Perfect game in baseball as good as it gets in sports

May 20, 1998|By Bob Ryan | Bob Ryan,BOSTON GLOBE

Thank you, David Wells.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thank you for getting our minds off Mike "Gimmegimmegimme" Piazza. Thank you for getting our minds off the South Florida Stinkpots, or whatever their name is. Thank you for throwing a perfect game and -- what's equally important, if you ask me -- looking so awesomely thrilled about the whole thing.

Thank you for letting us focus on the pure joy of sport, reminding us how sport satisfies such a peculiar need in the human psyche, touching areas of our heart, soul and intellect in a way that cannot be replicated by any other sort of artistic endeavor.

Thank you, as well, for doing something that gives a baseball-lover an opportunity to rhapsodize about the special qualities that make it the best game ever conceived by mortal man.

Start with the name given to his achievement: perfect game. Only baseball has a perfect game.

What's a perfect game in basketball? Making all your shots? Football? Completing all your passes? (Executing all your blocking assignments?) Hockey? Don't even go there. No, only baseball has the concept of a perfect game. The feat represents a game within a game that is unique to baseball.

Sure, it's a not-quite-accurate term. A true perfect game, I suppose, would consist of 27 strikeouts on 81 pitches. So we have agreed to settle for something less. Pitch nine innings and allow no baserunners, and you have what we have agreed to term a perfect game, even if it wasn't until the fourth such performance in this century, Charley Robertson's 1922 masterpiece, that the phrase "perfect game" was actually used in a headline.

A perfect game is a day, not a career. Charley Robertson had a 49-80 lifetime record. But on that one April day 76 years ago, the Chicago White Sox right-hander was, well, perfect. He wasn't Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter, or Jim Bunning the rest of the time, but for one afternoon he was as good as anyone can be.

David Wells fits right in the middle of the perfect game spectrum. He is a good contemporary pitcher (111-86 career) with acknowledged good stuff. You're never surprised when he throws a really good game. The closest career parallel among the members of the Perfect Game Club is Tom Browning (113-80), who threw one for the 1988 Reds. Wells is a better pitcher than Len Barker (74-76) and Mike Witt (114-114), and he ** is surely a far better pitcher than both Robertson and Don Larsen (81-91).

They were all over Larsen in the New York papers Monday morning, and why not? Larsen threw the most significant perfect game of all when he beat the Dodgers in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series. There has never been another no-hitter in baseball postseason play, let alone a perfect game, and when you throw in the astonishing parallels between Messrs. Larsen and Wells (i.e. well-documented hell-raisers who graduated from the same San Diego high school 35 years apart) you get a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story almost too amazingly good to be true.

The Larsen story bears retelling, because it speaks to the idea that what makes sport so wonderful is that on any given day, You Just Never Know. There are so many games available that we spend far too many mundane afternoons and evening in our sport venues or in front of our TV sets without seeing anything special. And then something will happen that simply justifies everything. Something will happen to give us the dry throat, the sweaty palm, or the little moisture forming in the eye. Something will happen that creates a physical feeling unattainable in any other area of human endeavor.

Nobody was looking for greatness when noted Yankees carouser Don Larsen went to the mound against Brooklyn on Oct. 8, 1956. Larsen had a decent (11-5) regular season, but he was not considered to be much more than a serviceable body and he hadn't gotten out of the second inning (walking four in 1 2/3 ) when given a start in the second game of the Series three days earlier.

Absolutely out of nowhere, Larsen threw a perfect game. He had a little help from his friends (most notably a superb running catch Mickey Mantle made on a Gil Hodges drive) and he may even have had more than a little help from plate umpire Babe Pinelli (who ended the game by calling out checked-swinging pinch hitter Dale Mitchell on a pitch that may have been more than a little outside), but when it was over, he was in the record books, where he resides with pride and distinction to this day.

When Boston's Cy Young threw the first perfect game of the century in 1904 (there had been two within five days 24 years earlier, under far different rules), (a) no one knew what to call it and (b) people figured it was about time ol' Cy did something like that. Addie Joss threw one on Oct. 2, 1908, for the Indians, and that remains the only one ever pitched in the heat of a pennant race. Now there was official perfect game lore to chew on.

For anyone present at any of the 13 certified 20th century perfect games, it was a spectating career highlight. Consider the 49,820 in attendance at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Many of them had been lured to the park because it was Beanie Baby Day. What they got in addition to their gift was the chance to see, and participate in, history. Those lucky people were as one with the 10,000 who came to the old Huntington Avenue Grounds in 1904 to see Young tangle with Rube Waddell and who then saw the century's first 27-up, 27-down pitching performance. The goose bumps were the same. We can be sure of that.

This is what sport should be and ought to be. It should be about competition and the pursuit of excellence. Thank you, David Wells, for making us all feel better about being sports fans.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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