Moyer's formula: Mind over muscle
Just Tell Me I Can't
How Jamie Moyer Defied the Radar Gun and Defeated Time
By Jamie Moyer and Larry Platt
Reviewed by Frank Fitzpatrick
In 1993, Baltimore Orioles GM Roland Hemond and his wife hosted another couple for dinner and a ball game at Camden Yards.
As the meal concluded, the guests asked Hemond who was pitching for the home team.
Informed it would be Jamie Moyer, the couple disappointedly glanced at each other. "We're leaving," they told the GM.
It wasn't, at the time, an irrational reaction.
The Bucks County-bred Moyer was then a 31-year-old journeyman with a beer-league fastball and little confidence, an Everyman with an Everyman arm. In six previous seasons with three other clubs, Moyer had compiled a less-than-mediocre record of 34-49 and, in 1992, earned himself a demotion to the minor leagues.
He might never have made it back to the majors if his father-in-law, ex-Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, hadn't lobbied Hemond in his behalf. That faith wasn't being immediately rewarded. He'd begun the '93 season 0-3 with an ERA approaching 6.00.
But though Hemond's guests couldn't have guessed it that night, Moyer's transformation was already underway.
Not long before, he'd met Harvey Dorfman, a gruff, Bronx-born sports psychologist who was destined to become the pitcher's Svengali. The famously confrontational Dorfman drilled his self-help dictums into Moyer's head. He taught the low-key lefthander to believe not just in himself, but in his best pitch, a changeup.
Sometime later in 1993, it all came together. Confident and shrewd, Moyer began to regularly outsmart and frustrate hitters who invariably returned to the dugout wondering how a pitcher whose fastball barely reached 80 m.p.h. got them out.
Over the next 17-plus seasons, including 41/2 successful ones in Philadelphia, Moyer won 235 more games. He made an All-Star team, hit the 20-victory mark in a season twice, became at 49 the oldest pitcher to record a big-league victory, and, just a few weeks shy of his 46th birthday, captured a World Series with the team he'd cheered on as a boy in Souderton, the Phillies.
The redemptive relationship between Moyer and Dorfman, who died at 75 in 2012, provides the narrative structure of Just Tell Me I Can't, a captivating memoir cowritten by the now-retired pitcher and former Philadelphia Daily News editor Larry Platt.
It's a story illustrative of a new sports world, where the competitors - intensely scrutinized, immensely compensated, yet insecure and constantly pressured to succeed - are forever seeking an edge.
Increasingly, many athletes, like Moyer, are discovering the key to success between their ears. Once spurned as mumbo-jumbo, psychology is now a widely accepted item in the sports toolbox. And there is no stronger advocate than Moyer.
"Pitching," Moyer said he came to understand, "takes place from the neck up."
Dorfman, a onetime high school English teacher who taught himself psychology, helped Moyer control his mind so effectively that Moyer became unconcerned by his lack of a fastball, the record number of home runs he allowed, or the eager looks of hitters who came to bat against him. In his reshaped world, they weren't even there.
In lengthy sessions at his Arizona home, in long walks through the desert, and in phone conversations, the psychologist remade Moyer's mind as thoroughly as an orthopedic surgeon might redo a pitcher's shoulder or elbow.
Now, his Methuselah-like career apparently over at last, his guru gone, Moyer reveals his secret and his story in a book that is as much a self-help guide as a life story. Instead of a chronological retelling of a life, the book focuses on 13 pivotal dates in Moyer's journey - the 2008 night the Phillies won the Series and Moyer talked a groundskeeper into letting him take the pitching rubber; the game in 1998 when he gained complete faith in his changeup; the day in 1991 when he met Dorfman.
Simply put, as Greg Maddux, who pitched with Moyer in the Cubs organization, correctly notes in a cover blurb, it "shows how someone who threw 80 miles per hour became the 34th winningest pitcher in baseball history."
The son of a small-town athlete whose sports dreams gave way to family and a dry-cleaning business, Moyer prospered at every level of baseball until he made it to the Chicago Cubs in 1986. By 1990, Texas had released him. A year later, he was 0-5 in St. Louis. He spent 1992 with the Toledo Mud Hens.
The bond he developed with Dorfman came naturally for Moyer, who constantly searched for a magic bullet to enhance his modest physical gifts and, ultimately, save his career. He sought advice from everyone. He learned what muscles pitchers use most often and focused his exercises there. He developed, with the psychologist's help, an understanding of and tolerance for pain.
But as devoted as he was to psychology, Moyer, much to Dorfman's dismay, never entirely abandoned baseball's odd passion for superstitions.
Early on in his tutelage, a slumping Moyer wore on the mound the good-luck item a boyhood friend had sent - a pink garter belt. He beat the Red Sox that night in 1993 and carried the garter in his shaving kit throughout his career. And when a shrimp-and-pasta dinner preceded a victory, Moyer asked his wife to prepare the same meal before every start.
That willingness to cling to superstitions was, in a way, Moyer's tacit admission that even psychology can't explain some of baseball's mysteries.
Baseball, Moyer says in the book's acknowledgments, "has both driven me mad and made me deliriously happy."
Though his book will do neither, it does provide a fascinating view inside America's game and inside the head of a pitcher who understood it as well as anyone.
Frank Fitzpatrick is an Inquirer sportswriter. firstname.lastname@example.org