Obsessing Over Perfection

One night back in 2001, Mike Mussina was nearly perfect (via Keith Allison).

One night back in 2001, Mike Mussina was nearly perfect (via Keith Allison).

From an early age, we’re taught that people make mistakes. That people are flawed. That they will let you down and come up short. Nobody’s perfect. Few cliches are more enduring than that one and the evidence overwhelmingly supports this notion. Perfection is a goal that we’re never supposed to reach.

A funny thing about the concept of perfection is that it’s not only elusive, but very few parts of life even have a concrete definition of it to begin with. What’s a perfect day or perfect month for a car salesman? Or a surgeon? Or a teacher? We can hardly define perfection in most of life, much less attain it.

Baseball is an exception to this otherwise fundamental aspect of humanity. A baseball player, specifically a starting pitcher, can throw a perfect game and he has a chance to do it every single time he steps onto the mound. In most of life, perfection is impossible. In baseball, you’re likely to catch a glimpse about twice a decade.

If you think about it rationally, the difference between a perfect game and a shutout in which the starter allows one hit or one walk or one error is negligible. But the emotion we pour into that tiny difference is immense.

When a pitcher is chasing a perfect game, you wake up your kids, call your friends and get to a screen. Die-hards pull up a chair to watch the end of a High Game Score, but when a pitcher is chasing perfection it takes over the sporting world. Every single pitch catches in your throat. This guy, maybe he’s an ace or a journeyman, is trying to achieve this singular feat and it could vanish every time the ball leaves his hand.

***

There was a time before MLB.TV and MLB Extra Innings when you could watch only a handful of out-of-market games every week. Some of you are old enough to remember a world before that was even possible, but for the younger reader, Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN used to be a staple in baseball-loving households because you’d get a chance to see a couple of teams you couldn’t normally watch.

Of the many hundreds of Sunday night games I watched during my youth, no more than a handful stand out. I vividly recall staying up on Sunday nights to watch one last game before Monday morning’s ride to school, but the details are hazy.

Thirteen summers ago, before the curse was lifted in Boston and the Yankees dynasty was dismantled in the Bronx, Mike Mussina climbed atop the mound at Fenway Park. It was nine days before 9/11 would disrupt everything, including the major league schedule.

The attacks defined that pennant chase and Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Mark McGwire’s record occupied whatever remaining attention we could spare that September. Mike Mussina, perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time, missed perfection by one out and was then subsequently overwhelmed by everything in the Autumn of 2001.

Anybody who’s anybody will tell you Mussina belongs in the Hall of Fame, but there are plenty of people with a vote who see things differently. Maybe if it had ended differently that night in Boston and Mussina had finished off his bid at perfection, he’d be remembered the way he ought to be remembered, as one of the best pitcher’s of his generation.

A player’s overall body of work is what should matter, but we can’t deny that big moments subtly shape our perceptions. Jack Morris’ overall body of work is good, but not great. Jack Morris in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series, with everything on the line, was fantastic. Mussina had plenty of big moments, but he never had that moment. You know, like throwing a perfect game on national television during a pennant chase.

More than a decade later I still remember the look on his face after Carl Everett flared a single to left center field. Mussina had worked the Red Sox over with calm brilliance to that point, setting down the first 26 men he faced. Carl Everett was the only thing standing between Mussina and one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.

Even if you remember this night, you still might not remember that David Cone opposed Mussina and was pitching a shutout of his own until he allowed an unearned run in the ninth inning. There had been a very real chance that Mussina might retire the first 27 batters he faced without even getting credit for a complete game.

But the Yankees scored, Derek Lowe got Cone out of the jam and Mussina was out there for the ninth. Mussina got Troy O’Leary to ground out on the fifth pitch of the at bat, which was the first close call of the night until it was snared by Clay Bellinger at first base, who had just entered the game at the position for the first time all season. Then Mussina fired off a breaking ball to punch out Lou Merloni on four pitches. Joe Oliver, the light hitting catcher, was due up, but Carl Everett came to the plate instead.

Mussina got ahead 1-2 on Everett. One strike away from a perfect game. We don’t usually make much of batter-pitcher histories spanning ten interactions, but in their ten previous meetings (all in 2001), Mussina allowed a single and a walk, induced one ground out and whiffed him seven times.

