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Saturday, March 01, 2014

In 20th season, LaTroy Hawkins targets 1000th game-NY Times

3/1/14, "In 20th Season, Hawkins Targets 1,000th Game," NY Times, Tyler Kepner, Scottsdale, Ariz.

"The young pitcher looked up from his iPad, jolted by the conversation at the next locker in the Colorado Rockies’ clubhouse. LaTroy Hawkins was talking about his performance at Yankee Stadium on May 17, 1998, when he threw seven decent innings while his opponent, David Wells, pitched a perfect game....

You never know what weird and awesome connections you might find around Hawkins. The retirement of Mariano Rivera makes Hawkins the major leagues’ active leader in games pitched, with 943. The season-long suspension of Alex Rodriguez makes Hawkins the longest-tenured player in the majors.

Hawkins, 41, first appeared in a major league game on April 29, 1995, earlier than any other active player.

“One and one-third, I think,” Hawkins said. “Seven earnies. The Orioles. I do remember that.” Hawkins got five outs for the Minnesota Twins that day, not four, but otherwise his memory was accurate. The Baltimore beating foreshadowed a rough half-decade as a starter, when Hawkins’s earned run average was 6.11. Few would have bet on his staying power.

The Twins drafted Hawkins in the seventh round in 1991 and paid $27,500 to sway him from Indiana State, where he would have played basketball. Hawkins did not really want to enroll. College would always be there, he said, but he wanted to see if he could make it as a pro.

The first pick in Hawkins’s draft never played a major league game. Brien Taylor, a left-hander chosen by the Yankees, ruined his career when he injured his shoulder in a fight one winter. Hawkins remembers him well.

“I saw him pitch in A ball against our Fort Myers team,” he said. “He was really good. Threw really hard, with a good curveball.”

Hawkins threw hard, too, but as a starter he found himself conserving his best stuff, trying to trick hitters with lesser pitches. One afternoon at the Metrodome, he grooved a changeup to Ken Griffey Jr., who launched it to the top deck, by the curtains that covered the unused seats.

Later, in the clubhouse, an attendant told Hawkins that Griffey wanted to see him in the laundry room. When they met, Griffey demanded to know why a pitcher with his fastball would ever throw a lifeless changeup. Hawkins did not have a good answer.

“I learned a lot by him telling me that,” he said. “My fastball was better than I thought it was. I used it to my advantage after that, that’s for sure.”

By the next spring, though, the Twins had seen enough. Just before opening day in 2000, Manager Tom Kelly told Hawkins he would pitch from the bullpen, and predicted he would have a long career. Hawkins joked that he thanks Kelly every day for that decision.

Hawkins spent nine seasons with the Twins, a stretch that included Paul Molitor’s 3,000th hit in 1996 — on a triple, when he was 40. This is the player Hawkins mentions when asked for his what-I-would-tell-the-grandkids moment.

“Paul Molitor, just watching him go about his business every day,” Hawkins said. “The way he ran balls out, he was incredible.”

Hawkins had other memorable teammates and managers, many more, in the next decade, bouncing from the Chicago Cubs to San Francisco, Baltimore, Colorado, the Yankees, Houston, Milwaukee, the Angels and the Mets. He is back with the Rockies, as the closer, for $2.5 million this season.

“I still get goose bumps about ’07,” Hawkins said, referring to the Rockies’ unlikely surge to the National League pennant. “That made my decision very easy.”

That was Hawkins’s only World Series, though he also reached the playoffs with the Twins and the Brewers. In the 2011 playoffs, with Milwaukee, Wells had him sign a baseball for their shared link in history. He thanked Hawkins by sending a box of mementos from the perfect game.

Hawkins has faced six Hall of Famers — he held Frank Thomas to a .283 on-base percentage, compared with .419 for Thomas’s career — and played for the Giants with Barry Bonds, whom he called misunderstood. Bonds always made time for teammates’ children, Hawkins said, and helped his son raise money for a school project.

Not every stop has suited Hawkins. He pitched for the Cubs in 2004, after their agonizing playoff loss the previous fall, and remembers the fans as nasty. In 2008, with his familiar No. 32 retired by the Yankees for Elston Howard, Hawkins wore No. 21 to honor Roberto Clemente. Fans derided Hawkins for taking the number of Paul O’Neill, who had been retired for years, so he switched to 22.

“They didn’t have any problem with me wearing Roger Clemens’s number,” Hawkins said, smiling. Hawkins has pitched in every current ballpark and 14 others. He remembers how the upper-deck seats hung over right field at Tiger Stadium, how the heat rippled off the turf at Veterans Stadium, how the stray cats made the tunnels stink at the Astrodome. 

His favorite ballpark is Citi Field, for the Jackie Robinson rotunda and the angle of the mound, which seemed to put him on top of the hitter. His favorite opponent was Chipper Jones, for his style and swagger. His favorite managers have been Kelly and Dusty Baker.

“Johnnie B.,” Hawkins said, using Baker’s given name. “He was like me. Looked like me, talked like me, raised like I was raised. Dusty could go to a corner in Gary, Ind., and hang out, or he could go to the White House and talk to the president, and he’d never be uncomfortable. I’m like that.”

Hawkins said he never set out to play 20 years in the majors and outlast everyone. It just happened that way. His son is 21, older than some of his Rockies teammates, but he keeps playing. Why would he stop?

“Where else in the world can you be 41 years old and play a kid’s game, the game I’ve been playing since I was a little fella?” Hawkins said. “And I don’t know, I probably would have stopped a long time ago, but I’m getting close to 1,000 games, and I think that would be pretty cool.”

Only 15 pitchers have worked 1,000 games. It is a more exclusive club than 300 wins, 500 homers or 3,000 hits. Hawkins has never made an All-Star team, never led the league in any category except earned runs in 1999. But he is about to earn his way in.

“That, right there,” Hawkins said, repeating his goal, still finding wonder in a job he has held for so long. “A thousand games.”"



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