Opening Day, no-hitters, and the joy of the unexpected

Otto Greule Jr

Every game brings a chance to see something you've never seen before, and being there matters.

I know this guy named Frank. That's not his real name, but I can't tell you his real name because you're probably going to dislike him by the end of this story.

I met Frank at a bar. A friend recruited him to join our weekly trivia team. We had a good team, but we really needed a ringer with an encyclopedic knowledge of things like Academy Award winners and what fruit Gwyneth Paltrow named her kid after. Assured that Frank fit the bill, we welcomed him with a barely-rinsed bar glass and an open invitation to drink from the tower of beer that was on our table.

While I enjoy competition, bar trivia isn't my favorite game. Sure, sometimes we win a round of shots for scoring the highest in the history/geography category, or if we're really on fire, have our entire tab comped for winning the whole thing, but the main incentive to attend is the fact that there is baseball on every television. Though it's sometimes hard to follow all the simultaneous action, sitting on a chair and spinning from television-to-television is one of life's greatest joys. Baseball consumed in that fashion is a lot like listening to a greatest hits album -- while there's a time and place for B-sides and quiet, private enjoyment, sometimes it's more fun to take comfort in familiarity.

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

Between the third and fourth rounds of trivia, I was staring to my left watching the White Sox play the Royals when a friend yelled, "Frank! Tell Cee your baseball story." Having never met Frank, I shifted my interest -- anything described as such has my attention.

"I don't like baseball," Frank said.

"Hell of a story," I thought. Frank wasn't a baseball fan. He wasn't a basketball or tennis guy either, and spent the bulk of his free time watching films rather than sports. But the real story wasn't that he didn't like baseball. It wasn't even that he had been to just one baseball game in his life. No, the real story was that the only baseball game he attended took place on April 27, 2002, when he was in college in Massachusetts.

Frank described the game as boring. He didn't remember many of the specifics of the lopsided 10-0 victory he saw in Boston that day. He just knew that everyone around him was awfully excited. Despite my insistence that he was being terribly indifferent about his first trip to a baseball game, especially at one of America's greatest treasures, Fenway Park, he insisted that it wasn't that great of an experience. He didn't even remember the date, but when he awkwardly described what had happened, I sure as hell did: April 27, 2002 was the day Derek Lowe no-hit the Rays. Frank had witnessed something that many of the most dedicated fans can go their whole lives without seeing in person. It was a rare gift, and he got it on the first try. Not only did he not realize it, he didn't care.

Contrast that with Ted (also not his real name), who has been writing about baseball for over 20 years. He tells anyone that will listen how much he loves his job, but as far as day-to-day excitement about baseball on a fan level, I'd say there's not much left. It's a job for him, and as one might expect, delight is exchanged for the more transactional viewpoint of someone who has poured over roughly 50,000 box scores during his tenure. But when you talk to him about no-hitters, and the fact that he's never seen one in person, it's clear that somewhere within his jaded exterior, he's still a fan on a quest. For him, in the innings before both teams have recorded a hit, there's always that voice saying, "This might finally be my lucky day."

Why does he care? Why should we? There have been 235 major-league no-hitters since 1900, not counting no-nos broken up in extra innings and a couple of eight-inning games that went down as losses for the no-hitting pitcher. They have been accomplished by enough nearly-forgotten names (Jose Jimenez, Bud Smith) to be no real proof of pitching mastery. There was more artistry in, say, Pedro Martinez's 17-strikeout game against the Yankees in 1999, an appearance in which he gave up not only a hit, but a home run, than there is in many a no-hitter. A lot of no-hitters are just regular old pitching performances with balls in play finding gloves a little more often than they normally do -- a fluctuation of luck, that's all. Still, it's one of those milestones that fans, if given a choice, would prefer to experience in person at least once.

Very few events offer the possibility of actual elation, and much of life is experienced on autopilot. We take out the trash and do the dishes. We drive the same stretch every day or take the same train so frequently that much of the experience is lost. We're never really sure how or when we swiped our ticket and got to the platform, but somehow we did it. It's not negative, it's just life: moment after inconsequential moment.

Our entertainments are likewise measured -- a sitcom laugh here, an adventure-film shock there, but most of what we consume doesn't vary by one percent from a fairly mediocre median. In contrast, the start of each baseball game contains infinite possibility. It could be an 11-0 blowout... but it could also be a 20-strikeout perfect game.

Every time the teams take the field it's a custom-made event, its possibilities evolving pitch by pitch. The irony of our taking ourselves out to the ballgame is that on the surface we are complacent about what we might see, but inside, we can't help but pray for the chance to see something we've never seen before. We take comfort in the familiar routines and rituals of the typical game while secretly wishing for upheaval. We hope for the game to be something other -- a no-hitter, a four-homerun game, a flying saucer landing at Mike Trout's feet in center field and a little green man emerging to recognize him as our leader.

