The players' shadows were growing long in the late-afternoon sunshine when Wilson Alvarez stepped from the Chicago White Sox's dugout to pitch the ninth inning yesterday at Memorial Stadium. He had thrown 106 pitches without allowing a hit. A crowd of 40,000 stood and cheered, giving up on the Orioles for a chance to see history.
A strong breeze flapped the flags atop the stadium. A spotting of high, white clouds occasionally blocked the sun. A white bird circled slowly above the street beyond the outfield. Alvarez, a 21-year-old left-hander from Venezuela making his second major-league start, tried to appear nonchalant. Ozzie Guillen, the Sox's shortstop from Venezuela, was not fooled. "Just be smart," Guillen exhorted in Spanish.
It was the culmination of an improbable day that had started early for Alvarez, in his hotel room downtown, where he had awakened and eaten breakfast with his wife, palpably nervous. His first major-league start, in 1989, had gone terribly: five batters, two home runs, no outs, goodbye. This start needed to go better. He had been in the States four years now, working through the minors. The pressure was on.
He dressed for the park in jeans and a pink Polo shirt. His parents, three brothers and sister were back in Venezuela, where the game would be televised nationally. He took the team bus to the stadium, put on his uniform with number 40 and met with the coaches and catcher Ron Karkovice to go over the hitters. Not that it would help much. He had spent the season in Double A until being called up last week. He knew nothing about the hitters. Karkovice would call the game.
He warmed up and his fastball was sharp, with its natural movement away from right-handed hitters. Karkovice reported to Sox manager Jeff Torborg: If he throws like that, he should last until the seventh. No one expected more. A kid who had been demoted from Triple A a year ago. Played for the Birmingham Barons this season. Big thighs and a little baby fat left around the middle. Earring hole in the left ear.
The Sox scored two runs in the top of the first, easing his tension. His first pitch was a strike. The Orioles' leadoff man, Mike Devereaux, swung at a fastball for strike three -- Alvarez's first major-league out. Juan Bell also struck out. When Cal Ripken swing miserably at a changeup, fooled for strike three, Alvarez had a perfect inning. His stomach settled.
The Sox scored two more runs in the second and the game settled into a familiar pattern. Orioles up, Orioles down. Alvarez worked rapidly, two of every three pitches a fastball, mixing in curves and changeups. He threw two kinds of fastballs, one tailing away from right-handed hitters, the other in on lefties, both around 88 or 90 mph. The Orioles would say later it was a sneaky-tough repertoire, trickier than it looked in the on-deck circle.
The hitters weren't overmatched -- 17 outs were in the air, some on sharp line drives -- but they didn't come close to a hit in the first six innings. Just three balls were hit on the ground. The only batter to reach was Dwight Evans, who walked in the second and was erased on a double play.
It occurred to Alvarez after five innings that the Orioles had no hits. He knew the feeling, having thrown a dozen no-hitters in the Venezuelan junior leagues. But this was different. After each inning he came back to the bench and his teammates patted his back, but no one said a word about a no-hitter. The notion was his alone to ponder.
This was his lot: He was a rookie throwing pitches his catcher called, at batters whose names he didn't know, in front of teammates he'd barely met, not once shaking off a sign. Things began to get hairy in the seventh. Ripken hit a little tapper in front of the plate, and Karkovice fielded it and threw it past the first baseman. The official scorer ruled error. The crowd cheered the call. It was 7-0 and they had turned, now firmly for Alvarez.
The prospect of throwing a no-hitter began to choke him up, though, and he began leaving his fastball over the plate. The last out in the seventh was on a line drive David Segui hit toward right-center. Warren Newsom made a running catch. The first out of the eighth came on another line drive by Chris Hoiles, this one headed up the right-center gap until center fielder Lance Johnson reached the ball with a 30-yard sprint and grabbed it making a headlong dive.
Four-star catch. It was at that point, everyone admitted later, that they began thinking this was destined to happen. The next two hitters also sent long, hard line drives out toward Johnson, but he gathered them up without a hiccup. Eighth inning down. Three outs remaining. The Sox went down quickly in their ninth and Alvarez left the dugout in the slanting sun to pitch the ninth. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.