Last July, it was pouring.
Five of us were stuck in a press box watching it pour. Brutally cliched rain delay songs echoed off the walls and houses beyond left field. The ugly white tarp that was draped over the infield started to fill up like an over-sized kiddie pool and chances of playing today dipped to about the same as seeing back-to-back no hitters.
We were bored. And when there's no optimism of playing soon, rain delays aren't just like watching grass grow, they are watching grass grow.
The funny thing about rain delays, though, is that they turn into Sunday's on the front porch. Everyone – players, coaches, media, fans - just siting, talking and staring at the gray skies with nothing else to do.
Turns out one of the five watching the rain turn from sprinkles to AK-47 bullets was a long-time scout. The four gathered to hear stories about every player we've ever known and a better ones about players we've never heard of. We learned about the hardest working players, how to evaluate B.J. Upton's range and how minor leaguers avoid MLB's rule against chewing tobacco.
For a guy that spends 100 days a year writing reports in hotel rooms, the scout welcomed being at center stage. About an hour deep into staring at green blobs on a computer screen, the short, tanned-skinned, black-haired baseball man started talking pitching. First, the league's best curveballs, then how to read a pickoff move. It was one of those times you kick yourself for not turning on a recorder.
“You know who's amazing?” he said with a big grin.
“Jamie Moyer,” he said. “Watching Jamie Moyer pitch is like (expletive) poetry, man.”
Tonight, sitting in the press box of Coca Cola Field in Downtown Buffalo, I'm reminded of that afternoon. There isn't a rain delay today – yet. But the skies are mean looking. It's like they are waiting until the game starts to ruin everything.
And down in the left field bullpen is Jamie Moyer.
Thinking of it now, I don't remember the scout explaining why he thought watching the 49-year-old left hander pitch was poetic. As Moyer walks slowly toward the mound, in stirrups and the Norfolk Tides' sherbert-colored uniforms, it starts to make sense...
It's Star Wars night at the ballpark. Most of the players in tonight's lineup weren't born when Star Wars debuted; Moyer was a teenager. He strikes out the first batter on five pitches, all under 80 miles per hour.
From the press box, you'd think he was throwing knuckle balls, especially with the abnormal amount of off-balance swings. But it's just a fastball, curve and change up. The same arsenal as his counterpart, Bisons pitcher Jenrry Mejia, a flame-throwing prospect who wasn't born until six years into Moyer's major league career.
After an error and a ground out, the 25-year MLB veteran strikes out another.
There's something rugged in the poetry. Moyer's face is always set to 5 O'clock and his windup looks like a rickety gate swinging open. I don't know for sure that everything hurts, but it looks like everything hurts. He walks from dugout to mound like a construction worker headed back to work after lunch.
Two ground balls, another strike out. No hits after two. A few reporters laugh in amazement.
Moyer is asked all the time, but we don't really know why he still plays baseball. He doesn't satisfy reporters when they ask that question. He always says it's just what he does. Maybe going through Tommy John Surgery at the age of 48 with months upon months of rehab ahead is worth the feeling of another few 1-2-3 innings. Maybe pitching on Star Wars night in a hockey town against wash-ups and kids is worth the possibility of one more high five after a win.
Or maybe it's not that romantic. It can't be easy continuing to pitch after being cut by the Colorado Rockies, finishing his stint with 10 starts with a 5.70 ERA. Maybe he wants to prove he's better than that.
Moyer allows his first hit. He works out of it quickly.
After his release from the Rockies, Moyer signed with the Orioles. Think about the athletes who couldn't let it go and walked off with their heads down. Willie Mays' years with the Mets, Jordan as a guard for the Wizards, O.J in the 49ers' backfield etc. etc. That ending wasn't meant for athletes of such greatness. But for Moyer, this is appropriate. Getting knocked down, getting back up one more time.
Five innings, one hit, five strikeouts. Moyer is done for the night.
It seems possible, at this moment, that the scout was simply referring to the 49-year-old's savvy on the mound when he called Moyer “poetic.” In his five innings, Moyer sets up Bisons hitters and cut them down. Fire-ballers dream of his control, deception and movement. He's unfazed by some drizzle, seagulls and a pair of errors by his amateur first baseman.
The Tides win.
The grand scrum of four media members wonders into the visitor's club house. Moyer's leaning on a locker in a relaxed pose, talking with 55-year-old manager Ron Johnson. His hair is wet and combed with the part on the left. He's dressed in a polo shirt and faded jeans. His face unshaven. They ask about how he keeps going. They ask why.
“This,” Moyer says. “Playing for a team, taking on another challenge.”
Moyer looks down, talks quietly about his game and shrugs his shoulders at why he decided to sign with the Orioles' organization. He says he's not concerned with who's evaluating him. Let them evaluate away.
The left-hander's first smile doesn't break out until 2:52 into his post-gamer.
“The 'Earl of Bud' isn't here anymore,” he says recalling the famous Bisons beer vendor. “He's the only thing I remember about being in Buffalo. Actually our manager Mark DeJean got up and danced with him.”
That was back in the early 90s. I wanted to ask him what he remembers from all the other minor league cities. And the major league cities. And Mark DeJean, now an instructor with the Cardinals and one of the most entertaining personalities in the game. And all the other coaches and teammates he's had along the way.
We turn off the recorders, everyone walks away.
“Good luck, Jamie.”
Over in the manager's office, Johnson is smiling.
“I was telling our trainer,” he says with a booming laugh. “I'm going to start running.”
Johnson says he wasn't trying to evaluate Moyer's stuff, he was too in awe. He suggests it's impossible to evaluate something that beautiful.
“Poetic?” I ask.
“It is, It really is,” he says, smiling wider with his voice raising in excitement. “If you are a fan of the game and you like to watch baseball and you have respect for those who are really good at their craft, watching him tonight was a very exciting thing.”
We leave his office. The others head back up to the press box, I head for the exit. As I walk out of the tunnel toward the parking lot, I see the once-gray sky has faded into a blue and orange sun set.
I can't help but think that watching Jamie Moyer pitch at Coca Cola Fiend Saturday night was as romantic, inspiring and poetic as the scout had promised.