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How to throw a no-hitter and lose by 4 runs

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Twenty-five years ago, Yankees pitcher Andy Hawkins threw a no-hitter that defined his team for a brief period. It'll help define baseball for long after that.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

You watch baseball because you want to be entertained. It's a sport with supremely talented athletes, most playing with some measure of grace and skill. They're playing the same game you played in your backyard, only reminding you often that they're so much better at it.

You watch baseball because it's constantly surprising you. Right now, there's a dad, perhaps the daddest of all dads, sitting next to someone and saying, "That's the thing about baseball. You see something new every day." You want to hate the cliché and the person who regurgitates it, but you've secretly thought those exact words, unironically, when you actually saw something new.

You watch baseball because it's cruel. The victories you enjoy are just the temporary absence of cruelty. There will be one happy team at the end of every season, and 29 sad ones. What an awful bargain. You still watch.

And you watch baseball because sometimes players trip and fall down, because you want to laugh at the dumb baseball players when they disappear down open manhole covers. Part of that is envy. Another part of that is watching grown men fall.

If you agree with this, all of this, then there's an argument that on July 1, 1990, when Yankees pitcher Andy Hawkins threw a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox and lost, baseball might have peaked. While other pitchers and teams have lost a no-hitter, none of them lost the game after setting themselves on fire quite like the Yankees did. Baseball might have peaked because never before or since has it been more entertaining, more skillful, more surprising, more cruel and more hilarious all at the same time.

The most ridiculous no-hitter in history is 25 years old. It's time to celebrate, marvel and recoil in horror at this game. It's everything baseball is supposed to be. Just, you know, not all at once.

★★★

The Yankees were always free agent bullies, and that's a compliment, not an insult. While other teams of the mid-70s were acting like hill people, poking sticks at the strange, new technology of free agency, the Yankees were running around signing future MLB Hall of Famers. The odd strategy of "buying good players" nabbed them four pennants and two World Series titles, so when they stopped winning the American League East every year, they stuck with it. Except instead of Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, this next round had them getting Ed Whitson, Claudell Washington and a pair of 40-something Phil Niekros. While some of the free agents had good seasons and productive stops with the Yankees, they couldn't replace that original influx of free agent talent.

So they tried harder and signed more players. They were developing players (Don Mattingly), trading for stars (Rickey Henderson), and fleecing other teams out of their young players (Willie Randolph, Dave Righetti), but there weren't any Hall of Famers on the open market, just role players. They kept trying.

It was enough to finish with 90 wins or more for a while, but never enough to win the East. After finishing 85-76 in 1988 -- good for just fifth place, back then -- the Yankees needed pitching. The roster was filled with struggling pitchers over 35, so they spent big on fresh arms. That was the Yankees' Way, after all. Dave LaPoint doubled his salary to come over, and five days later, the Yankees signed Hawkins.

"I thought, this is going to be great. I'm going to be here for three years and be in three pennant races," Hawkins said.

Instead, LaPoint flopped and Hawkins was just as disappointing. The Yankees finished with their worst record since 1967, behind one of the worst collective performances from any rotation in franchise history.

The next season, they were even worse.

That's the backdrop to the most ridiculous no-hitter in baseball history. This was a very bad New York Yankees team, which aren't words that go together very often. Everyone was vocal, frustrated and disgusted, and a sense of perspective isn't something that Yankees fans -- or George Steinbrenner -- ever did well. On June 5, Hawkins's ERA was 8.56, and the Yankees asked him to accept a minor league assignment, which Hawkins was going to refuse. From the July 3, 1990 issue of the New York Post:

When asked if it was his feeling that if he didn't accept a demotion, he would be released, Hawkins responded, "That's fair to say."

The Yankees lost newly acquired starter Mike Witt to an injury, though, and they didn't have much choice but to keep Hawkins around, even after they asked about the possible demotion. Oh, there were certainly some awkward times in the Yankees clubhouse, but Hawkins suddenly justified his existence and snapped off a string of quality starts. In three starts after Witt's injury, his overall ERA dropped by one and a half runs.

On July 1, Hawkins didn't have a reason to be looking over his shoulder. His spot in the rotation was safe, at least temporarily.

If he had looked over his shoulder, though, he might have seen baseball in a leotard and clown makeup, holding a taser and cocking its head quizzically like a dog.

Just standing there and staring.

As baseball does.

★★★

Hawkins realized he had a no-hitter going against the White Sox early in the game.

"It was pretty evident early because the guy I was sharing the mound with, Greg Hibbard, was also pitching a no-hitter," Hawkins recalled. "It was unusual for me to look up there and not see any hits by my line, so that caught my attention right away."

Hawkins was throwing well and missing bats, getting a season-high 17 whiffs on the day. There was the occasional hard contact, though.

hawkins

Sammy Sosa would hit 598 home runs after that swing, and he would certainly have more than a hundred near-misses. But it's possible, if not probable, that he never again hit a ball harder that didn't leave the ballpark. Watching that clip without context, it's incomprehensible that the ball wasn't a home run. It was the right swing, trajectory and player, and it should have been 20 rows deep.

