TORONTO – LaTroy Hawkins was thrilled to learn he had been traded from Colorado to Toronto last week, and the reason had nothing to do with the standings or the pennant race.
No, he likes the Blue Jays’ schedule.
“We’re in Texas on Aug. 26. That means I’ll be home to take my daughter [Troi] to her first day of high school” in nearby Prosper, Hawkins said. “When I saw that, I was like, ‘Thank you. That’s perfect. This is where I’m meant to be.’ ”
Maybe so, but he won’t be here for long, and that story tells you exactly why. Hawkins, who was drafted by the Twins about three months before they won the 1991 World Series, will retire once the 2015 season ends, heading home to his family after 21 major league seasons, 11 major league teams and, according to his former teammates, the respect of everyone he ever played with.
“He’s been a great pitcher for a long time,” said Twins bullpen coach Eddie Guardado, who formed a strong relief tandem with Hawkins in Minnesota’s bullpen in the early 2000s. “But he’s been an even better person for an even longer time.”
But he’s tired of spending every summer away from his wife, Anita, Troi and son Dakari, and his extended family. He realized he had made the right decision in April when, by a quirk of the calendar, the Rockies opened the season in Milwaukee and he could drive to his hometown of Gary, Ind., to visit his grandparents on Easter.
“I realized as I’m sitting in church with them that it was the first Easter Sunday I’d seen them since 1990,” Hawkins said. “My daughter, it’s the last four years she’s going to be in the house, and I haven’t been there consistently for 13 years because I was playing baseball. … It’s time to go home. I still feel great, I can still pitch. But it’s time to do something else.”
That the decision is his and not, as with most players, a realization that his skills are gone is remarkable. Hawkins, 42, has been the oldest player in baseball for two seasons now, and he’s one of 16 pitchers in major league history to appear in 1,000 games. He still can throw 94 miles per hour, as the Twins discovered Monday, and he still gets batters out. His ERA is 3.20 this season, and the Blue Jays valued him enough to ask for him in their trade for Troy Tulowitzki.
On Wednesday, he became the 13th pitcher to record saves against all 30 teams when he closed out Toronto's 9-7 victory over the Twins.
“At his peak, he was probably throwing 95, and he hasn’t lost much,” said Paul Molitor, the Twins’ 58-year-old manager — who was a teammate of Hawkins in 1996-98. “He’s learned to cut the ball a little bit, do some things to make up for the velocity. As a starter, he was a young kid, and the game would speed up and he couldn’t hold runners. But he’s been able to overcome a lot along the way.”
He’s never been an All-Star, he’s never ranked in the top 10 of anything, he’s never earned $5 million in a season, and the only playing honor he’s been given, he jokes, is on the walk of fame in his Class AAA ballpark. But he’s also found willing takers every offseason, always found a team that wants him. He earned the save in Wednesday’s 9-7 Toronto victory over the Twins, giving him a save against every major league team.
“Consistency. That’s the secret to this game,” said Torii Hunter, twice a teammate [in Minnesota and Anaheim] and for two decades Hawkins’ best friend in baseball. “He’s not an All-Star, but he’s got a fire in him. And it’s brighter than most.”
Like Hunter, he’s also known as a great clubhouse presence, a leader of younger players. “He cares about teammates, about the guy next to you. It’s how you treat people when you’re in the game,” Guardado said. “Teams want guys like him and Torii. That’s how you get a job every year. Well, that and throwing 94 miles per hour.”
He came up as a starting pitcher, and manager Tom Kelly stuck with him for 98 starts, despite an ugly 6.16 ERA. Even so, Hawkins remembers his years as a Twin as “a great time. I loved my time in Minnesota. I’m a little foggy on some of the teams I’ve pitched for, but I’ll never forget the Twins.”
Finally, Kelly moved him to the bullpen in 2000, and his career was transformed. After a year as the Twins’ closer, he ceded that job to Guardado and became an eighth-inning specialist. And a good one.
“He’s Satchel Paige, man. The wiry body, the incredible arm, still pitching into his 40s,” Hunter said. “He doesn’t have to retire. But you have to respect his decision.”