Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Greatest Game II: Perfection

The creators of baseball loved numbers and instinctively seemed to know how the game could be mathematically designed for the ultimate balance of planning and chance. Thus, we have nine innings and not the digital ten; hitters are granted three strikes not two and pitchers four balls, not three. Perhaps best of all: there is no clock. Even golf has an enforced clock, if players play too slowly. Some of baseball math took time to work out, but much of it was there from the beginning.

The "modern" game of baseball began in the late nineteenth century, which says a lot about the game in itself. The contemporary game of the last twenty years or so has become both corporate and steroidal. The revenue demands of one created the performance enhancements of the other. Juiced baseballs, air-conditioned corporate boxes and "energy" supplements in the contemporary game produced more home runs and ten-dollar weenies. Even if they wanted to try, the suits running baseball could not interfere with the Perfect Game.

Mark Buehrle, of the Chicago White Sox, recently pitched a Perfect Game with the assistance of a miraculous catch by his excellently named center fielder, DeWayne Wise, with none out in the ninth inning. We were reminded by statisticians that there have been only eighteen Perfect Games in the history of baseball, sixteen in the modern game, if we discount games played by Worcester and Providence in 1880. This bears repeating as a number: 16. Hundreds of thousands of games, but only 16 games pitched by 16 players; nobody has ever done it twice.

The framers of the game and its protectors over the years designed a game in which its nine innings, three outs per inning, the ninety-foot bases, the sixty-foot-six-inch distance between the back of home and the pitcher's mound conspire, nearly perfectly, to prevent pitchers from retiring twenty-seven batters in a row. This means no base hits, walks, bases reached by errors, or base runners of any kind. Add to this planned design the peculiar characteristics and dimensions of certain ballparks, and the human element of umpires, and it truly defies the imagination, when confronted with that number: 16. Einstein's E= mc2 has nothing on this 16.

The shortest PG was 1hr,23 mins., the first modern one, by Cy Young. The longest, 2hrs, 40mins., also had the best attendance, 49,820 at Yankee Stadium cheering David Wells. Only 6,298 saw poor Catfish Hunter do it for the Oakland A's.

One official Perfect Game stands out among all others: Don Larsen's 1956 feat for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the World Series. Nobody else had ever pitched one in the World Series; nobody has done it since. This may be the Halley's Comet of Perfect Games. One "unofficial" performance also stands out: Pittsburgh Pirate Harvey Haddix's 12 perfect innings before an error in the 13th spoiled it all. It is also famous, because the Pirates lost the game to the Milwaukee Braves, 1-0.

Golf has its hole-in-one and bowling has its perfect 300 game, just to name two lesser games, but in the amount of time it takes to read this posting, someone somewhere has hit a hole-in-one and scored 300.

Some perfection is more perfect than another.

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