Nick-nohitters-draft3_medium

Seeing a no-hitter isn't something you can plan on. There's no rhyme or reason to when no-hitters or other baseball phenomenon will happen. In 2012, no-hitters increased in frequency (there were seven, the most since 1991), but that was still only 0.2 percent of games played during the regular season. While some no-hitters were, if not predictable, understandable in retrospect, like Homer Bailey's no hitter on September 28, 2012 against the Pittsburgh Pirates (it was like a bona fide major-leaguer unleashed on a sandlot of seven-year-olds), others are complete anomalies, like Philip Humber's perfect game against the Seattle Mariners on last April 21. Even that something that already happened provides no assurance that it will happen again -- when Aaron Hill hit for the cycle on June 18th last season, there was no way of knowing he'd do it again 11 days later.

When the unexpected happens -- a steal of home, four strikeouts in one inning, a fan on the field -- another square on our mental Baseball BINGO cards that document the rarities is filled. We've not only experienced a remarkable departure from the norm, but received a merit-badge, a reward for attendance, that not everyone will earn. In a culture of one-upmanship and audience participation, it's an opportunity to say that not only do we remember it happening, we were there. Even with the ubiquity of devices that allow us to see everything instantly no matter where we are, watching hasn't risen to the level of being present. There were 53,775 in attendance the night that Hank Aaron hit the home run that broke Babe Ruth's record; there were 6,236 in the house Duane Kuiper hit the only homer of his major-league career. An equal number of people have probably claimed to have been present at each, not because people like lying (or maybe some do), but because unusual events like the moon landing, the JFK assassination, or a Kuiper home run resonate in our culture and become shared experiences. Knowing "where you were" is something, but being there makes for an even better story.

We can't remember everything. The brain is continually discarding the banality of the past in favor of the shiny baubles that will become trivialities in the future. Try as we might, there's no stopping the process of whitewashing everything that isn't significant, and game-watching memories fall victim to things like remembering your ATM PIN and the quadratic equation. Despite having a box full of ticket stubs to memorialize the many games I've attended, I can't tell you the last 10 pitchers I saw, who recorded the last out in those games, or even if it was a day or night game -- but for certain games, the ones with significance, everything is illuminated: I've never seen a no-hitter, but I have seen Andrew Miller give up 11 runs in one spring training inning, and that's memorable not just for suckitude but because the scoreboard operator at City of Palms Park was momentarily baffled about how to add the 10th and 11th run to the scoreboard -- unlike Spinal Tap's amps, this scoreboard only went to nine. I sat just rows from the field for Bryce Harper's debut, and I saw Edwin Jackson strike out 13 in freezing rain at the White Sox home opener in 2011. A fan ran onto the field when the Royals played the Twins at Target Field, and I saw Justin Verlander face off against Chris Sale on a Sunday night in September as the Tigers and White Sox battled for supremacy in the AL Central last season. A foul ball landed two rows behind me, the closest I've come to that ballpark milestone.

Ed Szczepanski-US PRESSWIRE

My list of in-person events isn't exceptional. In fact, I don't think I've seen much that would make the highlight reel of most significant baseball events of my lifetime. Still, though my list is missing a no-hitter, a cycle, and a slugger hitting four home runs, it would be selfish to want these things to happen more often. Indeed, it would be self-defeating wish for the unusual to become usual. Still, I have told my best friend and frequent seat-mate that if he happens to witness a no-hitter without me, I will never forgive him.

That night at the bar, my friends wanted me to hear Frank's story for the same reason I wanted to tell it to you. They got a thrill of seeing me, mouth agape, trying to absorb that a man that doesn't even like baseball saw a no-hitter at the first and only game he has ever attended and thought it was boring without flinging myself across the table to shake some sense into him. A jury of my peers would have never convicted me for throttling him, but mostly, I felt pity: Not only was he numb to the rare feat he had witnessed, he was accidentally at the pinnacle moment many fans spend their life lusting after. There are plenty of other blanks on the baseball BINGO card, but having a no-hitter as the free space? That premature payoff can't be nearly as enjoyable as receiving it at the end of a lengthy quest. The free space is supposed to be, "Sang take me out to the ballgame," not, "Saw a no-hitter."

We choose what to value in life. We can make ourselves open to the ineffable or wander through a world of silent and empty corridors, all of them painted the same drab beige. I do not judge Frank, who may, in his own world of cinema, see things in a strip of celluloid that I cannot, but nor do I fear that if I finally got to see a no-hitter, I would become him, blind to the possibilities around me, no reason left to see another game. There is always the chance of seeing a second no-hitter, a double-no-hitter, or seeing one no-hitter and then hopping on a plane and seeing another on the same day. I might see a single hitter swat four homers in a game, a hitter go 7-for-7 in a nine-inning contest, or the Cubs win a World Series. And maybe I'll catch a foul ball. Then again, I might spend the rest of my life waiting for just one of those things to happen -- fate is cruel that way.

Maybe experience is never complete. Perhaps there are a limitless number of streakers, mascot fights, nine-pitch innings, manager ejections, unassisted triple plays, and Daniel Navas to keep us on our toes for a lifetime. History seems to suggest it's true, and prospect of seeing the unpredictable unusual while embracing the familiarity of nine innings and 27 outs seems to be a pretty good balance to me.

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