Twenty-five years ago, one of the rarest achievements in baseball happened, as someone threw a perfect game. That someone was Reds pitcher Tom Browning, and on Sept. 16, 1988, he retired all 27 batters he faced against the Dodgers.
That Browning would achieve perfection against the Dodgers is notable because all they did was win the world title that year. And Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda didn’t fill his lineup card with scrubs, either. He used six of his normal eight regulars.
The two bench players he used, utility man Mickey Hatcher and catcher Rick Dempsey, actually ended the year with better OPSs than the men they filled in for (Franklin Stubbs and Mike Scioscia). Both backups also would have the platoon advantage against the southpaw Browning. Dempsey and Hatcher both batted right handed, while Stubbs and Scioscia were left-handers.
Leading off for the Dodgers, shortstop Alfredo Griffin flew out to Cincinnati center fielder Eric Davis. It turns out that Davis could’ve walked off the field at that point. No one hit a ball his way again the rest of the day.
Early on, Browning kept mowing down batters, but no one pays much attention in the opening frames. Besides, it wasn’t clear if Browning would even win the game, let alone be perfect. The first time through the order, Dodgers starter Tim Belcher was nearly as effective as Browning. He walked Davis to lead off the second, but otherwise, no one reached base against him.
As the contest entered the middle frames, both pitchers continued to dominate. After five innings, the 16,591 fans on hand at Riverfront Stadium had to notice that a double no-hitter was in progress. Okay, so the odds were terrible that both pitchers would keep it up for nine innings, but hey, wouldn’t it be something if they did?
Well, with two out in the bottom of the sixth—and the two teams a combined 0-for-35 with a walk—the double no-hitter finally came to an end courtesy a Davis double. Next, Chris Sabo singled, and an error on the play allowed Davis to score. Now the shutout was gone. This was an ideal scenario for the Reds fans; they could still see a perfect game, and their team was ahead. All Browning had to do was make it through the Dodgers order one more time.
Leading off the seventh, Griffin did something no other Dodger had done today, hit one to second baseman Ron Oester. It was an easy ground out, but like teammate Davis, Oester would handle just one play all game. Coincidentaly, the same batter hit it to both of them.
After getting the next batter to pop up, Browning had to face the dangerous Kirk Gibson. Browning fanned the man who would win NL MVP that year. Now Browning was just six out away from history.
In the eighth, Browning got through the heart of the order with ease on a fly out, strikeout, and grounder. Now he was just three outs from victory, and with the bottom of the order due up.
As it happens, just before he could pitch, Browning had to bat. He came to the plate with two out in the ninth and struck out, but I’m sure he struck out to big cheers.
Now for the moment of truth, the bottom of the ninth. First up was long-time catcher Dempsey. The veteran would hit .251 on the year—not spectacular, but not a pushover. But Dempsey just flew out to right. That was 25 down, two to go.
Second baseman Steve Sax came up next. The former Rookie of the Year Award winner and three-time All-Star had never quite lived up to the hopes of his early career. Now, with a chance to ruin Browning’s hopes, Sax grounded one up the middle, but Barry Larkin fielded it cleanly for the 6-3 ground out.
Time for the last man, and time for a pinch hitter. The Dodgers didn’t have much of a bench that year. They’d traded away Pedro Guerrero early that year, and their best bench players were already in the lineup. So Lasorda called on 25-year-old aging third base prospect Tracy Woodson to serve as last resort because there weren’t many other good options.
Woodson went ahead in the count 2-1 but then fouled one off to even it up. Woodson took aim at Browning fifth pitch—and missed. Strike three. Tom Browning had done it. He’d become the 12th pitcher ever to throw a perfect game. Incredibly, we’ve had nearly as many since then, but the perfect game is still one of baseball’s rarest achievements. And this one happened 25 years ago today.