Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Simply Perfect

I now accept that I just watched the best game I will ever see. Matthew Cain pitched nine perfect innings AND tied Sandy Koufax’s record for the most strikeouts (14) in a perfect game. My favorite pitcher, for my favorite team, pitched the best game I have ever seen (Cain’s game comes in a three way tie for the second best game score—ever). After the shock of the moment wore off and I stopped uncontrollably sobbing, my “thinking” brain rebooted, and I thought about baseball, statistics and perfection.

Half the fun of baseball is watching the game; the other half comes from talking about the statistics behind the game. For, me the motto of baseball becomes a variation on Leahry’s “turn on, tune in, drop out”—watch it, record it, graph it out. Through numbers, we think about the game in new ways. We can celebrate the statistical impossibility of DiMaggio’s hitting streak, or poke fun at the exact terribleness of the Mendoza line. The language of baseball becomes numbers and the stories they tell.

And we celebrate excellence with numbers. A player who exceeds a numeric benchmark surpasses merely great and becomes exceptional. 714 homeruns defines Babe Ruth; Henderson has his impossible number of steals, Ripken showed up every day, and Pete Rose kept getting hits. When a player approaches 3,000 hits or 600 homeruns, fans watch every at-bat, inhaling the excitement surrounding the achievement. When the player crosses that line, he is something new. A 30 game gap can’t explain the great divide between a 300 wins and 270.

For me, the feeling of a perfect game fell into a different category. Cain’s game packed the energy and emotion of Barry’s homerun chase into a single night. But it was also different. Like the homerun chase, you knew it was coming; every at-bat built towards the end. Unlike the chase, which seemed inevitable, the perfect game built out by out, with the unnerving potential to come crashing down.

The perfect game occurs in spite of baseball. Failure is accepted in baseball. “Even the best players fail more than half the time.” Ted Williams struck out. Tom Seaver surrendered homeruns. Like a lesson right out of my childhood— nobody is perfect.

But for one night, one beautiful night, Matt Cain pitched to 27 batters. Only 14* of those batters ran towards first base. After one historical catch, a handful of brilliants plays, and no bad pitches— Matt Cain was perfect.

Maybe that’s why I don’t talk about something so fragile; baseball is not supposed to be perfect. Streaks end, records are broken, and the best teams lose to the worst teams. We expect imperfection and celebrate players who succeed despite our expectations. But for one night in baseball, everything can be perfect. And I will never see a better game.

*There was one strikeout on a ball in the dirt.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post Alex. You captured the essence of what makes milestone performances significant. That said, I think you will see "better" games, maybe not better pitched games, but better games in the future. Games where pitchers struggle then get out of jams, fielders make errors and then redeem themselves with a good at bat in the bottom of the inning, games where the score seesaws until, finally, in the bottom of the 9th the Giants beat the Dodgers with a home run from the Panda. Cain pitched a perfect game, but a perfect game is not always the best game.