On Witnessing A Perfect Game

The Seattle Mariners moose mascot holds a sign after starting pitcher Felix Hernandez threw a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Felix Hernández threw a perfect game, and this writer was in the ballpark to see it.

Now I've seen it all.

Thirteen years ago, I saw a no-hitter.

Yesterday, I saw a perfect game.

Well, almost all. As thrilled as I was on both occasions, one thrill yet eludes me. You see, neither of those historic gems were pitched by one of my guys. As thrilling as Félix Hernández's perfect game was for me, how thrilling must it have been for Mariners fans, who have seen practically every start of his career and lived and died with the franchise for who knows how many years?

I don't know. I know what it's like to see my favorite team win a World Series, but I don't know what it's like to see one of my favorite pitchers throw a no-hitter or a perfect game. I imagine that it must be something.

These things are so damned capricious. Last spring, I was in Seattle to see the White Sox, but after attending the Friday-night games, I decided to skip Saturday afternoon's contest; while I was on the train back to Portland, Phil Humber threw a perfect game.

Yeah, that's right. That's how close I came to being one of the few hundred people on Earth to personally witness two perfect games in one season.

But I can hardly complain. I didn't decide to be in Seattle yesterday until the day before yesterday. With the Mariners having a day off before their weekend series against the Twins, I figured on just coming up for that series. But with a train arriving in Seattle just minutes before Wednesday's first pitch, and a friend driving back to Portland after the game, and with Felix pitching against a contender ... Hey, it could have been a perfectly normal game, 5-3 or 3-2 or something. But when I lived in Seattle and Randy Johnson pitched for the Mariners, I never turned down a chance to see him pitch. Because I always figured that when I did turn down that chance, he would throw a no-hitter and I wouldn't know how to forgive myself.

Randy Johnson never did throw that no-hitter. Not for me, anyway. But the rule still applies. If one of your local pitchers routinely takes the mound with no-hitter stuff, you simply must be there when you can. Especially if you've never seen a no-hitter.

As I didn't, until 1999.

Before that, I'd come close just once. In 1987, I was at Royals Stadium when Charlie Leibrandt pitched a one-hitter against the Brewers; that lone hit came in the sixth inning when catcher Bill Schroeder bunted ... with his club losing six to nothing. That was mildly annoying when it happened, and infuriating in retrospect.

For some years, Bill Schroeder was my least-favorite player in major-league history.

Twelve years later, I finally saw a no-hitter. Randy Johnson was pitching. He didn't throw the no-hitter, though. Johnson was pitching for the Diamondbacks, and pitching brilliantly. But it was the other guy, Cardinals rookie José Jiménez, making the no-hit bid.

I was at Bank One Ballpark with a group of like-minded enthusiasts, and we started talking about a no-hitter in the fifth or sixth inning. There was an incredible amount of excitement and tension in the stands, because after eight innings Jiménez still had the no-hitter and the game was scoreless, with Johnson having given up only four hits himself.

In the top of the ninth, though, the Cardinals finally broke through. After Johnson struck out Joe McEwing for his 13th strikeout in the game, he inexplicably walked Darren Bragg and Mark McGwire; those were Johnson's first two walks of the game. When Johnson struck out Eric Davis, it looked like he would escape the jam. But journeyman Thomas Howard, a journeyman near the end of his career but having the best season of his career, laced a single into left field and Bragg sprinted home to score the game's first run. McGwire was tagged out at third base, but after Bragg touched the plate.

Andy Fox led off the bottom of the ninth, and Jiménez struck him out looking. Pinch-hitter David Dellucci hit a fly ball to right field, and Eric Davis made a spectacular play, his second of the game (as I recall). And Jiménez finished things when Tony Womack hit a grounder to second base.*

* Jiménez's no-hitter was one of the more unlikely in major-league history. He entered the game with a 6.69 ERA in 14 starts. Twelve days later, he pitched a two-hit shutout. In his next dozen games, covering the rest of the season, Jiménez posted a 5.85 ERA. And the next season he became a full-time reliever, starting only seven more games in his entire career.

I was giddy. My fellow enthusiasts were giddy. And as I recall, most of the Diamondbacks fans around us were giddy, actually rooting for Jiménez ... and against whoever was batting against him. In the ninth inning, anyway.

I'm sure there have been some close calls since then; I've been to a lot of baseball games, including roughly 100 during the 2000 season alone. But the one that sticks in my memory happened that fall, when Roger Clemens one-hit the Mariners in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Clemens was fantastic, and the Mariners didn't get a hit until Al Martin led off the seventh with a double. Of course I've no great love for the Yankees, but I was pulling for Clemens because I wanted to see another no-hitter.

In the event, throwing a no-hitter was just about the only thing Roger Clemens did not accomplish in his career.

Which brings us to the 15th of August, 2012. A long day trip, just to see Félix Hernández. Out the door at 7 a.m. to catch a bus to the train station; after the game, a three-hour ride home with enthusiasts. Just to see Félix Hernández, just in case he did something spectacular.

Because it was Félix Hernández and because I'm an enthusiast, I began thinking about a no-hitter in the second or third inning. He was dealing, of course, and it's long seemed just a matter of time until he did throw a no-hitter. But -- and here's the part where I'm going to sort of complain and you're going to have absolutely zero sympathy for me -- for the next few innings, I was able to watch with just one eye and only half my usual passion.

Because I was working. Melky Cabrera made sure of that. It wasn't until the sixth or seventh inning that I finished my Melky material, and could actually focus on the drama unfolding so panoramically below me. And even then, of course, I was working. I will tell you that a perfect game isn't quite as thrilling when, as it's happening, you're also writing about it. Because your attention is divided between your own enthusiasm and the words you must write. I imagine that John Jaso didn't really enjoy what was happening, either.

Until it was over. When it was over, John Jaso celebrated. He had particular cause, because it's almost certainly true that if any other catcher had been behind the plate Wednesday afternoon, Félix Hernández would not have thrown a perfect game, or a no-hitter at all. It's not that Hernández didn't have great stuff. He did. But the odds against a perfect game (or a no-hitter) are so long, that if you change just one element in the equation, you probably change everything.

We celebrate the pitchers, and rightly so. But we probably should give more credit to the catchers than we do. If only in the immediate wake of the grand event.

When it was over, I published my little summary of events, closed my MacBook tight, and got up to leave. It wasn't until then, as I took my first steps back toward my usual work-a-day life, that a cool shiver ran through my entire spine.

I just saw a perfect game.

A few steps later, it happened again.

perfect game

It would have been better if I'd been a diehard Mariners fan instead of a jaded baseball writer. It would have been better if I'd been sitting in the stands instead of the press box.

You know what, though? It was still pretty damn good. And I can hardly wait to see another one.

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