In 20th big league season, Hawkins never better
Rockies closer thriving in Coors Field after tough upbringing, rough start to career
The Rockies are the 10th Major League team for LaTroy Hawkins. If they continue to struggle during the next few days, others will study his splendid pitching numbers, and soon afterward, he'll wear an 11th uniform after a Rocky Mountain fire sale. As for Hawkins' other numbers, this is his 20th season overall, and he is closer to his 42nd birthday than his 41st. He also is on the verge of becoming just the 15th pitcher to appear in 1,000 games.
All of those numbers suggest Hawkins is at the end of his career. Not only that, he has received the last rites of baseball several times through the years, including earlier this year.
So much for numbers and doomsayers.
Hawkins is among the game's elite relievers this season despite operating in a little house of horrors for pitchers called Coors Field. He isn't thinking about retiring anytime soon, and why should he? For one, Hawkins is a poster child for fitness at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds and nearly zero body fat. For another, he has continued his careerlong disdain for walks (only nine -- including an intentional one -- in 33 innings), and his pitches rarely find the meat of a hitter's bat.
Then there is this: Hawkins never has been better. This only makes sense if you realize he is baseball's ultimate survivor.
"I grew up in Gary, Ind., man," Hawkins said the other day, referring to the eternally troubled city east of Chicago that is partly known for Michael Jackson but mostly known for outrageous crime, stifling pollution and economic chaos.
Gary was a mess, even before Hawkins was born there on Dec. 21, 1972. Its population is around 78,000, which is half of what it was during its vibrant steel-mill days through the 1960s. Legendary writer Wells Twombly once said "birds fly on radar in Gary" to navigate the city's gray skies, and former Major League star and Gary native Lyman Bostock was killed by a shotgun blast from a stranger in the back seat of a car in 1978 while visiting relatives in Gary.
Now back to those doomsayers who fluctuate between whispering and shouting throughout Hawkins' baseball career. They are silent these days, but not that he cares. Hawkins sighed, and then he recalled what remains of his rapidly decaying hometown before saying,
"One of things I learned from living in Gary is that the only way that words can break you is if they make you," Hawkins said. "Words don't make me, so they can't break me. That city definitely made me mentally tough. Growing up, I always knew that I wanted something better in life. Even with my success now, it still goes back to how I was brought up, being in a tough city, where most of the things around you are totally negative."
Sounds like the typical situation for your typical reliever when he enters a game during the late innings. Add Coors Field to the mix and bad things, man, with its high altitude and historically shaky pitching from the home team. Not surprisingly, the Rockies are spending another season leading the Major Leagues in ERA by allowing an average of more than five runs per game. I should say that's the case for most Colorado pitchers.
As for baseball's ultimate survivor, forget what I just typed.
Not only isn't Hawkins experiencing the same woes as his peers, he is prospering like crazy. He is 2-2 with a 2.45 ERA, and he is 17-for-18 in save opportunities, but that's just part of his story. During Hawkins' 17 games since May 24, when doomsayers began ripping the right-hander for relinquishing a slew of hits, opponents are batting .091 against him. He also has allowed one earned run for an 0.54 ERA during that stretch while collecting seven saves. If that weren't enough, 67 percent of Hawkins' pitches since then have been strikes.
This isn't the same Hawkins who joined the Twins organization during the 1991 First-Year Player Draft out of high school as a starter. Four years later, he spent his Major League debut against the Orioles getting ripped for seven earned runs in 1 2/3 innings. Four years after that, Hawkins was allowing an average of a touchdown per game with the worst ERA (6.66) in baseball among starters.
There was no talk of Hawkins as a survivor back then. Just of another Major League prospect who wasn't going to make it.
That was until Twins manager Tom Kelly became omniscient.
"He saw something in me that I didn't see in myself at the time, and if it wasn't for TK, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now," said Hawkins, a clubhouse favorite on all of his teams, covering 12 seasons in the American League and nine in the National League. "I was terrible as a starter, but TK called me into his office, and he said, 'Hey, keep throwing the ball over the plate. It will change for you one day.' He always told me, 'Keep working at it. Keep working at it.' Then he told me he was going to put me in the bullpen, and he said, 'You'll be fine. You've got the arm for it. You've got the mental makeup.' The rest is history."
Not quite, because Hawkins isn't history.
Not by a long shot.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.