Mike Mussina had Everett down to his last strike. He had thirteen strikeouts that day and had gotten Everett on strikes in 70 percent of their meetings to date. If you had to bet on it, you’d have put your money on a strikeout before that pitch.

Jorge Posada seemed to call for the fastball inside but Mussina threw it up and away. This was way before Pitchf/x, but ESPN’s K-Zone has it crossing the plate precisely at the corner of the zone. Everett put a fine swing on it, but didn’t exactly strike the ball with much authority. It fell between Chuck Knoblauch and Bernie Williams.

Mussina’s reaction – that tortured grin – is burned into my brain. I didn’t grow up a Yankees fan and I hadn’t yet developed any real interest in his career, but that image will never leave me.

***

Armando Galarraga’s name is synonymous with stolen perfection. Unlike Mussina, baseball will only remember Galarraga because of what happened on the second day of June in 2010. Galarraga retired the first 26 batters he faced and then got Jason Donald to ground out weakly to first. Except Jim Joyce called him safe. For whatever strange cosmic reason, one of the game’s most respected umpires blew the call with history on the line.

The look on Galarraga’s face is carved into my memory. Miguel Cabrera let Joyce have it. So did Jim Leyland. The fans in Detroit booed Joyce off the field. Tigers color commentator Rod Allen can be heard, seconds after the call, saying “Oh Jim Joyce, no…” with a sadness so completely out of character you know it had to be genuine.

But Galarraga just smiled. He knew the ball beat Donald, but he didn’t say anything to Joyce. He didn’t get upset or scream. He took the ball and induced a ground out to end the game. A one-hit shutout in the official record.

Joyce met the media and admitted the blown call. Which is rare. Then he went to the Tigers’ locker room and apologized. He and Galarraga hugged. The next day, Leyland sent Galarraga out with the lineup card. Chevrolet gave him a car. It had the potential to be an ugly situation and both principal players handled it so well, it turned into a positive. They even wrote a book together.

The amazing thing, when you think about it, is that Galarraga will probably go down in history more because of how he lost his perfect game than if he had actually completed it. Galarraga was swingman who threw 542 innings with a 4.78 career ERA. The only thing memorable about his career was that his perfect night ended on a blown call. On the 27th batter.

I actually didn’t see it happen live. I’m a Tigers fan and during the average season I watch or listen to about 160 games in their entirety. It’s extremely rare that I miss a game and even less common for me to miss an entire one.

That year I played softball on Wednesday nights and we typically finished our doubleheader in time for me to catch the last three or four innings of a 7pm game. Two crazy things conspired against me that night. First, our game was actually canceled because the other team didn’t have enough players. For some reason, for literally the only time during my four years in the league, we hung out and practiced. My phone buzzed uncontrollably in the glove compartment of my car, 500 yards from where I was standing, but I was oblivious.

The second amazing thing was the speed of the game. The game took an hour and forty-four minutes. It ended at 8:49 p.m. I got to my car at 8:58 p.m., read Twitter in horror, and listened to Tigers play-by-play man Dan Dickerson describe what is basically my worst nightmare.

I nearly missed a perfect game. A Tigers perfect game.

I watched the highlights for hours. I watched the game from start to finish as soon as Fox Sports Detroit started the replay. I knew what happened, but I had to see it for myself. When Austin Jackson caught that ball up the left center field gap for the 26th out, I actually wondered if the ending would be different this time. It wasn’t.

It certainly wasn’t the most disappointing or soul-crushing moment of baseball in my life, but it had to be the most surreal. Armando Galarraga threw a perfect game. If he had done it this year, the call would have been overturned and he’d be in the record books. Instead, it goes down in history as one of hundreds of one-hit shutouts.

***

In 2012, baseball gave us three perfect games. Matt Cain, Felix Hernandez and Phil Humber threw them. If you hadn’t lived through it, you would never have guessed how that last sentence was going to end. Phil Humber was a well-enough regarded prospect and was involved in the Johan Santana trade between the Mets and the Twins, so it’s not like he was completely unknown, but he’s in his 30s and has one good major league season to his name.

