I got my first chance to watch my nine-year-old nephew Holland play baseball on Friday. His game was, unsurprisingly, a very different experience from watching the big leaguers. I won’t give all the gory details, but a short example from the third inning will show what made an impression on me.
Holland reached base on a 5-4 force-out. On the next pitch, the opposing catcher let strike one roll a couple feet away, and Holland swiped second. The next pitch, ball one, went in the dirt too, and Holland took third. Then, after a walk, the pitcher turned his back for a moment, and not only did Holland steal home, but in the confusion the runner on first got all the way to third.
From my rough scoring of the game (yes, I was scoring it), four and a half innings produced 18 instances of what in professional baseball would be judged wild pitches or passed balls. Nothing more need be said to illustrate the chasm between these kids and “real” ballplayers, right? The professional game, the true game, is on a plane of effective perfection, right?
Jump-cut to the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium that night. Game knotted at six, with Derek Jeter on first and Brayan Villarreal pitching to Curtis Granderson. The payoff pitch goes wild, and Jeter makes it all the way to third. Three pitches later, a slider goes off the end of catcher Alex Avila‘s glove, and Jeter beats the throw back to the plate to score the winning run.
This was a highly dramatic example, but not an isolated one. On that busy Friday night in major league baseball, there were four passed balls and 12 wild pitches (including two “dropped” third strikes) that led to 20 runners gaining extra bases. Ten of the 15 games on the schedule had at least one wild pitch or passed ball—and all five that didn’t had at least one hit-by-pitch.
Maybe most interesting, one of those wild pitches led to that bizarre rarity: a four-strikeout inning. In the top of the eighth at Camden Yards, Oakland’s Ryan Cook got the first two Orioles hacking, but strike nine to Adam Jones was a wild one that let Jones reach. Cook regrouped and threw strike 12 past Matt Wieters‘ bat to end the inning.
So on a pretty ordinary day in baseball, arguably the two most interesting and memorable moments are defined by their imperfection, by someone goofing up. Kinda brings those multi-millionaire celebrities down to the level of nine-year-old boys playing for fun, right?
Well, no. Let’s not get carried away. The pros are light-years in quality beyond those kids. But they aren’t machines; they aren’t infallible.
And thank God for that.
A flawless game is a sterile game. Tic-tac-toe holds no interest for anyone but kids, because adults can figure out the perfect strategy pretty easily and make a perpetual tie of it. Several years ago, computers solved the game of checkers, figuring out its optimum strategies, and the world of human tournament checkers has been reeling ever since. Once there’s an equation for a game, the game is over. It’s a solved puzzle, thrown out like a completed crossword in yesterday’s paper.
It is the possibility, indeed the inevitability, of imperfection that makes the game what it is. The pitcher missing the outside corner; the batter getting under a fastball; the infielder’s dive deflecting the hot-shot grounder. You can be perfect for a moment, or for a few at-bats. You might, like Philip Humber, be perfect for a whole game—but then there’s the next game.
This should give us a bit of perspective. The players are going to keep striving for perfection, and we’re going to keep rooting for our teams to exhibit it, and that’s exactly as it should be. But the pursuit of that flawlessness is only interesting because it’s so hard to achieve, even briefly, even for the best in the game. In baseball as in so many other endeavors, nobody’s perfect.
Except for Holland’s team, that is. They’re 4-0 on the season so far—but there’s still a lot of baseball left to be played.