It’s not easy to do something in baseball that has never been done before. The professional game has been around for more than 135 years. But last week, Colorado Rockies pitcher Jamie Moyer did just that.
On Tuesday, Moyer pitched and won a game for the Rockies, becoming the oldest pitcher to win a game in the major leagues, at 49 years and 150 days old.
Moyer has been marveling baseball fans for several years now with his longevity and effectiveness. But there was a time when he wasn’t so marvelous. twenty years ago, at perhaps the lowest point of his career, the Detroit Tigers had a chance to have Moyer in their rotation, at a time when he still had 234 (and counting) wins in his left arm.
It was 1992 and Moyer had been released by the Chicago Cubs in the last week of spring training. The 29-year old had spent spent parts of six seasons in the big leagues with the Cubs, Rangers, and Cardinals. Primarily a starting pitcher, Moyer had struggled with wildness and ineffectiveness. Only once had he kept his ERA below 4.50, and three times it was above five runs per game. With a fastball that barely crept above 82-84 MPH, he didn’t dazzle many people with his stuff. As a result, he spent all of April sitting at home waiting for a team to give him another chance. On May 24, the Tigers signed him to a minor league deal and assigned him to Toledo, where they would see what he could do with the Mud Hens.
The Tigers probably never thought that Moyer was going to be a part of their big league club, in fact one of the reasons they signed him was because he was a veteran who could teach top prospects like Scott Aldred and Greg Gohr what to expect at the next level. The Tiger brass figured Moyer could chew up some innings, and at the very best maybe come up to the majors and serve as a spot lefty out of Sparky’s pen. In reality, the Tigers never really thought of Moyer as a major league option and he stayed in Toledo all season. But he pitched brilliantly. In 20 starts for the Mud Hens, the southpaw posted a 2.86 ERA and went 10-8. But most importantly he settled down and reduced his walks and hits allowed. He took a step forward as a pitcher.
In Detroit in ’92, the Tigers fell off to a 75-87 record, a nine-game drop from the previous season. They were an aging team, with Bill Gullickson and Frank Tanana at the top of their rotation. When the season started to tank, GM Bill Lajoie preferred to call up starting pitchers Aldred and Buddy Groom (like Moyer, both lefties) rather than give the older Moyer a shot. At the end of the season, Moyer went home and waited to hear from the Tigers. He had put in a good season, but nearing 30 years of age, he wondered if a big league club would give him another chance after struggling for six seasons in the majors and then spending an entire year in the minors. In November, the Tigers released Moyer. He was free to sign with any club. In December he signed a minor league deal with Baltimore, who promised him an invite to their big league spring training camp.
Moyer made the most of the opportunity given him by the Orioles – he pitched well in camp but the team still sent him down to their Triple-A team in Rochester to start the ’93 season. But Moyer was no longer a minor league pitcher. His year in Toledo had turned him around. At Rochester, he blazed through the competition, going 6-0 with a 1.87 ERA in eight starts. He even started to get more batters to strike out, using a variety of off-speed pitches. He was quickly called up to Baltimore where he spent the rest of the season and continued to pitch well – winning 12 games and posting a 3.43 ERA. He was the biggest surprise in the O’s season and spent two more years with them before being traded to the Seattle Mariners. By this time, Moyer was a control artist with a repertoire of pitches that barely seemed to top 70 MPH. He blossomed with the Mariners, winning 17 games in his first full season and 145 in 11 years with the team. Twice he won 20 games for the M’s, and in 2001 he went 3-0 in the post-season for Seattle. By that time he was 38 years old, and in many ways he was just getting started.
Moyer went on to be an important part of the Phillies rotation when that club advanced to the post-season four straight years from 2007-2010. He won a World Series ring with the Phils in 2008 when he won 16 games at the age of 45. After spending last season out of the game, Moyer is back now with the Rockies, not only setting records for longevity, but helping a team with his left arm, something he’s been doing since he spent that one season at Toledo for the Tigers twenty years ago.