Mike Mussina, the should-be Hall of Famer had perfection taken by a clean single from a batter who had no business connecting. Armando Galarraga earned perfection and lost it, not to a competitor or bad luck, but to a bad call. For those men, perfection was nearly attained, and then suddenly lost. It’s what makes perfect games so amazing. Nothing can go wrong for an entire game. No hits, no walks, no errors, no blown calls at the bases. Nothing. You can make a mistake pitch, I suppose, but you can’t allow a baserunner.

Most of the pitchers who have thrown perfect games seem like they belong. Some don’t. Phil Humber really doesn’t belong at all. Phil Humber has a 5.31 career ERA and has a career WHIP of 1.42. He threw his perfect game during a terrible season, in fact.

Nothing about Phil Humber throwing a perfect game makes sense. Clayton Kershaw missed a perfect game this season because of an error by his shortstop, who probably should have come out of the game for defensive reasons. Kerry Wood allowed an infield single during his 20 strikeout game back in 1998 and hit a batter. Justin Verlander just barely missed with a 3-2 pitch in 2011, turning a perfect game into a no-hitter.

In the long run, the better pitchers rise to the top. You can’t fake your way through a career and wind up looking like Clayton Kershaw, but in baseball, you can be perfect even if you’re incredibly far from being a perfect pitcher.

Humber threw his perfect game the afternoon of my bachelor party. I had already fought and convinced my friends that I didn’t want anything close to a typical bachelor party and that I was perfectly content to stay in and play cards while watching baseball. I like to think the universe rewarded me for that temperance with the most inexplicable pitching performance of the decade.

To my dying day, I’ll have the imagine of Humber falling to his knees beneath his teammates when the final out was recorded etched into my memory.

***

This is bigger than a “sports are a metaphor for life” kind of message. Other sports don’t really have this opportunity. You can complete every pass attempt in the NFL, but you could always have thrown more. The same is true with shots in the NBA. Even hitters don’t get the chance for perfection because in even the extremely rare occasions in which a batter homers in every plate appearance, they still could have come to the plate again or made one extra defensive play. There is no upper bound on the number of times a position player can affect a game.

What it comes down to is that almost everything in life, and in most of sports, is bounded by time or opportunity. Pitching is different. It’s a to-do list. You have to get 27 outs. It’s not about doing better than your opponent over the course of an hour or being the first team to score a certain number of points. It’s not a race to the finish line. It’s a task.

The game doesn’t end until you get 27 outs and there is a perfect way to get there. Most of us are never afforded an opportunity like that.

I think that’s why we’re so captivated by the perfect game. It’s impossible to take the fun or drama out of it. It’s both holy and an affront to God all the same. We’re taught from a young age that we’re fundamentally flawed as a species, but as the outs keep coming it starts to feel like this one man, on this one night, is going to prove that axiom wrong.

The hippocampus takes over and tells our prefrontal cortexes to take a hike. It doesn’t matter that Phil Humber isn’t actually a good pitcher. It doesn’t matter that he’s facing the Mariners. Far better pitchers have faced far worse offenses and never retired every batter they’ve faced. It’s a damn impressive accomplishment even if it doesn’t really mean anything.

I’ve watched thousands of baseball games in my life, but almost all of the moments I remember are about the action on the field. The big home runs, the tremendous defensive plays. Perfect games are different. I remember the reactions. The sense of disbelief and accomplishment. The sense of acceptance when it ends.

It’s as if the pitcher is both superhuman and a regular person at the same time. I think that’s what really tugs at you. He’s a world-class professional athlete having the best day of his professional life but he’s also reacting to it in exactly the same way that we might. None of us will ever get that close to perfection in our own lives, but if afforded the chance, we’d have smiled in disbelief or fallen to our knees out of utter shock or joy.

Mike Mussina was a great pitcher who came within one strike, but perfect games aren’t about track record. Armando Galarraga essentially retired all 27 batters but perfect games aren’t about what should have happened. Phil Humber’s resume is filled with unfulfilled promise, yet he’s the one of the three who gets to say he pitched a perfect game.

Those three games, spanning more than a decade summarize our collective obsession with baseball’s perfect game, even if only one of them technically qualifies. It’s not really about the almost two dozen perfectos, it’s about the ones that almost made the list.

