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Karl Lindholm: Imperfect perfection — it ain't fair!

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Posted on August 30, 2018 |
By Karl Lindholm



Karl Lindholm col Ruth Shore sitting online.jpg
BABE RUTH, LEFT, and Ernie Shore were pitching stalwarts of the Boston Red Sox in 1917. Together they pitched a combined no-hitter, with Shore earning all of the outs.

Imagine this baseball game:

The first batter of the game walks on four pitches. The pitcher who issued the walk is outraged by the umpire’s calls. They exchange words and the pitcher charges the plate and punches the umpire in the face, whereupon he is summarily ejected from the game.

A relief pitcher is called into action, cold, and given the requisite five warm-up tosses. On his first pitch to the No. 2 hitter, the impetuous runner at first attempts to steal second and is thrown out.

He then retires the next 26 hitters consecutively for a “perfect game,” or a no-hitter at least.

Nope, he just gets a W.

That walk to the first batter precludes any official recognition of his perfection. He gets credit for a combined no-hitter with the first guy. Not fair!

That game actually happened, 101 years ago this summer, between the Red Sox and the Washington Senators on June 23, 1917.

The hot-headed Boston pitcher was none other than Babe Ruth, a 22-year-old kid in 1917, already the best lefty in the American League. He won 24 games that year.

Ernie Shore was the reliever and was himself no slouch, though he was often in Ruth’s shadow with the Red Sox. Shore pitched brilliantly in the Red Sox World Series wins in 1915 and ’16, before heading off to the Navy in World War I.

For a long time, Shore was credited with a perfect game. In 1991, Commissioner Fay Vincent clarified the rules for the designation of a perfect game: “a game in which a pitcher (or combination of pitchers) pitches a victory that lasts a minimum of nine innings in which no opponent reaches first base.”

Here’s another miscarriage of baseball justice, a more recent example of an imperfect perfect game:

On June 2, 2010, my wife Brett, son Peter, and I were engaged in our normal nocturnal activity, watching the Red Sox on TV, when the announcers told us that a Detroit pitcher, Armando Galarraga, was “flirting” with a perfect game, so we switched to the Tigers-Indians game.

There is a palpable tension that attaches to a no-hit effort: the crowd reacts to every pitch, everyone takes care not to utter the term “no-hitter”; the pitcher’s teammates avoid him in the dugout lest they somehow jinx him.

With two outs in the 9th, Indian Jason Donald hit a slow grounder to first, Cabrera fielded it cleanly, flipped to Galarraga.

OUT! By a mile!

Momentary jubilation, followed immediately by shock and despair — first-base umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe, and despite vigorous protestations, was adamant in his decision.

Galarraga got the next hitter to ground out, and he had the only “28-out perfect game” in history.

The aftermath was dramatic. As soon as Joyce saw a replay, he realized his egregious mistake and was desolate. At home plate at the game the next day, a weeping Joyce and a forgiving Galarraga embraced.

Today, of course, on-field video replay (introduced in 2014) would have quickly reversed the call.

In nearly a century and a half of Major League Baseball, over 210,000 games, only 23 pitchers (21 since 1893 when the mound was moved back to 60 feet 6 inches where it remains) have thrown perfect games — Galarraga, alas, not one of them.

Nor is Harvey Haddix in this hallowed group of mound perfectionists:

On May 26, 1959, the diminutive lefty (5-foot-9, 170 pounds), pitching for the Pirates, retired 36 Braves in a row, 12 perfect innings, and got nothing to show for it. At the end of nine innings, the score stood 0-0, as Braves pitcher Lew Burdette was also sharp that day.

In the 13th inning, an error, an intentional walk to Henry Aaron, and a double scoring both runners cost Haddix the perfect game, the no-hitter, the shut-out, and the win.

Our own Pedro Martinez pitched nine perfect innings for the Montreal Expos early in his career (1995) against the Padres in San Diego. He gave up a hit in the tenth, but won the game 1-0.

Like Haddix, he didn’t complete the game perfectly — his teammates couldn’t scratch out a run for him in nine innings.

The best game I ever saw (on TV) anyone pitch was not a perfect game, but very close. It was Pedro’s gem against the Yankees on Sept. 10, 1999. He faced just 28 batters, striking out 17 and walking none, before 55,000 dazzled fans in Yankee Stadium, the Yanks only hit a second inning homer by Chili Davis.

Who knows how many perfect games there would be if Major League Baseball had not been segregated for nearly half its history (1887-1947) and great black players pitched, and hit, alongside their white MLB counterparts?

On July 4, Independence Day, 1934, the incomparable Satchel Paige threw a nearly perfect game for the Pittsburgh Crawfords against the Homestead Grays. Satch struck out 17 batters: only a walk and an error marred his performance in this big game between two of the foremost Negro league teams.

A pitcher in college, at Middlebury College, I pitched a perfect game. Well, technically not perfect: I came within five hits, two walks, and two errors of perfection in a nine-inning 5-1 Panther win over RPI in May 1966.

It sure felt perfect to me at the time.

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