At 49, Jamie Moyer's Pitching Career Goes Into Extra Innings

Aug 15, 2014
Originally published on August 15, 2014 12:02 pm

In a new memoir called Just Tell Me I Can't Moyer explains how he became a better pitcher in his 40s than his 20s. Moyer's story isn't just the tale of a talented guy who hung on a little longer than others; with the help of a sports psychologist, he managed to gain control of the mental side of his game. Originally broadcast Oct. 2, 2013.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Two years ago, our guest Jamie Moyer became the oldest pitcher ever to record a win in the majors at the age of 49 years, 150 days. But Moyer's story isn't just the tale of a talented guy who hung onto his game a little longer than others. He was actually a more effective pitcher in his 40s then in his 20s because he got control of the mental side of his game with the help of a gruff self taught sports psychologist named Harvey Dorfman. Moyer was never blessed with a blazing fastball. To compete in the big leagues, he had to locate his pitches with pinpoint accuracy and to outthink his hitters. He managed to do that plenty and with an extraordinary work ethic, keep his body in shape to play with men half his age. Moyer's best years were with the Seattle Mariners, where he became an All-Star, and the Philadelphia Phillies, where he was a starter the season the team won the World Series. He's now a color commentator for Phillies broadcasts. I spoke to Moyer last year when his memoir with writer Larry Platt "Just Tell Me I Can't" was published.

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DAVIES: Well, Jamie Moyer, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JAMIE MOYER: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: You know, you look at a baseball diamond in a stadium, and the field and the mound are the same dimensions that you pitched on in high school. But ballparks differ in some ways. Are there some where the mound felt different?

MOYER: Yeah, yeah, there are dimensions, you know, and, you know, height restrictions that we're able to use, but it gets policed quite - quite stringently by the league. But if we'll call the tabletop, the very top of the mound - some of those are built differently. I can tell you the one in Oakland seems like you're on a huge, huge stage, whereas some of the other ballparks don't seem as big. And I think sometimes the background that - where - as a pitcher, where I'd be facing behind home plate - some are a lot closer. Some are brick. Some have signage on them. But the ones that are further back make the plate feel like it's further away from home plate. So it's just, it's a visual, but it's - also creates a feeling for you, as well.

DAVIES: Did you have tricks to making yourself feel comfortable in a place that you didn't particularly like? You didn't like Pittsburgh's mound, I read.

MOYER: I didn't, yeah, I didn't - I wasn't real fond of Pittsburgh's mound only - and the only reason I wasn't fond of it - I didn't like the clay that they used. It was very difficult to work with. It was usually very hard. It seemed to dry out as the game went on. And I could usually tell after a game because my calluses would have blisters, if you can believe that or not. But, you know, my feet would be really sore after I pitched there.

DAVIES: You had Pittsburgh feet that day? (Laughter).

MOYER: Yes, I did.

DAVIES: You know, you were never a guy who threw 90 miles an hour.

MOYER: No.

DAVIES: You know, and so you relied upon finesse, pinpoint location, picking the right pitches. And one of the things it seems Harvey got you to see is the need to be aggressive - to use your off-speed pitch - to use that slow stuff aggressively on hitters. Explain what that means? How does that work?

MOYER: Well, he got me to realize what my abilities were. And, again, you're right. My fastball was below average, but my change-up was really my - if you will - my money pitch, or my out-pitch.

DAVIES: And for folks who don't watch baseball, like - just a lot. A changeup is the pitch that you throw that looks like a fastball coming in at the batter, but because of the grip, it comes more slowly. And they swing to quickly - miss it.

MOYER: Right. They react to a fastball because that's what their eyes are telling them. And that's where I had a lot of my success in the minor leagues and not as much success in the major leagues because, again, I didn't have the confidence in my own abilities. So what he was trying to teach me was to say, look, here's your fastball. Learn how to locate it, which - that's what I was in that process of doing. You know, good mechanics is going to allow good location, but, you know, my focus on that had to be that. But using that as a tool or as, if you will, a weapon - even though I wasn't using it at the hitter, I was using it against the hitter. And then my change-up that I threw - again, being aggressive with it, not passive with it. Now using that against them and knowing that we all have an ego - and in baseball, those egos, sometimes, can be really big. And hitter can have really big egos. And, you know, not only do they want to hit homeruns, they want to hit them 30 rows back because that's what people want to see. So now, take that ego that they have and use it against them. So now if I can throw a hard pitch - maybe, it's just off the plate - but now I throw the same pitch or a pitch looking just like it but it's eight to 10 miles and hour - 12 miles and hour slower - and they swing like it's the hard pitch, now all the sudden, they're thinking it's a fast ball. And they're swinging way ahead of the ball. And now they become frustrated. And that's where the game - if you will - the game of chess or the game of cat and mouse in baseball really comes into play. Do you think hitters sense doubt in a pitcher?

