On a mid-March Sunday, 50 spectators or so have gathered on a grass berm beside a baseball field. Most of the crowd are writers or team personnel, here to watch Eddie Butler and Peter O’Brien. Mark Trumbo and a few other household names are playing but the early morning scrimmage has a minor league flavor. Infielders botch routine grounders. Butler misses his spots. O’Brien overthrows the pitcher.
Nobody is here to watch LaTroy Hawkins toss a quick frame in the middle innings. By the time he trots to the mound, Butler’s day is done and the crowd’s collective attention has wandered from the field. Writers talk amongst themselves. A few fans play catch atop the berm.
This is Hawkins’s 24th spring training. A month into the grind of another season and yet still three weeks from opening day, he’s reached the sleepy part of March. That he’s on a backfield in Talking Stick at 10 in the morning speaks to the favor he’s accrued as a longtime veteran. Skip the heat of the afternoon game. Get your work in early. Have a nice day and see you tomorrow.
On the mound, Hawkins is a marvel of consistency, effortlessly repeating a well-practiced delivery. He takes the sign and comes set slowly, joining his hands at the belt, then lifting them to shoulder height, glove wiggling as he gazes beyond third base. He pauses for a fleeting moment before shifting his attention toward the plate and beginning his motion, arcing his front leg into a path traveled countless times before.
Hawkins retires his first hitter easily, a knee-high fastball turned groundout. The second batter proves trickier. Like his predecessor, he has no name on his his jersey, an organizational soldier on hand to fill out Arizona’s lineup. He battles, working the count to 2-2 before fouling off several tough pitches. Each time, Hawkins comes set deliberately, lifts the glove slowly, and settles. He takes longer with each successive pitch, trying to lull the batter into anxiety, but his opponent is fit for the challenge. The batter’s confidence grows: the last foul is the hardest yet.
On the final pitch of the at-bat, Hawkins takes the sign and again joins his hands at the belt. Unlike before, his pause here is brief, barely a hesitation before driving his front leg forward and unleashing his best fastball on the outside corner. The batter, prepared for Hawkins’s methodical motion, is rooted to the spot, his timing disrupted, his tangle with a big league pitcher over sooner than he can react. Hawkins is wiping his brow and walking behind the mound before the batter can leave the box.
Surviving in the major leagues for two decades requires more than a strong arm and a clean bill of health. It’s not easy to conjure enough internal motivation to improve at the craft every day, to keep the body in shape, to stay strong mentally in the face of long seasons and bad outings. You can’t get through all of the bus rides, injuries, blown saves, midnight phone calls, and nights away from home without a mean competitive streak.
More than anything else, to spend 21 years in the majors as a reliever without dominant stuff or elite command, you have to take outs however you can get them. So, at 42 years old, and with a quarter century of professional experience behind him, Hawkins quick-pitched a helpless minor leaguer in a backfield spring training game. For every fan who ever questioned the intensity of the sport, or how much these players care, this was your moment. The competitiveness of a professional, inextinguishable in even the most mundane of games.
Baseball will miss you, LaTroy. Enjoy your retirement.
Thank you for reading
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Love this guy
Hawkins blended in well with the badness. He saw a lot of action because the team was terrible, but his ERA never drifted below 5.00 in the old millenium. You would never have been surprised to see his career end at any given moment.
Even after he finally landed in the bullpen for good in 2000 and started to experience some success, you still wouldn't have been surprised to see his career end at any of several junctures. Like his age 32 season, in which he put up a 1.52 WHIP. Or his age 37 season, when his ERA hit 8.44 in 14 appearances. Who would have bet that he had five productive years left in the tank?
Honestly, having grown up watching him play for those terrible Twins teams, I never stopped being surprised when LaTroy Hawkins landed with another team. Once he got past age 35 or so, my surprise was mixed with ever-increasing respect. Maybe it's that I've been entering my "decline phase" years at roughly the same time he has.
Whatever the case may be, I've appreciated seeing the tributes come his way this year and this was a good one. Thanks, Brendan.