in the baseball program at IMG Academy. They arefull-time students and full-time ballplayers. Dillon and Hutton will not bemowing bumpy municipal ball fields anytime soon, but they take ground balls allyear long.

At Souderton AreaHigh, Moyer played golf in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball inthe spring. On warm May days he'd smell the cut grass through the open windowsof his world cultures class and fantasize about called third strikes. In thesummer he'd work and play American Legion baseball and pickup basketball andsqueeze in nine holes at the public course in the fading light.

Moyer lives intwo worlds, the world of his memory and the world he's actually in. "I grewup blue-collar, my kids are growing up in a major league environment," hesays. "As baseball players I want Dillon and Hutton to have the bestpossible coaching. Access to experts in nutrition. Weight training. Goodcompetition. Exposure. They've said they want to see how far they can get inbaseball. I'm fortunate to have the means to help them."

The thing aboutthe IMG baseball program, or any program like it, is that it can't teachpassion. Moyer knows his baseball-playing boys will put in their hours. Like aveteran scout he's looking for other signs. He's looking for the thing that gothim to the majors.

One day duringspring training the father needed to get Dillon and Hutton in a car, duesomewhere for something, as per usual. He couldn't get the boys out the frontdoor. They were watching a tape of the '93 World Series, the Toronto Blue Jaysversus the Phillies, a sad Philadelphia story. "C'mon boys, let's go,"the father said over the play-by-play. He was louder the second time. Stillthey didn't hear him. They were lost in Mitch Williams's pitching foibles. Thefather saw their passion. They reminded him of someone.

OR IS it threeworlds? There's the Souderton boyhood Jamie Moyer carries under his cap.There's his everyday life in the bigs. And then there's his wife's world,without borders.

For Christmaslast year, at Karen's initiative, the Moyers did not exchange gifts. Instead,the family spent a week in Guatemala, handing out boxes of diapers at Yenifer'sformer orphanage, delivering gifts at a hospital for children with AIDs,visiting families living in tin huts on the edges of the vast, foul GuatemalaCity dump, bringing them fresh bread and Christmas cheer in the second languageof the Moyer family, Spanish.

Dillon and Huttonwere struck by how happy so many of the Guatemalans seemed to be, despite thewretched poverty the brothers saw. They were amused to see their father walk upto a Guatemalan man wearing a Ryan Howard road jersey and introduce himself,not as the starting pitcher in Game 3 of the 2008 World Series, but as a guywho grew up in Souderton and had rooted for the Phillies before he played forthem. Both men, it turned out, had gone to the Phillies' 1980 World Seriesvictory parade.

Jamie took atrain from Souderton to the city for that parade, and Jamie will take the restof the Moyer Nine to Souderton on some off days this summer, as he does everyyear, to visit his folks. He'll show Dillon and Hutton (and anybody else whogets in the car) the borough pool to which he used to ride his five-speedSchwinn. The route he'd walk to school in his hightop Converse All-Stars fromthe Moyer house on Fourth Street. The places he worked on Main Street. Thevarious bumpy fields of his youth.

The father wantshis young ballplayers to know, really know, that good things can come from badhops and that not every clubhouse has carpeting, air conditioning, flat-screenTVs, World Series photos. But if you get there, if you work your way there,fighting odds and expectations all the while, it's exceptionally cool.

Now it's Aprilagain, and Jamie Moyer is back on the mound. His years in the game have turnedinto decades. He looks ordinary. He's not.

The father wants his young ballplayers to play withpassion and know, really know, that GOOD THINGS CAN COME FROM BAD HOPS.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansCRAFTY Moyer has never overpowered hitters, but he has had a healthy left arm and good enough stuff to win 246 games.PHOTOPhotograph by Al Tielemans[See caption above]PHOTOMICHAEL HEAPETHE MOYER NINE In Bradenton, (from left) Timoney, Dillon, Karen, Yenifer, McCabe, Jamie, Hutton, Grady and Duffy.PHOTODIGGING DEEP Moyer showed his fortitude in Game 3 of the Series, then walked off with the rubber after Philly won it all.