MOYER: Oh, yeah - body language or your posture on the mound - the way you act and react in situations. Hitters feed off of that. And you can tell on days when guys are showing bad body language on the mound. It would almost be like the hitters were running up to home plate to hit. But, you could also flip that, too. As a pitcher, when things were going really well, you could read hitters if - say you threw a pitch and a guy took the pitch and it was a called strike, and you got a reaction like - you know, his shoulders went down or he complained to the umpire. All of a sudden, now it's like, hey, that wasn't a strike. Now they've become distracted with what was going on so now - you know, for me, to be able to read that. And now I'm ahead in the count, but maybe the next pitch doesn't have to be a strike. But if I can make it look like a strike as it's approaching the plate but when it gets to the plat and it's not a strike and I get him to offer at it, again, they're swinging at something that they didn't really want to swing at or they weren't comfortable swinging at.

DAVIES: And that's being aggressive.

MOYER: Yes.

DAVIES: You're taking the hitter out of his focus and reaction to what you're doing.

MOYER: Exactly.

DAVIES: Now, you say that a pitcher can have bad posture which will indicate that he's frustrated. What's the posture you want to never show on the mound? And what's the posture you do want to show?

MOYER: The posture that you never want to show, for me, is to throw a pitch, and you kind of - your body gets a little droopy. You're whining. You know, just everything kind of - your body kind of crumbles. And, you know, you catch the ball - when you snap at the ball. You're glaring at the umpire. You're whining to the umpire. And that's very visible from, you know, 60 feet away. The hitter sees that. Your teammates see that. The fans see that. The broadcasters see that. You know, everybody sees that. But, to me, you want to show absolutely nothing. You want to have strong eyes. You want to be staring at your target. And you're really showing no emotion. And you want to show that I'm in control, here. You want to get the ball back. You want to create a good tempo between pitches. You don't want to lollygag around and kick the dirt and mosey, you know, mosey around like this is a drudgery. You want to get the ball. You want to get back up on the mound, take your sign, and make your next pitch.

DAVIES: You know, you pitched later in your career here in Philadelphia. So a lot of us saw a lot of Jamie Moyer. And I remember your expression on the mound. You could never tell what you were thinking.

MOYER: And that ideal. And, you know, those who watched the Phillies play, you watch Chase Utley hit. He shows no emotion at home plate. And that's exactly, as a pitcher - that's exactly what I'm trying to do, as well. You don't want to give the hitter anything to feed off of.

DAVIES: Now, you're a pitcher that relies on accuracy and finesse and on mixing up pitches, rather than speed. You don't overpower.

MOYER: Changing timing. What I'm trying to do is I'm trying to affect timing because that's all hitting is - is timing.

DAVIES: Right, so the 79-mile-an-hour pitch followed by a 62-mile-an-hour pitch can be tricky.

MOYER: Right.

DAVIES: Or vice versa.

MOYER: Right, especially if I can make them look the same out of my hand.

DAVIES: Right, but location is critical which means that if you have an umpire that is, as they say, pinching the strike zone, calling a narrower strike zone...

MOYER: Right.

DAVIES: ...That's going to be tough. I can remember a few starts when that happened to you.

MOYER: I had a game in the playoffs against Milwaukee.

DAVIES: Right. Paul Runge was the umpire.

MOYER: Yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: We all remember.

MOYER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: What I wanted to ask is - you know, it's illegal in the game. You can argue a lot of things in the game. You're not allowed to argue balls and strikes. You can be ejected for it.

MOYER: Yes, in today's game, yes, that's the way it is.

DAVIES: But is there a way, you can work an umpire from the mound?

MOYER: You can. You know, you can, respectfully, give him a little bit of a glare or, you know, there have been times where I didn't like the way the game was going as far as balls and strikes, and I'd call my catcher out to the mound. And for no particular reason did I want to talk to to my catcher, but if you stand out there long enough with the catcher, the umpire will come walking out. And, usually, while I was having a conversation with the catcher when the umpire would come out. He would come out and say, hey let's go. Let's speed it up here. And I'd wait until the umpire got all the way to the mound, and I would continue to talk to the catcher. But I was really talking to the umpire.

DAVIES: Saying what?

MOYER: And I'd be asking him about, you know, hey, where was that last pitch? - or is my catcher blocking your pitches or, you know, are you having a tough day? - because there are a lot of time where I would walk off the field and say, hey, bare with me, I'm having a tough day, you know, when I wasn't throwing strikes or consistent strikes. So what I'm trying to - what I was really just trying to do is get the umpire to think about what he was calling - and trying to do it in a respectful way. I don't want to be demonstrative because I do respect that he is - this is his job, too, and I don't want to - I'm not trying to create any animosity between myself and the umpire, because the umpire can really be beneficial to me.

DAVIES: Right. So anybody on the stands or watching on television who looks at the encounter sees you talking to your catcher.

MOYER: Right.

DAVIES: So you're not embarrassing the umpire. You're not showing him up. You're not yelling at him.

MOYER: Right.

DAVIES: But he is hearing you make your case. Did you find it worked?

