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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Remember Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, the real-life baseball player fictionalized in “Field of Dreams?” Remember the excruciating brevity of his major league career – one inning in right field, nothing hit to him, never a chance to bat?
Remember this line, voiced by the great Burt Lancaster?
“It was like coming this close to your dreams and then watching them brush past you like a stranger in a crowd. At the time, you don't think much of it. You know, we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, 'Well, there'll be other days.' I didn't realize that that was the only day.”
“Field of Dreams” premiered in 1989. A year earlier, on July 5, the Oakland Athletics had a doubleheader in Cleveland and called up a right-handed pitcher named Joe Law. He spent four days on the A’s roster, all told. Once he even got the signal to start warming up.
He sat back down. He never unbuttoned his satin jacket again – then, or ever.
Joe Law is the “Moonlight” Graham of pitchers. Nine professional seasons, four days in the big leagues -- and an indifferent stranger standing where he was supposed to meet his dream.
In the movie, Lancaster’s “Moonlight” is at peace with his life. He said it would’ve been a real tragedy if he hadn’t become a doctor.
Joe Law is not a doctor. But he survived his own tragedy. He found his peace, too – his son, Derek.
“I’d rather he be able to be there than me,” said Joe Law, reached by phone from his home near Pittsburgh.
Derek Law is a right-handed pitcher with a unique, back-turning delivery, a deceptive fastball and a sledgehammer of a curve that leaves batters mumbling and scouts scribbling. He hasn’t pitched above Single-A San Jose (where, ridiculously, he struck out 45 and walked one), but his stuff has him on the cusp of the majors. After he mowed down top prospects in the Arizona Fall League, Giants GM Brian Sabean said he wouldn’t rule out Law winning a place in the opening-day bullpen.
“He’ll get due consideration,” Sabean said. “His time could be soon.”
You can imagine the story goes something like this: Joe Law, his big league dream deferred, took that frustration and fashioned his son into more proxy than pitcher. You can imagine Joe had the same unique back turn as Derek, the same unorthodox mechanics, the same sledgehammer curve.
You’d be wrong.
“We’re not at all alike – at all,” Derek said. “He was taller than a Tim Hudson, but he threw more like that.”
Derek was born the year after his father retired. He knows what his dad looked like on the mound because he’s seen the odd VHS tape or two -- “There’s one of Sammy Sosa taking him really, really deep,” Derek said – and when he was just starting high school, still a better hitter than pitcher, he faced the best stuff his old man had left.
“I was the perfect batting practice pitcher for him,” Joe Law said with a laugh. “I’d throw hard, I’d throw everything to him. But you could see a change coming. You could see he had a future as a pitcher.”
Joe was his son’s pitching coach at Seton-LaSalle High, just a tunnel and bridge away from PNC Park. Derek was 7 or 8 when he first learned a curve, and there were times when games of catch in the backyard turned spirited and competitive. But as Derek began to get comfortable with his own style of pitching, Joe let him grow his own way.
“Right around my junior year of high school, he started to turn over to me,” Derek said. “He told me, `You take your career wherever you want it to go, and I’m in the background if you need me.’”
His best advice?
“Never give the hitter too much credit, ever,” Derek said. “They’ll get themselves out seven times out of 10, at least. That’s why I’m a strike thrower. Or try to be, at least.”
That was a realization that came to Joe Law after getting pounded for a few years in the A’s system, including one season at Double-A Huntsville when he walked 78 in 106 innings. Demoted back to A-ball in 1987, he began to attack the zone and went 10-1 with a 2.88 ERA for Modesto. He threw a no-hitter that season, too. He climbed from there, and in July of 1988, the A’s promoted him from Double-A to meet the Triple-A Tacoma club in Phoenix.
He arrived after a full day of flying from Huntsville, Ala., to another piece of news. Dave Stewart was under the weather and iffy to start the first game of a doubleheader. The A’s needed coverage, and Joe Law was their most rested pitcher. Drugged with disbelief, he caught a red-eye to Cleveland.
Stewart ended up not only starting the game, but going the distance. At one point he faced a jam in the sixth inning and Law was told to get warm. Two pop-ups later, the threat was contained.
“It was a close game and they weren’t going to put a rookie in there when it’s close,” Joe Law said. “You know how that is.”
Thanks to Stewart, the A’s were covered for Game 2. In between games of the doubleheader, they sent Law back to the minors.
“I was thinking, `This is good.’ I’ll go to Triple-A and get my starts in and be back up there,” he said.
He did, for three days in August. He wasn’t needed. He went back down. He never returned.
“At the time I was bitter about it,” he said. “But as time goes by, you realize not too many people get the call to the big leagues. Not too many people get to put the big league uniform on. And I got that.
“With Derek so close now, that helps with the sting. But that was so long ago, and I’m happy with it. If it didn’t happen that way, I wouldn’t have gotten to spend as much time with Derek as I did.”
There is one more reason Joe Law cannot look upon his brush with the major leagues as a tragedy. It’s because he survived one that could have been much worse.
He injured his knee in 1990 and was driving back home with his wife, Tracey, who was seven months pregnant at the time. There was an accident. The Jeep rolled over. Joe was thrown from the vehicle and injured his back. Tracey, providentially, walked away without a scratch.
Derek was born two months later.
“My wife and I always say we don’t know why it happened that way,” Joe Law said. “We think there’s a reason, though, and it’s Derek.”
If you believe the muttering and the scribbling, there will come a time in the near future when Derek will get that call to the major leagues. Joe will catch the first flight. Not to see a stranger, or even his proxy, but to celebrate his son.
“Oh, there is no doubt – none,” Joe Law said. “I’ll be there.”
It would be one of the most significant moments of his life. And as it’s happening, he won’t fail to recognize it.