The wind was nasty and fierce at Comiskey Park that day, though. It's why Chicago is known as "The Windopolis," you know. After the ball burned up on reentry, leftfielder Jim Leyritz was there, waiting for it, catching it without incident. The wind was Andy Hawkins' friend on this day. For an hour or so.

Hawkins took the no-hitter into the eighth. Ron Karkovice popped out on the fourth pitch of the inning. Scott Fletcher popped out on the 10th pitch. Both popups floated around like ping pong balls above the lip of the stadium, but Steve Sax caught both, and Hawkins had just four outs left. That's when the Yankees collapsed. Some Yankees collapsed metaphorically. Some of them literally.

Error #1

Mike Blowers generally played third base like he was wearing rolled-up sleeping bags on both hands. The rookie committed over 100 errors at third in the minors before the Yankees called him up, and he had a cool .885 fielding percentage with them in the majors. He would improve in later seasons to be merely bad, but he was an extreme defensive liability the entire time he was with the Yankees.

Sosa came up again and hit a hard chopper that Blowers tried to sidestep and backhand. It was what Tom Emanski would see if Scarecrow blew fear toxin in his face. Blowers recovered, but the young Sosa was too quick.

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After some confusion with the official scorer, the no-hitter was still intact. Repeat, the no-hitter was still intact. Everyone relax.

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"I feel bad about this," Blowers said. "What do I do? Hide? I just don't know."

Mike Blowers to the National, 7/3/90

"Blowers' error opened the door. That's a ball that should have been handled. But that's what happens with young players."

George Steinbrenner to the New York Post, 7/3/90

"No big deal. Two outs. I was feeling good. No fatigue. I felt great."

Andy Hawkins, 6/11/15

"Uh-oh ... NICE PLAY ... ... ... ... ohhhhhhhhhhh."

Phil Rizzuto, Yankees broadcaster

Walk #1

Ozzie Guillen was never a late-inning threat to hit a dramatic game-winning homer, considering he averaged about a homer or two every year. He was a master of slapping the ball around the field, though, and considering the Yankees' sub-optimal defense, it was a terrifying matchup for someone in the middle of a no-hitter. Hawkins played it safe.

"The next guy up was Ozzie Guillen, and I thought, you know what? He's hitting like .360 at the time. He's hitting everything," Hawkins recalled. "He's getting the bat on the ball. And I walk him. That's on me."

Hawkins took Guillen to a full count, losing him on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, and 21st of the inning. He's starting to grind a bit, but he wasn't worried. Two on. Two outs. No-hitter intact.

Walk #2

Centerfielder Lance Johnson followed, and while he could hit, he was never known for his eye or patience. After the Guillen walk, Hawkins was pissed at himself.

"I'm thinking, everything's cool. I'm going to blow this guy away," Hawkins recalled. "I'm just going to waste this guy."

The effort to ramp up the fastball, though, led to a four-pitch walk, just the seventh four-pitch walk Johnson had drawn in his career. Hawkins maintains that he wasn't thinking about the error or no-hitter, just overthrowing. It happens.

Three on. Two outs. No-hitter intact.

Error #2

You're not reading this because of an error and two walks. Those aren't events that are usually recounted 25 years later, and they shouldn't be. You're reading this because something happened. If we're all lucky, we'll never see it again in the late innings of a no-hitter. This is the Sistine Chapel of ruining a no-hitter, and it would be sacrilege to recreate it.

Poor Jim Leyritz was in left field. Leyritz is not, was not, and never would be, a leftfielder. Injuries and general incompetence had forced the Yankees to experiment, and they were in the Diet Coke and Mentos phase of the experiment. It was Leyritz's fourth game in the outfield in the majors, and he had just 55 chances in the outfield in the minors. He was a 26-year-old rookie with the kind of athleticism you would expect from someone who wasn't drafted. He would become a postseason hero for the Yankees, but in 1990, he was the wrong outfielder at the worst time.

Also, it feels like every paragraph here should start with, "Remembering that the wind was awful," before each and every thought is presented. And to be fair to Leyritz, he made a sliding catch on the first play of the game, a tough play made tougher by the tornado above the stadium. If he had muffed it, no one would have been surprised or upset. He made that play, and his reward was that he set himself up as one of the goats later.

Here is the nightmare of every baseball player who goes where he's told because he just wants to get at-bats and help the team:

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Look at everything that goes wrong before it almost goes right. Tentative steps in the wrong direction. A dangerous crossover step to change directions. Unsure dancing and backpedaling. Then, just as he almost squares up, someone hits the eject button on Leyritz's id, and he's transported to a different dimension.

It's the magical confluence of different forces: a fielder who understandably played the ball as if he had about three hours of experience in the outfield, a no-hitter that's still going because of an error and two walks, a pitcher who was almost unemployed three weeks earlier and the wind. That damned wind.

hawkins

"The ball looked like it was going to my right, so I took a step to my right. But then I took a double-turn and I went after it. I thought I had it, but the ball caught more of my bare hand than my glove hand."