MOYER: At times, it did. Here's another one. Maybe, we're in a key point in the game and my catcher would legitimately come out and say hey, what do you want to do here? And I'd be like - I'd be in between thoughts. I'd be thinking about, well, maybe this pitch or that pitch. That's what I was thinking about, and I'd say to the catcher, what do you think? And he'd say, well, maybe a change-up here. At that point, the umpire would be walking out to the mound. And he'd say, OK, boys, let's go. Let's get back at this. And I'd make sure he was close enough, and I'd say, let's go with the change-up. And I'd say it loud enough that the umpire could hear it. Now, he would have time to think about it. And he'd be prepared for me throwing that change-up, and he, usually, knew where I was going to be throwing it. Now, he was prepared and looking in the area that I was throwing that pitch. Maybe, I get the benefit of the doubt and get the call because we're in a tight situation.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Jamie Moyer. His memoir of his life in baseball is called "Just Tell Me I Can't," and we'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with former major league pitcher Jamie Moyer. His memoir of his years in the big leagues is called "Just Tell Me I Can't." After a game, could you remember every pitch?

MOYER: There are some games, yeah, I could go back for a couple of days and pretty much tell you every pitch I threw. And then there are other games when, you know, maybe my focus and concentration wasn't there and I couldn't - you could take me off the field and talk about a pitch two innings previous and I wouldn't remember it.

DAVIES: Now that you're out of the game, do you ever dream about playing, about pitching?

MOYER: I dream - I have dreams about when I have pitched and they're pleasant dreams. They're pleasant dreams about playing. You know, a dream that I had while I was playing, a lot of times I'd wake up in the middle of the night and I think it was, you know, one of those subconscious dreams where you didn't really remember or you didn't know what was going on in the dream, but I'd wake up with a line drive coming right at me and I'd be sweating.

DAVIES: Oh.

MOYER: That's not a good feeling to have.

DAVIES: Did you ever get hit?

MOYER: I have gotten hit. Nothing serious, but I have gotten hit and I've seen guys get hit and hurt seriously. And it's not fun.

DAVIES: There are a lot of great baseball stories in this book. And one of them that I loved that was new to me was you using your teeth to signal a change in the pitch the catcher wanted you to throw (laughter).

MOYER: Yeah, a change in a location, yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah, explain this.

MOYER: Yeah. Well, and for most pitches you don't change location. I would change location with my changeup and I would change location with my fastball and I would change location with the cutter, it's almost like a slider.

DAVIES: And when we say change, the catcher gives you a signal for a pitch.

MOYER: So he gives me a - say we're going to throw a fastball and he calls for a fastball and I say yes. And then I change my mind and want to throw it away. Well, if I say yes...

DAVIES: Meaning you nod your head, right?

MOYER: ...if I say, yeah. If I nod my head yes and then shake my head no, well, most hitters know that, you know, most pitches you're going to change location with is going to be a fastball. So they're going to sit on a fastball. And I learned this real quick. I mean, here's a little side story off of that. I played with a wily catcher, Jim Sundberg, who was a teammate but faced him in spring training in an intra-squad game. And I did that - I went yes and I went no. And I changed the location with my fastball and he hit a homerun. And afterwards, I said how did you know that? And he said well, of course, you know, you're crazy. You should know that. And I didn't at that time, I was a very young player. So I...

DAVIES: So the point was you tipped him by nodding your head yes and then shaking your head no.

MOYER: Right.

DAVIES: So he knows, ah ha. He's changing the location.

MOYER: Right. Right.

DAVIES: It's got to be a fastball. Here I go.

MOYER: Right. Yup. So it was a learning lesson as a young player in spring training. So now what I would do in a game, if I wanted to change that location - and now we're back to that fastball in - the catcher would move in, and as I started my motion, I would show my catcher my teeth. OK, like smile and that would change the location. So we would go from a fastball in to a fastball away.

DAVIES: Wow. Did you do that a lot?

MOYER: And he would pick up on that. I did it a fair amount. It depended on my catcher. If I felt like my catcher had been really observant to what was going on or I had just I had conversation or reminded him about it, yeah, I would do it a fair amount. I wouldn't do it a whole lot. I learned that trick from Nolan Ryan.

DAVIES: Hmm. And then you just better hope your catcher doesn't go to another team and tell all the hitters, when Moyer shows his teeth, he's changing his location.

MOYER: Yeah. But you know what? I can - all I have to do is I can do that and then throw a curveball.

DAVIES: Right.

MOYER: Because I would, you know, if I did it on a curveball, I would tell my catcher it means absolutely nothing.

DAVIES: Uh-huh, OK.

MOYER: So every now and then I'd throw a curveball and I'd show him my teeth. So if I ever had that doubt that the other team had it and now I'd show him my teeth.

DAVIES: Well, Jamie Moyer, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MOYER: Dave, thank you for your time.

DAVIES: Two years ago, Jamie Moyer became the oldest pitcher ever to win a game in the big leagues. He's now 51 and a color-commentator for Philadelphia Phillies' broadcasts. His memoir "Just Tell Me I Can't" is available in hardback and on Kindle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.