On Jamie Moyer and going out on top

In some ways 2012 has been the year of going out on top for aging athletes. Nicklas Lidstrom of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings has retired after a career that undoubtedly places him second on the list of hockey’s greatest defensemen. NBA superstars Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett will be in the discussion of players who ought to retire—Duncan already is after San Antonio’s elimination on Wednesday—and both will go down amongst the greatest of all time upon their departure.

While Jamie Moyer‘s career doesn’t stack up in terms of the sheer excellence his aforementioned peers can claim, we are reaching the time where he ought to acknowledge the bell tolling for his career. In his own way he would be going out on top.

When he signed with the Rockies in January, Moyer’s buzz was steeped in nostalgia. Baseball fans wanted to see the old guy give it another kick at the can after a year away. Plenty of historical accomplishment was within his grasp and it there is something fitting about Jamie Moyer being the designated “oldest player to accomplish X” for the forseeable future.

His time with the Rockies was anything but spectacular, though what else could be expected of him? We have a 49-year-old pitcher coming off of a year away from the game to join the team that plays in baseball’s most hitter-friendly park through 10 weeks of the season. His inability to throw a pitch over 85 mph is a staggering detriment in the modern game. Under any other circumstances he would have been set up to fail.

These were not conventional circumstances though. The situation was simply a team looking to fill a spot on the roster, and the Rockies happened to choose someone within striking distance of multiple records. On April 17, Moyer became the oldest pitcher to win a ball game, defeating the San Diego Padres. He broke his own record when he beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 29 days later. It seems like semantics at that point but one day the distinction may matter.

He was designated for assignment in late May after his continued struggles became seen as too great a hindrance for the Rockies to bear. But after being released outright, he caught on with the Baltimore Orioles Wednesday. It appears as though Methuselah will live to fight another day.

At some point you have to wonder what can be gained for Jamie Moyer. There’s a fine line between passion and habit, between tenacity and hard-headedness. It may be a stretch to say that a player ought to retire when “the fire” disappears because for many—thousands upon thousands, no doubt—the fire will never disappear. Despite your best efforts, your body slowly erodes and you’re left with a whole lot of desire and no way to act on it. You become trapped by your inability.

Ironically, there is a point where all of us who dream of being athletes find ourselves at that crossroads. For most it comes during our teenage years where opportunities to pursue our game of choice fade as we see friends, teammates and opponents work their way up through developmental systems.

There are a lucky few who make it to the big time, while the rest of us watch them on television and tell our loved ones about the time we threw a ball around with the person with his name on the back of his jersey. In some ways it is a cruel and even painful exercise to think about, but it is a fact of life. If we were all cut out to be professional ballplayers, there would be nothing special about them. There is a reason we pay for admission when we could play in front of a mirror at home for free.

“Going out on top” is a relative concept. In some instances players get their first and only championship and decide to call it a career. Others leave to personal accolades after accomplishments that dwarf competitors and literally go out on top of the leader boards. Some do both and in large quantities. They are the legends we dote on for decades past their careers and lives. They are the true exceptional.

Jamie Moyer’s career was never about the man who could throw it harder than you or pinpoint that corner better than anyone else. These are the problems that come with being a contemporary of Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux. They are the exceptional under our standards. Yet, Jamie Moyer found a way to exceed their accomplishments and shine past their departure. He will never be seen as the greatest pitcher of an era. He may never even be considered among the “very good,” but he is exceptional.

Moyer found a way to enter his prime and have his best years after he entered his mid-30s. He wasn’t an all-star until he had turned 40. His most lucrative contracts came after he had turned 40—equally a sign of the times and a player truly hitting his stride. He found a way to manipulate his body and major league baseball beyond ways we thought possible at ages we thought impossible. He found a way to become the oldest player to throw a shutout while facing batters half his age. He is the oldest player to drive in a run and as a pitcher no less. He is the oldest player to ever win a game.

Being old isn’t a slight in the case of Jamie Moyer—it’s what he excels at. He has found a way to persist no matter what conventional logic of calendars and birth certificates tell us. Yet, perhaps at the age of 49—after playing in 50 major league parks—it’s time to know the moment has come. In a game that is becoming increasingly younger, athletic and more skilled, it may very well be time to take that step to the side and allow the new generation to take over.

He has been exceptional in his own way for as long as he can. Johnson lost his velocity, Maddux saw his control fade. Moyer is going to get one day older every 24 hours like the rest of us, and eventually the novelty of being one day older than the baseball player he was yesterday will fade away. There isn’t anything left for him to do.

Moyer has done plenty for the game of baseball and he deserves some time to marvel at his accomplishments with the rest of us. When he does finally acknowledge that time, he’ll see what we all know.

There won’t be another Jamie Moyer any time soon.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

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