In the history of baseball, there are very few names that will cause someone to pause at the mere mention of them as much as Cy Young. When New York Mets reliever LaTroy Hawkins was told recently that he was close to tying and then passing Young in career appearances, he was in disbelief.
After all, the 40-year-old Hawkins had never much thought about the grand scope of his career. As a reliever, he often lives year to year, and admittedly, the last few have not been easy. He had to latch on with the Los Angeles Angels last year on a minor league deal, and this year the Mets -- who had a pressing need in their bullpen but had no postseason aspirations -- took a flier on him after many others passed.
So Hawkins pressed on anonymously with his career this year in Queens, but the surprising news that he was nearing Young's mark of 906 career games -- good for 22nd all time at the start of the season -- finally allowed Hawkins to gain an appreciation for how much he had accomplished. Certainly, he won't be a Hall of Famer, and he never made an All Star team, but passing Cy Young on July 3 was the validation Hawkins now had for all those countless times he entered a game with a sore arm -- he was ahead of an all-time great at least in one regard. There actually was a special place in history for those guys who were able to go out on the field when called upon.
"I can't believe that managers have sent me out there that many times, first of all," Hawkins joked. "Who trusted me to go out there that many times? But it's a great accomplishment. The Cy Young name in baseball, you can't say that name without people knowing who he is and the trophy that all starters and a few closers can actually achieve."
A bullpen role is the ultimate indignity for some starting pitchers. Very few pitchers, when they are drafted or signed as international free agents, aspire to be a reliever, whether middle, late-inning or closer. Who says when they are growing up, "Hey, I want to be the guy that comes into a game in the sixth inning?"
These types of career moves happen in reaction to a slump or a mechanical glitch. Very few pitchers see this switch to relieving for the lifeline that it truly is.
Prior to the start of the 2000 season, then Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, at the start of spring training, called then 27-year-old starting pitcher LaTroy Hawkins into his office. He told Hawkins that he was going to spend part of the spring as a reliever.
Hawkins didn't think much of it. He wasn't upset. He understood the realities. From 1995-'99 Hawkins had accumulated a horrific 6.16 ERA in more than 500 innings as a starting pitcher. Whatever Hawkins was trying, it certainly wasn't working.
"I wasn't good enough," Hawkins said. "The numbers don't lie."
After spending spring training in the bullpen, Hawkins was once again called into Kelly's office. He was told that he would permanently be moving to the bullpen at the start of the regular season.
"You're going to be a bullpen guy and your career is going to take off," Kelly told Hawkins. "I did that experiment in spring training to see how you bounce back, and you bounce back well. That's what we're going with."
Hawkins asked, "Do I have to go to Triple AAA to have to learn?"
When told no, Hawkins embraced the role.
"On the job training," Hawkins said. "I took to it because when you pitch bad as a starter, you have five days to think about it. That probably drove me nuts. But as a bullpen guy, if I had a bad outing, I always had the chance to go back out there the next day and flush that bad outing out of my mind and get ready for the next day. That helped me a lot."
Hawkins eventually flourished in the role. After a bumpy start -- he posted a 4.34 ERA in his first two seasons relieving -- Hawkins became one of the most dependable relievers in the game. From 2002-2013, Hawkins has a 3.09 ERA while playing for nine different teams. Most importantly he's stayed healthy. The only surgery he's ever had in his career was in 2010, to fix a weakened rotator cuff and labrum. He pitched in only 18 games that season, but he returned the next year and posted a 2.42 ERA, his best since 2004.
Of course, his bullpen career hasn't been entirely pleasant. His Chicago Cubs career would be considered by many to be a disappointment. He had signed as a big name free agent with Chicago prior to the 2003 season to pitch close to his hometown of Gary, Ind. but he never quite won over the fans, who did not believe he could handle the pressure of being a closer. He did save Greg Maddux's 300th win, though, something that remains dear to his heart.
With Cy Young behind him, Hawkins now wonders how far he can go. He also recently passed his good friend Eddie Guardado, who had 908 appearances. Next on the list is Gene Garber, who is in 20th place all time with 931 appearances. Reaching 1,000 games would be the ultimate achievement -- only 15 players have reached that mark -- although Hawkins doesn't think that's likely to happen.
"If my right arm felt like the rest of my body, I could play 10 more years, but that's not the case," Hawkins said. "It doesn't feel like the rest of my body. Who knows, this year could be my last year. Last year, I didn't plan on it being my last year and I didn't get any offers. I had to sign a minor league deal. All those things play a huge factor."
Hawkins has recently started to think about his post-career life. He's thought about trying to become a front office executive. He's also very well liked at the Major League Players Association, so perhaps there would be a place for him there.
Regardless, now and for the rest of his life, Hawkins can boast about how Cy Young never played in more games than he did.
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Arangure has been a baseball writer since 2003. He has worked as a senior writer for ESPN and The Washington Post. He's still looking for a Mexican restaurant in New York City that's as good as something from his hometowns of Tijuana/San Diego. He doesn't think he'll find one.