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Only in Baseball does the imperfect player have a shot at perfection

You have to keep in mind that it was the immortal Charlie Robertson of the White Sox who spun the first perfectly pitched game of the modern era back in 1922. Doubtless Charlie was a virtuous chap. He even managed to labor a few innings for the infamous Black Sox in 1919 without becoming tainted.
 But as a big league hurler Charlie Robertson was strictly just another ham and egger. In eight seasons of hanging around the edges of the game his record was 49-80. He is only remembered for having pitched one—and just one—lovely game in which he retired all 27 Detroit Tigers that he faced, including no less than Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann. For a day—but only one single day—Charlie Robertson, now long forgotten, was ‘perfect’.

Fast forward almost a century and you have the list of perfect game hurlers growing this season by leaps and bounds yet still totaling only 21 in the history of this interminable game embracing hundreds of thousands of presumably ‘imperfectly’ pitched tilts.  Only a couple of Hall of Famers have brushed, if briefly, with what’s alleged to be historical perfection. There’s Jim Bunning and Catfish Hunter in the modern era, Cy Young and Addie Joss back in the dead-ball era at the turn of the last century which counts less.

On the other hand, such journeymen as Tom Browning, Len Barker and Mike Witt have authored alleged perfectos. Earlier this strange season their ranks were joined by a brazen and soft-tossing lefty from Oakland, Dallas Braden, hitherto just another bush-leaguer. Braden talks tough but with his limited stuff he could be back in the minors any day now.

 The point is that pitching a perfect game is one of those wonderfully quirky moments only baseball can conjure with its near infinite range of mathematical possibilities in any given game. Authoring a perfecto is like catching lightening in a bottle; a veritable fluke ordained as much by the odd juxtaposing of the moon,  stars, and tides as by the luckily anointed pitcher’s mere merit.

Moreover, it never has special practical meaning beyond any other well pitched game unless, of course, it is smartly arranged as the fifth game of the World Series. That was memorably Don Larsen’s clever trick but it should also be remembered that for all of his flair for the dramatic and eternal promise, Larsen while one of the game’s more delightful rascals averaged less than six wins a season over a 14 year career.

It is the wonder of baseball that on any given day you have an outside chance to see something nobody has ever seen before, or maybe only as often as Haley’s Comet makes the rounds. Take the World Series of just last Fall. Had you ever seen anything like the stunt the Yanks’ Johnny Damon pulled, stealing two bases on one pitch in what would swiftly become the decisive twist of the entire championship festival?

For hitters, the equivalent of a pitcher pitching a perfect game is probably hitting four homers in a game. That would seem just as mighty a one-game achievement and it is even more rare. In one stretch of more than six decades only two quite incomparable lads—Chuck Klein and Lou Gehrig—managed to do it.

 However, also among the handful who’ve done it is a certain Pat Seerey. He   was the very definition of the journeyman plugger and never a regular in his six seasons in the ‘Bigs’.  But in one game in 1948, laboring for the woefully last-placed White Sox, Pat Seerey smacked four homers putting him for all time in such company as Klein, Gehrig, Gil Hodges and Willie Mays. Seerey finished that season with 19 homers to go with a .231 batting average. Lifetime he hit an appalling .224. Yet he still managed to do something most remarkable; something Ted Williams didn’t do, nor Babe Ruth, nor Mickey Mantle, nor Hank Aaron, etc., etc.  

Only in Baseball! 

Thoroughly fascinating is the question of which company might Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers eventually land with when all is said and done. Will it be with the Catfish Hunter’s or (rather more likely) that of Messrs. Robertson, Barker and Browning or maybe even Brother Braden.

Technically, of course, Galarraga didn’t quite pitch a perfect game but in some ways his tidy little gem was ‘more perfect’ than those twirled by the 20 others on the hallowed list of the certified and sanctified. The technicalities in this matter have been reduced to balderdash. Public opinion, overwhelmingly, decrees Galarraga’s game to have been truly perfect. So it shall remain no matter what the Great Doomsday Book of inviolate baseball records hold to be true and absolute. It’s all really quite amusing.

Happily, Galarraga and all the other characters in this sweet morality play that has so charmed America seem worthy of the distinction. The result is a quaint moment that suggests sportsmanship survives and adults can act like adults, now and again, while even getting credit for doing so in the culture at large. All things considered, that is one helluva baseball story.

The grace with which Galarraga accepted the harsh twist of fate visited upon him was touching. The genuine remorse Ump Jim Joyce displayed in atoning for his blunder was moving. The wisdom Tiger’s Manager Jim Leyland displayed in orchestrating a positive moment out of what might otherwise have been a mess was refreshing. And the co-operation of the Tigers’ players who went along with Leyland’s classy prescription was pleasing.

 The last of the kudos go to Detroit, both the town and its baseball fans. But then they’ve always been special. One recalls Ted Williams, who was not routinely in the habit of handing out bon-bons, saying they were his favorites and the ‘best’. It seems still to be so.   

 Such a shame it would have been had the Commissioner capitulated to a shallow emotion and overturned Ump Jim Joyce’s call that sullied poor Galarraga’s masterpiece. Bud Selig had to have been tempted because Joyce’s blunder was huge and indisputable, which even the Ump himself freely conceded. For Selig, reversing the call would have been a spectacular gesture pleasing vast numbers of folks, many of whom know little about baseball or would even wander into a game if the ticket were free. But had Bud capitulated the consequences of setting such a slippery precedent would have been horrific.

And that’s obvious. So it was stunning to see many who should know better—media hotshots of influence, ranking baseball operatives including managers, even umpires still on the job—urging Selig to pander to the mob and take the further desperate step of plunging into the full-scale embrace of high-tech devices aimed ultimately at effectively replacing the umpires. Believe me mate when I suggest—as the Bard might put it—‘this way madness lies.’

In the brave new world of baseball, do you envision having T.V. cameras decide whether a ball is fair, foul, or gone? Computers decide balls and strikes? Lasers affirm or deny check swings, foul tips, balks, and plays at the plate? Instant replay used to confirm whether the fellow is out at first or whether the second baseman touched the bag while trying to turn the double play? And make no mistake, all that nonsense is where the high tech proponents are headed. 

Maybe the generation that can’t make it through the day without the aid of the cell phone, the blackberry, or the I-Pad would be charmed by all that. Those of us who remain Luddites locked in the Stone Age will pass. It’s a nasty debate that the otherwise innocent Armando Galarraga has bestirred and it is only just beginning.

Meanwhile, this much remains even more certain. A century from now his magic moment will be remembered and when people do, they will smile.