Matt Cain, pitching for the San Francisco Giants, threw a perfect game against the Houston Astros on June 13. Now, at the end of June – not yet halfway through Major League Baseball’s season – we’ve already witnessed two perfect games and two additional no-hitters. What explains this spate of mound gems? Steroid-testing? Inferior lumber for bats? Cosmic retaliation for Moneyball?
Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, has been researching the issue. “It’s random. [Like a] spate of holes in one in golf,” he said.
Among others charged with explaining the absence of hit from one team on four occasions this season is Rob Neyer, National Baseball Editor for SB Nation. He pointed to the increased number of strikeouts over the years, pointing out that fewer players making contacts means fewer hits.
As evidence for his theory of randomness, Thorn cited the fact that lots of no-hitters, and even perfect games, have been tossed by pitchers who were otherwise not especially accomplished.
One of those pitchers was Len Barker, formerly of the Cleveland Indians, who threw his no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 15, 1981. It was a circumstance that seemed, even to him, unlikely and a little discombobulating.
“I knew once I got to the ninth inning I had a great shot of throwing a perfect game,” Barker said. “And I was a little nervous, because I walked out and picked up the ball and almost fell over and dropped the ball. But once I started getting my warmups in and all that, everything kinda focused back in again.”
Barker’s gem, like any perfect game, was bound to generate stories.
“Well, I had a lady that was in labor,” he said. “She was watching the game with her husband. And she told the doctor, ‘I’m not gonna deliver this baby until this game is over.’ So I thought that was pretty funny that you’re gonna have to wait until the game is over. She had a healthy baby, and everything was fine.”
In 1995, Ramon Martinez of the Los Angeles Dodgers tossed a no-hitter against the Florida Marlins. In the ensuing years, Ramon’s younger brother, Pedro, proved to be the more accomplished pitcher. But though Pedro once took a perfect game into the tenth inning, he couldn’t quite finish it off, a circumstance that must have left him resentful of big brother Ramon, right?
“No, no, but I don’t feel bad about it, because I had an opportunity to go ten innings and that’s going a little extra than you should,” Pedro said. “And you know, I took nine perfect innings into the tenth, and I was able to go extra innings, which I now happen to join Harvey Haddix, one of the guys who took a perfect game into extra innings. I’m extremely proud. I feel like I did throw one.”
No, Pedro, you didn’t pitch a perfect game, or even a no-hitter. Bumpus Jones got one of the latter, but you didn’t. Not that it’s your fault. No-hitters require not only great pitching, probably a great fielding play or two, and a lot of luck, but also, sometimes, according to John Thorn, an accommodating umpire.
“Babe Pinelli, who was the umpire for Don Larson’s perfect game, Oct 8, 1956, the World Series, got a lot of heat for calling an outside high pitch strike three on pinch hitter Dale Mitchell to end the game as if he had a train to catch,” Thorn said. “Pinelli always insisted that he never missed a call and he never called a pitch a strike that he knew in his heart was a ball, but we all saw it.”
And maybe we’ll see a perfect game again for the third time this year or at least another no-hitter or two, should that brand of randomness continue to prevail.
Incidentally, Don Larson announced this week that on October 8, which will mark the 56 anniversary of the perfect game he threw in 1956, he will auction off the jersey he wore in that game. He said the money he raised would be used to fund the college educations of his grandchildren.