The 1999 Kevin Costner baseball movie For the Love of the Game might not necessarily be known as one of the greatest sports films ever made, but it does get one fundamental truth right about sports (not to mention the wisdom of casting John C. Reilly as a catcher): There is something irresistible about a veteran pitcher having one last ride.
Costner’s Billy Chapel is an old, mostly broken-down crafty vet who, on one special day late in his career, has everything going perfect: Literally so, as he attempts to hold onto a perfect game. He has to use all his wiles and experience to pull off this one last job, a cowboy trudging through one final rodeo. In most other sports, age knocks you out. Your basketball star can’t jump over everyone anymore; your running back can’t get to the hole fast enough; your star soccer player is a step slower than he used to be. But in baseball, the veteran pitcher is revered. He might not have the stuff he used to. But he can still get you out.
Back in 1999, this might not necessarily have solely been a romantic notion. There were five pitchers 40 or older in 1999, and 19 that were 37 or older, and 31 that were 36 or older, including David Wells, who led the American League in innings pitched. (Leading the National League was Randy Johnson, who was 35.) Veteran pitchers were all the rage: With all the young power hitters taking over the game, the idea of a smart, savvy old guy who could use those hitters’ aggressiveness against themselves had a ton of appeal.
But in 2019 … For the Love of the Game might as well be science fiction. Today, there is only one pitcher in baseball over the age of 40: Oakland’s Fernando Rodney, who, as it turns out, is currently sporting a 7.20 ERA. And there are only five pitchers 37 or older. Bartolo Colon, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
The reason, of course, is simple science, something anyone over the age of 30 can tell you: When you reach a certain age, the body just doesn’t work the way it used to. Baseball has, for better or worse, become a sport in which young players -- who can throw harder, run faster, hit farther, than older players -- are valued above all else. They might be less predictable, but their upside is higher than an aging player. You know what a veteran can do. Young players … they could end up doing anything.
And in a game as obsessed with high-end velocity as it has ever been, older pitchers are in more jeopardy than ever. There was a time when baseball valued pitch-to-contact pitchers, guys who kept the ball down and relied on their defense; one might call this the Dave Duncan era. But now baseball is about strikeouts, and you get strikeouts by throwing the ball hard. And old guys aren’t as good at that as young guys.
Which brings us … to Adam Wainwright. Wainwright is one of the five pitchers in baseball 37 or older. Three of those older guys are relievers: Rodney, the Phillies’ sidearming Pat Neshek and Cleveland’s lefty specialist Oliver Perez. (Fun fact: Perez started for the Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS … which Wainwright famously finished.)
Relievers can work as change-of-pace pitchers, and therefore have more margin for error when it comes to aging; Neshek’s sidearm can really mess up a guy who just watched Seranthony Domínguez fire 98-mph fastballs. But a starter, like Costner’s Chapel, has to stand out there on his own, figuring out a way to get batters out one at a time. One of the two starting pitchers over the age of 37 is CC Sabathia, who is off to an excellent beginning to 2019, not giving up an earned run in his first two starts. (He’s also six strikeouts away from 3,000 for his career. And has already announced he’s retiring at the end of the season.) The other is Wainwright.
Wainwright is coming off a tumultuous season that even he admitted he thought would be his last. He hit the IL after just three starts and returned on May 13 to pitch against the Padres in what was one of the more grueling starts to watch imaginable. He made it through just 2 1/3 innings, walking six, throwing 79 pitches and looking for all the world like a guy who had reached the end of his career tether. He hit the IL again and didn’t return until September 10, for a start against Pittsburgh in which he gritted his way through five innings and didn’t look all that different than he did back in May. But then, on Sunday Night Baseball on September 16, after the Cardinals lost the first three games of a series against the Dodgers, it all came back to him: He threw six magnificent innings against one of the best offenses in the game, striking out nine and giving up just two hits, essentially saving the Cardinals’ season. (Temporarily.) He gave up four runs in each of his next two starts, but that key Dodgers start lingered: It was enough for the Cardinals to sign him to a cheap, incentive-laden contract to give it one more shot in 2019.
His opening start of 2019 against Pittsburgh looked like the rough ones of last year -- four innings, four walks, four runs. But he rebounded against the Padres in his next start and, for five glorious innings, did not allow a hit against the Reds in Mexico. But he ended up giving up two homers in that game (one the Cardinals lost), and then, last Friday at home against the Mets -- a franchise he has such history with -- it all fell apart on him. Wainwright barely made it through three innings, somehow throwing 86 pitches in those frames, and every single one of those pitches was a struggle.
Wainwright is an incredibly intelligent pitcher, and he still has that Bugs Bunny curveball that made Carlos Beltran freeze all those years ago. He just doesn’t have the velocity to back it up. His average fastball, or sinker, is averaging less than 90 mph, and his cutter is a shockingly slow 83.8 mph. Wainwright attempts to contrast that with his almost slow-motion curveball (74.8 mph average speed), but that’s harder to do when he’s throwing just a little bit harder than, say, Chris Davis.
This likely would have worked just fine in 1999; Wainwright is able to outthink most of the hitters he’s facing, which would have come in handy 20 years ago. But now, to oversimplify the equation a bit, hitters, well, aren’t impressed. They’re trying to elevate pitches and trying not to get overpowered. Wainwright is putting together a veteran thinking man’s game where it does not apply: His experience is experience from another era entirely.
It remains thrilling to watch Wainwright try to dance between the raindrops: When he does trick a hitter, or that curveball drops in perfectly, it feels like 2010 again. But it isn’t. When he was mercifully relieved Friday night, Giovanny Gallegos, a promising but still learning right-hander, replaced him. Gallegos does not throw particularly hard, at least compared to baseball as a whole. But after Wainwright, he looked like Nolan Ryan.
Wainwright is one of baseball’s truly great guys: His Big League Impact charity does incredible work around the world. Baseball will be poorer without him. And he’s not gone yet: He may still have a Billy Chapel game left in him. But baseball isn’t built for guys like him anymore, and with the Cardinals in a tight division race already (not to mention Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes close to returning to the Majors), Wainwright might not have much time left. He pitches Wednesday afternoon against the rival Brewers at Busch Stadium in an already-huge division matchup. Every Major League pitcher is always pitching for his job. But Wainwright is pitching for more than that. He’s pitching as the last gasp of his whole generation and a whole style of veteran pitching.
It’s a high-wire tightrope act, watching a smart old vet like Wainwright try to hang on. But it’s tough to watch when they fall. Baseball isn’t like it was in 1999. No one knows this better than the old guys. You have to cheer for them. They’re vanishing right before our eyes.