SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- LaTroy Hawkins signed with the Twins at age 18 in June 1991 and made his major league debut in April 1995, facing Cal Ripken Jr. while Lou Gehrig still held the record for consecutive games played. Since then he has pitched in exactly 1,000 major league games, the most of any active pitcher. At age 42, he also is the oldest player in the majors.
As you might imagine, the baseball experience has changed a little since Hawkins first started. Like cellphones in the clubhouse. Or cellphones anywhere, for that matter.
“When I was a rookie I remember we had to use the phone in the clubhouse and give the number to the receptionist and she would dial the number for you," Hawkins said. “We didn’t have cellphones. The first person I ever saw with one was Kirby Puckett. I was like, 'Wow, that is cool. You can call anyone whenever you want to?'"
Hawkins plans to retire after this season with the Colorado Rockies (he wants to be home as his daughter enters high school), which will be a loss to the game, not just on the field but in the clubhouse -- and elsewhere as well. Hawkins is rightfully admired and beloved for the way he goes out of his way to treat people well, as the LaTroy Hawkins Fan Club can attest.
Talking at length this week about how baseball has changed during his two decades in the majors, Hawkins paused and said, “It’s different, but I was thinking about it yesterday and wondering is it really different or am I different? And there’s probably a good chance that’s it’s me."
He makes a good point, but there are undoubtedly real differences, too. For instance, the media covered the game extensively when Hawkins came up, but there is much less privacy today with social media and ubiquitous camera phones.
“Everyone has a camera now so you can’t do things like you used to do in the old days,’’ Hawkins said. “Not that we did anything bad. But you can’t do things because everything is ridiculed. Everything is under the microscope.’’ If a player did something embarrassing in the old days, Hawkins said, “It might have made a little corner in the paper. Now there will be people in Zimbabwe reading about it before you even wake up.’’
One thing you didn't hear much about in those days was the use of steroids and other PEDs.
“There wasn’t any talk until the guy found the andro in Mark McGwire’s locker [in 1998]. And nobody cared,’’ Hawkins said. “That bugged me, too. When it was going on, I’m sure Bud Selig had a pretty damn good idea things were going on. But at the time, they were trying to fill the seats and we were coming off the strike. So can you blame them? No. But then to come out with this all-out assault? It takes you back. Whoa, dude. You were part of it. Knowing and not saying anything makes you part of it.’’
One disturbing change is that the percentage of African-American players in the majors is roughly half what it was when Hawkins started.
“I haven’t been on a team, I think, with more than three African-American players since I left Minnesota,’’ Hawkins said. “Back then we had me, Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Shannon Stewart those guys. I’ve always noticed it as a pitcher. I’ve always noticed how few African-American pitchers there were. I wish I knew why.’’
Great amounts of media attention has been focused on Tommy John surgeries in the past year or so but Hawkins isn’t sure whether pitchers are injuring their arms any more than in the past.
“I think we just hear about them more now,’’ Hawkins said. “Guys have been getting hurt since the beginning of time. Our arms aren’t made to go that way. Every time your arm comes around like that, there’s a chance you can get hurt. Can you do things to help prevent it? Yeah, like strengthen the muscles. But you can only [throw] so many times before the arm is going to go.
“But I’ll tell you one thing, I didn’t pitch as much growing up as these other guys did. I played other sports, other positions.’’
Younger athletes don’t play multiple sports as much now because travel teams are more of a presence at the youth level than when Hawkins was a kid. And more expensive as well.
“I’ve heard it’s about $2,500 to $3,000 to play travel teams. That’s a lot of money to play baseball,’’ Hawkins said. “When I was growing up I’d tell my mom I wanted to play travel team and she was would ask ‘How much?’ Back then I would say it was $600. Little League was $25, and $45 total with my brother because we got a $5 discount. What do you think my mom was going to say? ‘You’re playing Little League.'"
The treatment of young players has also changed, Hawkins says.
“I always tell people players today are products of the kids who always got a trophy just for participating, the whole entitlement thing,” he said. “I have a son that age, too, so it’s OK. But you go to a kids' banquet now and everyone gets a trophy just for participating. What does that teach you?
“And these are the young adults now who are in that mindset that everyone gets rewarded. But it doesn’t work like that.’’
Hawkins has been rewarded with a 21-year career because he worked hard and never gave up. He was 26-44 with a 6.16 ERA after his first seasons as a starter before finding success in the bullpen. He is 46-49 with a 3.28 ERA and 124 saves since becoming a full-time reliever in 2000.
“I wouldn’t change anything about when I came up or how I came up or the four years I was a starter,’’ he said. “I always say that failure is your biggest teacher.’’
Hawkins will retire at the same age Satchel Paige was when he made his major league debut (due to the color barrier). Paige last pitched in the majors at age 59 and famously gave this advice in his rules for a happy life: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.’’
Asked what advice he would give for a long career, Hawkins gave it a thought.
“Take care of your body,’’ he said. “I can’t say ‘Never look back.’ I can look back, so they know I’m still here. And that they have to do something to catch me.’’