TACOMA — Score one for eldercraft.
Rocked early, Jamie Moyer pulled it back together Thursday night, as he has done practically since he introduced baseball to the Greeks in the first Olympics 3,000 years ago.
OK, I’m done with the age cracks, in honor of Moyer being no joke in his return to the Northwest.
Remarkably, Moyer retired 10 of the last 12 Tacoma Rainiers he faced and picked up the victory, 11-4, for for his Pacific Coast League teammates from Las Vegas. On a cool, drizzly evening at sold-out (7,435) Cheney Stadium, he looked little different than he did 16 years earlier when he began his climb to become the winningest pitcher in Mariners history.
Then he was a kid of 33 and a prime-time major leaguer. Now he’s 49-year-old minor leaguer, still throwing pillows, marshmallows and bunnies, baffling a second generation of hitters. He still gives up the big flies — two homers Thursday — and still gets batters to lunge into strikeouts — six Thursday.
“Its always fun,” said Moyer to a gaggle of Seattle media who made the trek to see a legend become a little more legendary. “I dont know if its more fun now (than in his prime), but it was a lot of fun then.
“I like this (minor league) environment. Theres hungry guys here. Guys who are real green, guys that have been up (to the major leagues) that are trying to get back. And its baseball.”
Moyer said the last three words with such pleasurable finality that it made listeners wonder what they were thinking about why Moyer was still trying. It’s baseball.
Well, of course.
In five innings, Moyer gave up three runs on seven hits and, as ever, was around the plate like a fuzzy slipper on a foot.
“It was awesome to watch,” said Danny Hultzen. “Not only to play against him, but to watch him. Growing up, you look up to him. I was on the same mound as him. It was really cool.”
Hultzen, 22, was at the other end of this baseball wormhole of time travel. The most prized star in the Mariners’ cache of quality young pitchers, Hultzen was making his home debut at the Triple A level against guy who was five years into his minor league career when Hultzen was born.
Hultzen held up his end reasonably well, although tellingly, he didn’t last as long as Moyer. Rainiers manager Daren Brown pulled the Mariners’ presumptive Next Big Thing after four innings and 90 pitches. Hultzen gave up one run and three hits, but the four walks were part of the learning curve of pitching.
“Hes got a good arm and its obvious he needs seasoning,” Moyer said of his foe. “Hes got really good stuff, but it’s about being consistent around the plate. He struggled early in the game with command of his breaking ball. He was at 92-93 (mph) which is about the big league average nowadays. Until he learns how to get ahead in the count . . . it’s just experience.”
Then Moyer offered his mantra:
“Its all about command. Its not how hard you throw.”
That knowledge, and its decades-long application, allowed Moyer, returning after elbow surgery, to hold all of baseball in thrall for a slice of the spring.
Moyer was invited to the Colorado Rockies camp on a minor league contract and, astonishingly, earned a spot in the starting rotation. On April 17, he beat the Padres to become, at 49 years and 131 days, the oldest in history to win a major league game.
The sports world stood agape, agog and astonished. Tortoise 1, Hare 0.
Almost inevitably, it didn’t last. After seven more starts, his ERA was 5.70 and he was released May 28.
A couple of weeks later, the Baltimore Orioles signed him to a minor league contract. After three starts at AAA Norfolk, Va., he asked for release because he wasn’t going to get a shot with the big club. Along came the injury-decimated Toronto Blue Jays. They took a flyer, and deposited him at their AAA team in Vegas, worldwide home of dreamers.
Looked like the real thing Thursday night.
“I felt real good,” Moyer said. “I wasnt real sharp early on. Other than that, I felt I threw the ball pretty decent. I felt like my command got a little better. I’ve been off for eight days.”
He should have been off for a decade. Instead, he set back a couple months the careers of Rainiers Alex Liddi and Carlos Triunfel, striking out each twice.
Even though he left the Mariners after the 2005 season quietly irritated at the club’s direction — a prescient feeling — there was nothing but warmth Thursday. As he finished his warmup in the bullpen and approached the dugout, the crowd rose as one to salute his decade of salutary ball in Seattle. He felt compelled to tip his hat.
“I didnt expect anything like that,” he said. “Somebody said last night there was going to be a big crowd here — $2 beer night.”
In fact, it was a coincidental promotion night, the irony even richer because Moyer began his career when you actually could get a beer at a ballpark for $2.
“Its always fun to come back here,” Moyer said. “This community has always supported myself as a player and greatly supported my wife and I with our foundation (The Jamie Moyer Foundation is a going concern in Seattle). Were indebted to this community. It was special.”
So was Thursday night. Who knows whether the Blue Jays will give him one more chance, or whether Moyer has many more long, dreary bus rides in him?
It’s baseball. It’s moments. Thursday night in the drizzle, Tacoma had a fine one.