As the MLB world turns for 20-year veteran reliever Hawkins

LaTroy Hawkins, who turned 41 in December, made his major-league debut in 1995.

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In the most angular of sports, contested on a diamond, it is the perfect circle of the pitcher’s mound in which the career of Colorado Rockies reliever LaTroy Hawkins has played out.

The oldest player in the National League starts a year of raw round numbers; he is on his 10th team, in his 20th big-league season. On and on his career spins in the perfect arc of seasoned veteran know how.

Unlike fellow 20-year veteran Derek Jeter, Cooperstown does not await for Hawkins. A record of 68-90, a lifetime ERA of 4.38 and 102 saves (through Thursday) isn’t going to earn him a plaque in the Hall of Fame, but he has built a career of impact and influence nonetheless. 

"The guys in this clubhouse, we see how valuable Hawk is," Colorado manager Walt Weiss insisted Wednesday before the Rockies’ third game of this season. "He’s a special guy. He’s got a gift to lead. It’s real. It’s authentic. He’s built up so much respect in this game. He’s had a tremendous impact on our club already and he hasn’t even made an appearance yet." 

AROUND THE HORN

A few hours later, Hawkins did make an appearance, and racked up the 102nd save of a career that was nearly derailed almost before it started.

Hawkins made his major-league debut in 1995, but his visions of grandeur and success dissolved like sugar into what quickly became the cliché of a big-league cup of coffee. After just three appearances and an ERA of 13.50, he was sent to the minors. During the All-Star break that summer, he was visiting his hometown of Gary, Ind., contemplating a new direction.

"I was frustrated with baseball,” he said. “I went home and I was like, man, I don’t know if I want to keep doing this. Then one day I was hanging out with some buddies, and my friend’s brother asked if he could borrow $2.  I said to myself, ‘borrow two dollars!?!’ and it got me to thinking, my check is $1,400 every two weeks — $2,800 a month — and I was like, man, I’m going back to baseball!"

Twenty seasons later, here he is plugging away, saving games and taking care of the younger kids the way the late, great Kirby Puckett once did for him; buying him suits to wear on road trips and allowing the rookie to focus on baseball. 

"I didn’t have to worry about anything — rent, food, nothin’. And when I thanked Kirby, he’d always say, ‘T-Hawk, just take care of the next person.’"

DEREK JETER

Round and round it goes; the circle of life in sports’ most linear game.

"The first time I made a million dollars," Hawkins said, "I started taking care of other guys. I think the first suit I bought was for (future Cy Young winner) Johan Santana."

Paying it forward, just like Puckett had requested.

Taking care of the youngsters is as much a part of baseball as the bats and bases. Weiss, who had a 14-year playing career before he took over as Colorado’s manager last season, sighted former Oakland A’s teammates Dave Stewart, Bob Welch and Carney Lansford as the elder statesmen of his own beginnings. Opposing manager Mike Redmond of the Miami Marlins points to former pitcher Alex Fernandez and third baseman Todd Ziele as the veterans who had his back.

"I think it’s invaluable for the other players to have guys like that because they have so much knowledge," Redmond said. "If I was a young pitcher coming up, I’d definitely listen to everything LaTroy says."

In baseball’s version of Six Degrees of Separation, Hawkins’ bloodlines run deep and impressive. He was teammates with Jeter on the 2008 Yankees and he has a common teammate with Pete Rose (Carl Willis, who played on the 1985 Reds with Rose and the 1995 Twins with Hawkins).

Hawkins is only two degrees removed from the likes of Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron. Hawkins was also traded once upon a time for the very first player listed alphabetically in major-league history (David Aardsma). Longevity does have its quirks.

Here’s another one: Despite all the years of service, all the chances, Hawkins has never won a World Series. A four-game sweep of his Rockies at the hands of the Red Sox in 2007 was the closest he’s come. 

"That’s always the carrot that guys will chase, but not everybody is that lucky, that fortunate," Hawkins said. "I’ve been fortunate in so many ways. I’ve played on some good teams, but we came up short.

"What more can I ask for? I wouldn’t change a thing."

The career paths of those who came before him tell him the end is near, but Hawkins insists he will keep playing "as long as I can get guys out." And round and round it goes.

The helped becomes a helper. The rookie becomes a veteran. The kid becomes a man. A scared youngster walks into a major-league clubhouse decked out in Levi’s, exits a couple of decades later a confident man in Armani. It’s the circle of baseball, and it seems to fit perfectly on Hawkins. 

Barry LeBrock is an award-winning journalist, sportscaster and a twice-published author.