Jim Leyritz, to The National, 7/3/90

"He's a real class act. He went right up to Leyritz in the dugout and told him to forget about it. I just can't put it into words."

Stump Merrill to the New York Post, 7/2/90

"Heyyyyy! Goin' back, Leyritz ... DON'T FALL! Whoa, he dropped the ball!"

Phil Rizzuto, Yankees broadcaster

Error #3

Jesse Barfield was not Leyritz in the outfield -- defensive metrics have him as the most valuable rightfielder of the 80s, more than twice as valuable as the rightfielder behind him. If the Leyritz error was a symbol of the Yankees not putting the best team on the field, and if Hawkins was a symbol of how the late-80s, early-90s Yankees were built, Barfield was just a symbol of awful, rotten luck.

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It wasn't just the wind being uncooperative this time. The sun was also being a jerk. Barfield caught that same ball in his career 999 times out of 1,000, perhaps. On windy days, sunny days, night games and in practice, he would have had no problem catching that ball. It was something as natural for a Gold Glove right fielder as it is for you to put your keys in your pocket. Every so often, though, the keys get caught on a belt buckle, or you don't open the pocket enough ... every thousandth time, you mess up. This was dropping your house keys down a storm drain when you need an extinguisher from the house because your car is on fire.

We've ruined a lot of words with overuse, from "epic" to "killed," but you can occasionally rescue one and remind people of its power. The situation was already bad, and Barfield's error didn't blow the game or the no-hitter. It was a laughable play in a ghastly inning, reminding everyone that things can always get worse. It deserves a one-word dismissal that holds the weight of 50 words, something that embodies humor, disbelief and exasperation.

The overused word that deserves a chance in this situation: Welp. That was easily the most-welp play of the 90s, which were just six months old. Find an easier, quicker, less-clichéd word, I dare you.

The Blowers and Leyritz errors added to the absurdity of the game, letting you know that something special was happening. The Barfield error made you think the Yankees were cursed and being punished for hubris and past success, and that they would never, ever win again. It was the universe making a point.

The good news for Yankees fans is that the universe often forgets the points it was drunkenly lecturing us on the night before.

hawkins

"Give credit to Jesse. He hung in there as long as he could have. He could have taken that one off the face."

Andy Hawkins, 6/13/15

"It was brutal out there, I knew I was in trouble when it was hit. It was right in the sun."

Jesse Barfield to the Associated Press, 7/1/90

"And a fly ball hit to right field. Barfield can't see it! Whoa, he dropped it, too! Holy cow, what's coming off here?"

Phil Rizzuto, Yankees broadcaster

★★★

A no-hitter isn't brute strength, the athletic dominance of a superior player against inferior competition. A no-hitter is talent, but it's luck, too. It's surprising, and often cruel to the team getting embarrassed, but it's the kind of thing that makes you watch the sport in the first place, a cocktail of spirited competition and being in the right place at the right time. It's all of those things at once, just like baseball wants to be. No-hitters are never supposed to be about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hawkins reportedly muttered "I'm stunned" over and over in multiple postgame interviews, in place of the usual fillers of "um" or "you know." There wasn't another word that made sense.

For the next 10 years, a week didn't go by without someone asking Hawkins about the no-hitter. He's currently the bullpen coach for the Texas Rangers, and while he doesn't offer up the story of the no-hitter that wasn't, his players always find out. And they want to hear the story because they can't fathom how a pitcher could lose a no-hitter by four runs.

It looks like this:

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It looks like a line score that American soldiers would have used in World War II to flush out the German spies. Officially, it isn't a no-hitter. But if Hawkins can get credited with a complete game (and he did), he should get credit for the no-hitter, too. It's only fair, unlike just about everything else in the game.

It wouldn't just be a no-hitter, though. It would be the most star-crossed no-hitter in the history of baseball. It didn't take too long for Hawkins to appreciate it, even with the bittersweet aftertaste. He did postgame interviews on the field, and a healthy portion of the Comiskey crowd stuck around to give him long standing ovations before and after those interviews.

"It was surreal. I never expected to have questions that I would have trouble answering after throwing a no-hitter. 'How do you feel about this?' Man, I don't even know how I feel about this," Hawkins recalled.

If the wind hadn't interfered, it might have been just another no-hitter, a tremendous accomplishment that was remembered only by hardcore fans. But if the wind really didn't interfere, Sosa would have put the White Sox up, 1-0, early. The wind had to be perfect to give us the most imperfect no-hitter in history. It had to be delightfully, tragically, imperfectly perfect.

It was, and 25 years later, here's a dumb, beautiful, compelling, unmatched tragicomedy that reminds us of everything baseball can be, for better and for worse. Often for better. Often for worse. Occasionally at the same time.

"At least he will become more famous as the pitcher who lost a no-hitter rather than just another pitcher who threw a no-hitter."

George Steinbrenner, to the New York Post, 7/3/90

"That's baseball."

Andy Hawkins, to the National, 7/3/90

"That's baseball."

Andy Hawkins, 6/11/15

Special thanks to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for research assistance.