The multiple-pitcher no-hitter certainly is a strange creature. The Orioles barely celebrated after their four-pitcher job Saturday at the Oakland Coliseum. A number of fans left before the final inning, bored. Yet what occurred was a baseball version of finding a million dollars lying in the street. A total freak.
It was only the sixth time in major-league history that two or more pitchers had combined on a no-hitter. Six times in more than a century -- baseball happenstance just doesn't get much rarer than that.
You are more likely to see a perfect game than a combined no-hitter. There have been 13 perfectas in major-league history.
You are more likely to see someone hit four home runs in one
game. That has happened 11 times.
You are more likely to see an unassisted triple play. There have been eight.
Get this: You are almost as likely to witness the hardball miracle of a team hitting five home runs in a single inning. That has happened four times, most recently in 1966. (Twins, June 9, seventh inning: Rollins, Versalles, Oliva, Mincher, Killebrew. Thought you'd want to know.)
Get the picture? The combined no-hitter is among the rarest of baseball sights. Consider what else has occurred just six times in major-league history. Only six players have played in a thousand straight games. Only six pitchers have had 17-game winning streaks. Only six games have lasted at least 24 innings.
It is true that the low total is perhaps a bit misleading, that the chances of a combined no-hitter were almost nil until managers began using relief pitchers in the '50s. But don't miss the point. Such combi-nos are still rare creatures. The National League has had only one.
Of course, they aren't so shockingly rare because they are any more arduous than, say, a standard-issue, one-pitcher no-hitter, of which there have been more than 200. A combined no-hitter is rare primarily because it is just downright freaky. How often is a pitcher throwing a no-hitter going to come out of a game? Not often.
The truth is that there probably have been few opportunities for combined no-hitters.
Anyway, Bob Milacki had to come out Saturday after getting hit by a line drive in the sixth inning, and when Mike Flanagan, Mark Williamson and Gregg Olson joined him in this peculiar piece of history, thousands of fans left early and the Orioles reacted much as they would to any other win. They smiled, shook hands and headed for the clubhouse food trough.
The reason for the lack of backslapping, of course, was the lack of theater. A one-pitcher no-hitter is an easy read. There is an obvious hero, one man putting down an entire team. The story is his, and his only. Four pitchers doing the work isn't as alluring.
See, the toughest part of a no-hitter is the final innings, when the pitcher has a tiring arm and a weakening will. Using fresh arms from the bullpen doesn't diminish the accomplishment, which is to hold the other team hitless, but that it isn't a one-man show does undermine the drama.
"I don't think anybody really knew what was happening," said Olson, who struck out Jose Canseco and Harold Baines to finish the ninth. "If Milacki had still been out there, there would have been a dog pile [celebration]."
It would be as if Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee had combined to blow away a platoon of hairy goons in a movie. We know each can do it all by his blood-splatted self, so watching them do it together would be less a thrill. It looks too easy, even if it isn't.
It is such emotional asterisks that separate these no-hitters from those Nolan Ryan throws. At least the Orioles won. The Yankees' Andy Hawkins threw a no-hitter last year but lost the game because the wind turned some routine fly balls into errors, and afterward he stood around not celebrating at all, just saying, "Boy, that was weird."
The irony of the Orioles' accomplishment is that, in a way, a combined no-hitter is more difficult to pull off. You need more than one arm to be hot, and the more pitchers you use, the more likely you're going to call on someone throwing hanging curveballs. It's just percentages.
Finding four arms hot enough to throw hitless ball is a feat -- it had happened only once before Saturday.
"I still haven't decided which is more difficult, the way we did it or having one pitcher do it," manager John Oates said yesterday. "Certainly there was more and more pressure on each guy that went out there."
Jim Palmer, who threw a no-hitter in 1969, said his way was much harder. "It's harder to get a guy out once than four times," he said. "But that's not to discredit these guys. They pitched great."
They did, and no-hitting the A's is a terrific feat no matter the method. But a weirder no-hitter won't be thrown all year. The Orioles, with only two complete-game starts in 1991, were not a no-hitter candidate. This was probably the only way they could have done it, but they pulled it off. Strange and true.