Moyer still trying to defy the ages

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Philadelphia Phillies' Jamie Moyer during the fifth inning of the baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies Wednesday, June 16, 2010, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

CHECK OUT Jamie Moyer's fingernails when he signs a copy of the new book he co-authored with Larry Platt. If his fingernails are long and pointy, Moyer ain't retiring anytime soon, not until he's tried to come back one more time, this time as a knuckleballer.

You can remind him he's 50, you can tell him that even though the pitch flutters, there is still serious strain on the arm to throw it, that most catchers can't catch it, that most managers dread its possible side effects. Tell him, but you'd be wasting your breath.

Which is why the book is called, "Just Tell Me I Can't."

And why Jamie Moyer, of Souderton, is not likely to follow Brad Lidge into town anytime soon for a sentimental retirement as a Phillie. Even though he started 122 games for the Phillies, and helped 'em win a World Series in 2008, and has the pitching rubber he dug out of the Citizens Bank Park mound that memorable night hanging in his bedroom.

"Well," Platt said, chuckling, "he's not retired. He did play around with a knuckleball this summer. Talked to Charlie Hough, to Tim Wakefield. He just loves the challenge of learning something new.

"Besides, he has no interest in doing something like Lidge did. I know the Mariners have asked him about that. He's not sentimental that way. He doesn't look backward."

Baseball is a game of inches. If you're a pitcher, the most important inches are above the eyebrows, between the ears. The book chronicles Moyer's long and gritty journey through big-league baseball (25 seasons, eight teams), while paying tribute to the late Harvey Dorfman, the sports psychologist who wrote "The Mental ABC's of Pitching."

Moyer is a disciple of Dorfman, a believer in the importance of what goes on "from the neck up."

You stay in the present. You're immune to outside influences. Satchel Paige preached that. "Don't look back," he warned. "Somethin' might be gainin' on you."

How thick are the blinkers Moyer wears?

"We were in a bar, in Clearwater," Platt recalls. "He was coming back from an injury. He turned to me and asked me, 'How many wins do I have?' I said, 'You don't know?' and he said, 'I have no idea.' "

It's 269 now, including one at age 49, making him the oldest pitcher in big-league history to win a game. You're not on the Hall of Fame ballot until 5 years after your last game. So if he returns once more, this time as a knuckleballer, the clock restarts.

"I don't think he's gonna make the Hall of Fame," Platt said. "Jim Kaat is out there, Tommy John is out there. Jamie's ERA would be the highest in the Hall.

"The fact that he excelled in the steroid era, that ought to help him. Nowadays, the only time character is involved is when we disqualify somebody. His character could help his chances."

He won more often in his 40s than he did in his 20s, an ironic echo of the path the "juicers" followed. The ballot warns against considering individual achievements (no-hitters, perfect games, etc.) but being the oldest pitcher to ever win a big-league game has to count for something.

Moyer winces when asked for the secrets of his longevity, because they are not secretive at all. Dorfman handed him a three-point plan: 1) awareness; 2) forming a strategy; 3) act it out. And then he added, "To aspire to great achievement is to risk failure. It's a package deal."

Muhammad Ali would preach, "What you believe, you can achieve." And Steve Carlton would tell you humans are the only species that sets limits on itself.

But it is one thing to believe and another thing to float a 78-mph fastball past a big-league hitter. Moyer did it over and over and over again, once Dorfman convinced him he had to be aggressive, throw that tantalizing pitch inside.

And that's what Moyer did, getting those wide-eyed, sweaty-palmed hitters to get themselves out, swinging too soon, too often at tantalizing pitches in hard-to-hit places.

It sounds a little grim, a lot grim. There are occasional sparks of humor easing the path. There's an anecdote about Gus Hoefling, Steve Carlton's fitness guru.

Dom Johnson, son of onetime Phillies slugger Deron Johnson, is asked by Hoefling, "Can elephants walk across lilypads?"

After Dom says, "No", Hoefling grumbles, "That's why you'll never reach your potential. Remember: What the mind believes, the body achieves."

Johnson takes the question to Carlton. The enigmatic pitcher smiles and says, "I haven't met that damn elephant yet, but he's out there."

And there are a couple of dramatic departures from Dorfman's solemn no-nonsense approach to pitching. In 1993, coming back from an injury, Moyer was mired in a slump. An old friend, Scooter Myers, borrowed an idea from the movie, "Bull Durham."

Borrowed the garter-belt idea, the item Annie prescribed for Nuke LaLoosh. Scooter sent Moyer a pink garter belt and told him to wear it, next time out. Dorfman would have turned purple. He wanted his players to trust talent and preparation, not voodoo.

Moyer slithered into it. Won his first big-league game in 3 years. Carries the garter belt with him, in his shaving kit. Had it with him the night he made history, pitching for Colorado, at 49 years, 150 days, beating San Diego.

Afterward, they asked, inevitably, about the secret to his longevity.

"I don't have any secrets," he said. "I try to work hard. I try to dedicate myself to what I'm doing. Be responsible for what I'm doing. Be accountable for who I am and what I do and what I bring to the ballpark. And I try to have some fun with it."

That sums it up nicely. Jamie Moyer is that rare combination of will and skill, a warrior on the field and a sensitive, generous soul off the field. It's a wonderful story, well-told.

 


Email: stanrhoch@comcast.net.