James Buckley Jr.’s Perfect is a great example of this. He tells the story of baseball’s then 20 perfect games, but includes a chapter at the end about the pitchers who retired the first 26 batters but not number 27. Those are the stories that make perfect games so compelling.

The line that divides perfect from imperfection is extremely clear, but also wholly ridiculous. If you had asked those 23 perfect pitchers to get one more out, how many of them would have failed? Two more outs? Three? We’ll never know, but I suspect by 30 outs we’d be down to four or five perfect days.

The 27th out isn’t actually the hardest to get. In fact, despite what people will say about the pressure, you’re facing the ninth-place hitter or a pinch hitter, so you’re almost certainly not facing the toughest batter of the day. Yet getting that out is the difference between reaching an unreachable goal and getting a few paragraphs in a book that only baseball dorks even know exists.

Baseball provides its starting pitchers with countless chances to achieve perfection, which is something you can’t find in most other parts of life. Yet the definition is so unforgiving that it’s very rarely about true greatness but instead about cosmic alignment.

I often advise people not to pay much attention to statistics like wins or RBI, which don’t tell you very much about an individual player. And to a large extent, perfect games fit into that mold. Telling you that a pitcher threw a perfect game doesn’t tell you anything about that pitcher, but it does tell you something about the particular game in which it happened.

It’s a story stat like RBI or WPA. Both extremely meaningful and extremely meaningless, depending on your perspective. We haven’t found a way to measure the pitcher’s reaction to the 27th batter reaching or not reaching base, but that seems like a fun exercise. Sandy Koufax raising his arms in triumph was great. Mark Buehrle with his hands over his head was fun. Don Larsen and Yogi Berra embracing was iconic.

But for me, at least for now, when I think of perfect games, it will be Mussina’s look of acceptance, Galarraga’s knowing smirk, and Humber’s unrestrained exuberance that come to mind. All perfect reactions, if not all perfect games.

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Comments

    • j said...

      What a waste of time to read. I can’t believe I was only 1/3 of the way through this monstrosity when I finally ejected to page down to the comments.

      Dear hardball times. .. Please don’t ever let this douchebag write another word on your site.

  1. bucdaddy said...

    “Other sports don’t really have this opportunity.”

    I ask this of fans of other sports: What’s the football, hockey or basketball equivalent of a no-hitter? Something that if the visiting team’s pitcher is throwing one, most fans of the home team would root for him in the ninth inning? Something that’s rare but still happens often enough that a fan who goes to a lot of games in a season has a reasonable chance of seeing one in his/her lifetime? Peyton Manning throws six touchdown passes against your team, do you root for him to throw eight? LeBron drops 50 on your team, do you root for 60? Crosby scores five goals on your team, do you want to see eight?

    But if I’m at a Pirates game and the other guy is working a no-no in the ninth, I’m switching allegiances for an inning.

    I’ve been a fan for 50 years and never seen a no-hitter in person. The best I’ve done was two reverse no-hitters.* One by Zane Smith and one by Halladay and Papelbon (a reverse perfect game, actually). But every time I go to the ballpark, until each team gets its first hit, the possibility is there.

    *–Leadoff hit or hits, then nothing after that. Here are the box scores:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PIT/PIT199009051.shtml

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PIT/PIT201204050.shtml

  2. Andy said...

    That’s why I always thought Harvey Haddix pitched the most remarkable game in history. If perfect is 100%, HH was 133%–yet he still lost the game. He was more than perfect, a lot more than perfect, more perfect by far than anyone else in history, yet he still lost the game.

    One of my favorite BB stories: Don Drysdale was injured, and so didn’t travel with the team, staying backing in LA. This was long before the internet and national TV, of course, and he couldn’t even get the team’s east coast games on radio, so every evening he would call someone on the team and ask them how the Dodgers did. One night the reply was, “Sandy pitched a no-hitter.” Drysdale’s response: “Did we win?”

    • Fielding Osgood III said...

      @Andy – Interesting story about Drysdale.

      Also interesting are these stubborn things:

      6/3/64 – Drysdale starts a game in Philadelphia and pitches 10 1/3 innings, losing 1-0.
      6/4/64 – Still in Philadelphia, Koufax pitches his only career road no-hitter.
      6/7/64 – In New York, Drysdale throws a complete game, driving in 2 runs, and winning 6-1.

