Saturday 6 April 2013

Joining the Club

Yu Darvish stands over the rubber, tired, sweating. It is the bottom of the ninth inning, at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The bases are empty. Marwin Gonzalez is at the plate. A.J. Pierzynski is squatting behind the plate, dropping down fingers as Yu looks for a pitch he wants. He is pitching this game in enemy territory, and his Rangers have scored seven runs. The crowd, resigned to a home team loss, is, strangely, on its feet in anticipation.

Darvish is trying to join a baseball fraternity. He is very, very close to being perfect. One more batter retired, and Yu Darvish will have thrown a Perfect Game.
Briefly, if you are unfamiliar with Perfect Games, they occur when a pitcher retires every batter before they can reach first base. If he does it twenty seven times, he has recorded a full games worth of outs. As long as his team has scored, the game is over, and for one night, the pitcher is perfect. Any pitcher can be perfect for one night, it has been done 23 times before.

Baseball is one big fraternity, in a way. All former major league players share a level of skill and accomplishment, and should be rightly proud of having played at the most elite level. Within the 'big brotherhood', however, are ever smaller and more exclusive clubs.
There is the All-Star club, the MVP club, Cy Young alumni, and, of course men who can all themselves Hall Of Famers. Because baseball has been keeping records almost since it's birth, and since the leagues have been uninterrupted for over 110 years, there are a lot of odd little accomplishments, each with their eclectic membership lists. Throwing a no-hitter, hitting for the cycle, getting six hits in a game, striking out 20 batters in one game, striking out 4 in one inning, each accomplishment comes with a list of those who came before. It is very, very difficult, after hundreds of thousands of games, to do something unique in baseball. There's always another member of the brotherhood, sometimes nearby to congratulate you.
When Jeff Frye hit for the cycle while playing for the Toronto Blue Jays, he was surprised to find Kelly Gruber suddenly at his side. Gruber was the last Blue Jay to cycle, and he felt the need to congratulate the man with whom he suddenly had something in common.

Yu Darvish takes a deep breath and placed his back foot on the rubber. He begins his windup.

Out in the Houston Astros bullpen, the remaining relievers are watching to see if their team is about to be a victim of history. Watching with them is their bullpen coach. In 1991, Dennis Martinez was standing on the mound in Dodger stadium, having retired the first twenty six batters he faced. When he readied himself for his last pitch of the game, he looked in at the signs given by his catcher, Ron Hassey. When he went into his final windup and let the ball go, it was launched into the outfield... and caught. He had thrown the thirteenth perfect game in history, and was part of one of baseball's most exclusive clubs. Now many years, and thousands of games later, he waits to see if Darvish and he will suddenly have something in common.

Darvish rocks back on the rubber and lets a fastball fly over the inner third... 
As the pitch is on its way, we should consider another player in the game. A.J. Pierzynski is holding the target out to receive Yu's next pitch, and he has, in fact seen this all before. He was the man setting the target for Philip Humber's perfect game, less than one year ago. Considering that only 11 perfect games have been thrown since Dennis Martinez authored his over 20 years ago, and only 24 have been thrown in total, it would be a long shot for any catcher to have caught two. Pierzynski would, also find that there was already someone with whom he had something suddenly in common.

And then, Marwin Gonzalaez swings and makes all of the possibilities vanish into thin air.
'Through the wickets', as I, and possibly thousands of others said on Twitter, in the stands, and at their televisions all over North America.
The magic moment that could have been, suddenly is not. Darvish does not get to join the fraternity of perfect game winners. A.J. Pierzynski remains on the receiving end of only one perfecto. Dennis Martinez doesn't have to think about finding a Spanish-to-Japanese translator. 
On the other hand, in some imaginary clubhouse, Hooks Wiltse, Tommy Bridges, Billy Pierce, Milt Pappas, Ron Robinson, Dave Stieb, Brian Holman, Mike Mussina, and Armando Galarraga, are all waiting to welcome Yu Darvish into their club, for they all have something suddenly in common.

Baseball is Magic, even, sometimes, when it doesn't quite happen the way you might expect..

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