When ageless baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer and I agreed to collaborate on a book, there were some ground rules. He'd grown up reading, and being underwhelmed by, the typical athlete autobiography: "I'm not a 'me, me, me' kind of guy," he said. So the book would be my take on a master craftsman at work; I'd be alongside this most cerebral student of the game as he sought to become the oldest pitcher in baseball history to win a game -- after having had reconstructive elbow surgery at 48. Through Moyer, I'd chronicle what pitching is, the mystery and mastery of it. We'd be partners, but Moyer was clear from the outset: "I'll pitch. You write," he said.
Now that it's over -- Just Tell Me I Can't: How Jamie Moyer Defied the Radar Gun and Defeated Time came out Sept. 10 from Grand Central Publishing -- I'm free to disclose the one thing Moyer preferred me not to include in the manuscript: My argument for his induction into the Hall of Fame.
It's a point of view that will take many cognoscenti by surprise. That's because of the numbers-crunching way our Hall of Fame debates have always played out. The steroid era has compromised the comparing of statistics between generations, and that should usher in a new, and more nuanced, way of thinking about Hall of Fame induction. On a strictly statistical basis, the conventional wisdom is that Moyer comes up just short of Cooperstown immortality. But there are at least two reasons why Moyer should be Exhibit A for a broader way to think about entry into the Hall of Fame.
First, it bears noting that, as his career wound down, Moyer knew very little about his future Hall prospects. On the fall 2011 night that he began throwing off a mound for the first time in a year and a half after his surgery, we were having a couple of beers. "How many wins do I have?" he asked, after I told him he was the closest in Major League Baseball to the magical 300-victory mark. He asked about the totals of others; I explained that he had one more win than Hall of Famer Bob Feller, and that two wins would give him 269 and move him past Hall of Famer Jim Palmer. The more time I spent with him, the more I understood his ignorance when it came to his own statistics: Moyer's success, thanks to the mentorship of legendary sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, (often called "baseball's best-kept secret") is rooted in pitching as process; he'd learned the hard way that the minute you start focusing on results they tend to become the most elusive. He'd spent years training himself to be the most present tense of thinkers.
Moyer, who was a losing pitcher cut by three teams at the age of thirty, learned at Dorfman's knee to "focus on what you can control." He couldn't affect whether some sportswriter voted for him to enter the Hall of Fame, so it didn’t even enter his mind space.
Strictly on the numbers, the argument for Moyer's induction is a tricky one. Yes, he has won more games than all but 34 pitchers before him; yes, he's the ninth-winningest lefthander in history; yes, he has more career wins than 31 of the starting pitchers already in the Hall, including 118 more than Dizzy Dean and 104 more than Sandy Koufax. But his 4.25 ERA would be the highest of any inductee, and until his contemporaries Jim Kaat, Tommy John and Jack Morris get in, any talk of Moyer's bust in Cooperstown is seen to be premature.
But that reasoning ignores the two lines of thought that ought to catapult him into Cooperstown. One is that which makes Moyer one of the most singular athletes of his, or any, time, something not often valued in the stats-obsessed culture of professional sports: his longevity. Jamie Moyer was not only an old pitcher; he's arguably the best old pitcher ever, the rare star athlete who actually kept getting better deep into his forties.
Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, for example, was 66-64 between the ages of thirty-seven and forty-one. At the same ages, Moyer was 74-44, including two 20-win seasons, at thirty-eight and forty. Between the ages of forty-four and forty-seven, Moyer’s record was 51-38. At thirty-three, he was 59-76, a .437 winning percentage. Then he went 210-133, a .612 winning percentage. He was so good in his forties that, had he merely been mediocre in his twenties and early thirties, he likely would have hit the 300-win mark.
The other factor in Moyer’s favor has to do with the Hall's own stated criteria for induction: "Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played." Notice that the player's record -- his stats -- is mentioned only once, and that the voting guidelines heavily weigh in favor of intangibles like integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to team.
Now, I don't love that we've made sportswriters our moral arbiters (it's difficult to think of a group less worthy), but the fact remains that, when it comes to the Hall, attributes like "character” seem to only ever be invoked when disqualifying a candidate, be it Pete Rose or Mark McGwire. Shouldn’t it be affirmatively-applied, too? Given the Hall's own guidelines, shouldn't someone whose statistics put him on the bubble for induction be granted entry on the basis of being an exemplary representative of the game?
Jamie Moyer flourished in the steroid era (calling into question the legitimacy of that aforementioned high ERA, by the way), and that was no accident. His trademark pitches – ranging from slow to slower to slowest – toyed with the egos of a generation of juiced-up behemoths who were certain they could take this old junkballer deep. He not only played in the steroid era, he figured out a way to succeed in it -- by outthinking those who were cheating against him.
The age of Bonds, Clemens and A-Rod, with its headlines of moral and legal transgressions, led the New York Times to proclaim a couple of years ago: "The new definition of a sports hero is someone whom we don’t yet have enough information on." But the information is in on Moyer. He's won the Roberto Clemente, Branch Rickey and Lou Gehrig awards -- all given to the player who best exemplifies integrity and character in the game. He’s raised over $22 million for children in distress. And he’s won more games than all but thirty-four pitchers before him, in a career that is a testament to the notion that one can improve and ultimately excel by doing things the right way -- even while others around you cheat. If, in the Age of A-Rod, that’s not Hall of Fame worthy, what is?
-- Larry Platt, the former editor of Philadelphia Magazine and the PhiladelphiaDaily News, is the author of four books, including Keepin' It Real: A Turbulent Season at the Crossroads with the NBA, New Jack Jocks: Rebels, Race and the American Athlete and Only the Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson.
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