      One wonders what sort of injury Drysdale had which prevented him from traveling with the team, but forced him to travel all the way back to LA on his own between starts.

      • Andy said...

        Well, this was a story that I read somewhere. At the time I heard it, long ago, the resources didn’t exist for me easily to fact-check it, I just assumed it was true. It seems that the source of the story might have embellished it a little. Maybe it was a one-hitter.

  3. Phil J said...

    Never been a huge believer that a perfect game and a one-hitter are so far apart in importance (especially as to its impact on whether someone gets into the Hall of Fame etc), though I did watch that Mussina game (as Sunday and Wednesday night baseball were the only games transmitted in the UK at that time….) and it was pretty crazy for it to be broken up at the very last chance.

    I was always vaguely fascinated by John Lackey’s inversion of the process by giving up a leadoff double and then retiring the next 27 batters.

    • Andy said...

      Jerry Reuss, Dodger pitcher back in the early 80s, pitched a no hitter in which the only blemish was an error by (who else) Bill Russell in the first inning. The following year Reuss gave up a leadoff double, then retired 27 consecutive batters, though that leadoff batter scored through a sacrifice and a ground ball.

  4. Dennis Bedard said...

    I sat behind third base in Miami when Hallady pitched a perfect game. The game was rather boring until the 7th inning when people started mentioning that it was a perfect game so far. Then the fan involvement became increasingly intense until it happened. People looked around and high fived one another. For me, it was a realization that I witnessed something special that I would never see again. I was at a Red Sox/Oriole game in 1967 when the Red Sox pulled off a triple play. I was too young to appreciate it.

  5. Andrew said...

    I saw Milt Wilcox lose a perfect game with two out in the ninth, and I saw Galarraga’s game as well. Tommy Bridges also lost a perfect game with two out in the ninth.

    The Tigers, who have never had apitcher throw a perfect game, are the only team to have lost more than one with two out in the ninth.

  6. said...

    I was lucky enough to witness Humber’s perfect game. I was visiting Seattle with my girlfriend, and our friend we were staying with got us tickets to the game. The Mariners were pretty terrible that season, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that they were hitless and scoreless after the first several innings. It wasn’t until the sixth or so that people started taking note.
    As a Cardinals fan who was all too familiar with Brendan Ryan’s inability to hit, it almost seemed like a joke to see him step up to the plate as the pinch hitter with two outs in the ninth.
    I remember how nervous I was when Ryan worked a full count. Come on Phil, it’s Brendan Ryan! You can’t walk Brendan Ryan to lose a perfect game!!
    I was sitting in the lower level about half way up the third base line, so I had a pretty good view of Ryan’s check swing on the low-and-away slider. I wasn’t so sure he swung, but when the home plate umpire said he went around and called it a strike out, I wasn’t going to complain. I cheered along with the crowd and felt a huge sense of excitement, along with relief. There are people who cover baseball games for the entire lives, seeing a hundred or more games every year, and never get to see a perfect game. Me? I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I felt so lucky. Almost a little bit guilty.
    (Luck struck again later that year when my girlfriend and I watched Johan Santana throw the first no hitter in Mets history… and after seeing two no hitters over the course of six weeks, I know that I’ll probably never see another one in person.)

  7. Eric F said...

    I was in Boston in late July 2008, and was lucky enough to get tickets to 2 games against the Angels that ended up being pretty memorable for me.
    The first was a game that Lackey started for LAA and had a no-hitter with 1 out in the 9th. Then Pedroia had a base hit through the left side and Youkilis followed with a homer before Lackey finished the game off. During that game the Angels made their trade for Teixeira, which we heard about when we got back to our hotel and the doorman informed us that Tex had checked in to our same hotel that night. We immediately thought the Sox had got him, but he told us he went to LAA. Also, this was the game where Boston officially turned on Manny Ramirez. With the no-hitter still going in the middle innings he hit a slow chopper to third that even Manny could have easily beat out, but he didn’t put any effort and barely made it halfway down the base line. Everyone at Fenway, myself included, let Manny have it with the boos and I think we all knew his time in Boston was over. Sure enough, after the next day’s game we heard about him being sent away.
    It was a fairly crazy couple days and I was so glad I got to share some part of it.

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