Jamie Moyer is 49, a piece of material that turns everyone into Jay Leno wannabes. So let's get the monologue out of the way early. Jamie Moyer is so old his first jersey had Roman numerals. Jamie Moyer is so old his first autograph was on the Declaration of Independence. Jamie Moyer is so old he's pitched in every park, including Jurassic. Wait, one more. Jamie Moyer is so old that when he broke into the big leagues, the Yankees' biggest rival wasn't the Red Sox, it was the Confederacy. There, we're done.
This is an article from the April 16, 2012 issue
Lucas Harrell is 26, which isn't nearly as amusing. No one comes up with one-liners about pitchers who have been in pro ball for eight years and aren't exactly old, but by baseball standards are definitely not young anymore. Harrell has gone from being a solid prospect to a postsurgery soft tosser to, now, a pitcher with a rebuilt shoulder who's trying to kick-start his career. When he surprisingly earned a spot in the Astros' rotation during spring training, the Today show and CBS This Morning didn't call for interviews, as they recently did for Moyer, whose comeback with the Rockies after missing a season following elbow surgery is the stuff of which Disney movies are made. Harrell, a fourth-round pick of the White Sox in 2004, has been cut, once by Chicago and once by a surgeon's knife, and he knows that pitchers' careers don't generally have the life expectancy of Moyer's. "I'd love to have a career like his," Harrell says, "but I have to start by pitching well and staying healthy for one."
The two pitchers faced each other last Saturday in Houston, on a day so sunny and warm it felt like midseason instead of opening weekend. Baseball's timelessness is part of its appeal, but the way it cares for neither clock nor calendar can be cruel as well. Last chances can come at any moment—after more than 4,000 big league innings as in Moyer's case or a little more than 40 for Harrell. Though they arrived from different points of the time line, the old man and the younger one went to the mound trying to breathe life back into their careers, aware that the game wouldn't wait long for signs of a pulse.
People love Moyer for the way he tantalizes hitters with pitches that look like batting-practice lobs but mostly because after 24 years in the majors he is, well, ancient. "He's baseball's version of Betty White," says Astros broadcaster Jim Deshaies. So while it would have been a sweet story if Moyer had become the oldest winning pitcher in baseball history last Saturday, it quickly became a different survival story when Harrell outpitched him, allowing just three hits in seven shutout innings of Houston's 7--3 victory. Moyer allowed four runs, three earned, in five innings of work.
Harrell has known of Moyer, at least the video game version, since the younger pitcher was growing up in Springfield, Mo. "I used to play with him all the time in Super Nintendo baseball, when I was seven or eight," he says. But Moyer knew very little about Harrell before their matchup. "I'm 49, and he's what, 26?" Moyer said after the game. "In what way is he similar to me?" In so many ways. They both know, for instance, what it's like to confront a life outside baseball. After the Cubs released Moyer 20 years ago, his father-in-law, ESPN broadcaster Digger Phelps, suggested to him that maybe it was time to get a real job.
Moyer didn't listen then, but he was on the verge of retirement in 2006 when he was struggling with a bad Mariners team. He had decided to tell club executives he was quitting when they asked if he would waive his no-trade rights to be dealt to the Phillies. Moyer agreed to the move, and he won 56 games and a World Series ring in five years with the Phils.
Harrell has been through the same should-I-hang-it-up? agonizing. "After my surgery I couldn't get my velocity back at first, and I thought about other things I could do with my life," he says. "I thought about a lot of things—coaching, teaching."
A power pitcher with a mid-90s fastball until the shoulder surgery in 2007, Harrell worked for more than a year post-op to get his velocity to the 90--92 mph range. "The rehab was tough," he says. "Physically painful and mentally challenging." You know who can relate to that? Moyer. When he blew out his elbow pitching in winter ball in 2010, he went through with Tommy John surgery even though few people expected him to pitch again at his age. "The rehab was incredibly time consuming, and it feels like it took even longer than it actually did," he says. "From the surgery to today seems like three or four years. I'm happy I got to this point. Now it's time to put up or shut up."
Rockies manager Jim Tracy felt that Moyer put up well enough in his first start to stay in the rotation. He broke a couple of bats by pitching inside and induced his share of weak ground balls, but he also surrendered a pair of home runs. Moyer doesn't plan to reassess his future after each start. "I don't feel like I'm on any sort of leash," he said. "If I have a bad outing somewhere along the line, it's not going to make me think I should quit." No one would expect that. The thought of quitting for both Moyer and Harrell is outdated and laughable now. Like an old joke.