As a baseball fan, I am often amazed at how exciting a particular game can sometimes be. Of course, all sports offer this kind of edge-of-your-seat experience, but a baseball game, because it isn’t controlled by a clock and can only be decided when that last out has been recorded, is that rare sport where a game isn’t truly over until it’s over.
Baseball can also offer another kind of drama that is essentially unique to the sport. Individual games can be historic because an opposing team may not record any base hits over the entire nine innings of the game. These games are credited as no-hitters to the winning pitcher, and they are a relatively rare phenomenon. (Since 1900, an average of only two a year have been recorded.)
Games in which no batter from the opposing team even reaches base (via a walk or error or other non-base-hit means) are even more unusual. These games are called perfect games, and are a mark of great distinction for a pitcher. (Since 1900, only 21 have been recorded, which, when you understand that each team plays 162 games a year, means they are very rare indeed.)
I have been in the stands for one perfect game and was in the stands for what was almost another. In both instances, the pitcher striving for perfection was pitching against my team. My feelings as each game progressed were terribly conflicted in the middle innings, gradually shifting in the later innings and decidedly against my team in the ninth inning.
The first of the two games took place at Dodger Stadium on July 28, 1991. As a life-long, most-avid Dodger fan, I attended the game with my wife and two sons fully prepared to root for my team as they played the Montreal Expos. The opposing pitcher was a star hurler named Dennis Martinez (probably one of the best Latin American pitchers of all time). Martinez on that hot Sunday afternoon was perfect through the first five innings of the game. Interestingly, the Dodgers starter, Mike Morgan, while not quite perfect, hadn’t given up a hit to an Expo player to that point. So, through five innings I was firmly rooting for my team and for Morgan to pitch a no-hitter.
In the sixth, however, the Expos got a hit and in the seventh they broke through and scored a couple of runs. The Dodgers, meanwhile, were still without a base runner. As the bottom of the seventh began, I started to feel a shift of allegiance. The Dodgers still had a good chance to win the game if they could just get some runners on base (a two-run lead in any baseball game is precarious).
But as Martinez worked his way through the seventh inning, I realized I might possibly be a witness to what at the time would be only the eleventh perfect game since 1900. When the eighth inning began, I was rooting for the Dodgers with my voice, but my heart was with Martinez. And when Martinez took the mound in the ninth, for what might be the only time in my life, I was rooting against the Dodgers, fervently hoping Martinez could complete his perfecto, which, of course, he did, as I and almost every other of the 45,000 fans who were in attendance roared our approval.
The near-perfect game I attended was at Boston’s Fenway Park on September 2, 2001. The Red Sox have always been my American League team. (I root for them seriously but not with the live-or-die fervor I do for my Dodgers.) On this particular occasion, they were playing the Yankees (the one team that, as both a Dodger and Red Sox fan, I hate more than any other). My wife and son and I had seats in the bleachers at Fenway with a perfect, straight on view of home plate. In the first inning, I noticed that the Yankees’ Mike Mussina (a terrific pitcher who may well be elected to the Hall of Fame one day) was throwing an unhittable curve ball (the kind that drops suddenly from eye level to the hitter’s knees as the pitch reaches home plate).
At the end of that first inning, I remarked to Jeri and Phil that if Mussina continued to throw that curve ball he could well pitch a no-hitter. As the game progressed, the Mussina curve continued to work its magic. Again, however, the Red Sox pitcher, David Cone, was throwing an excellent game as well. In fact, through eight innings the score was tied, 0-0. Still, I was aware of what Mussina was doing, as was everyone in the stadium, so that when the Yankees pushed an unearned run across in the top of the ninth, I had no doubt about my allegiance.
Yes, hard to believe though it is, for that short amount of time in the bottom of the ninth, I was fervently hoping that my team, the Red Sox, would fail to get a runner to first base and lose to the team I hated more than any other. Mussina did get the first two outs of the inning, only to have a journeyman player named Carl Everett bloop a clean single into short left-center field for the first and only hit the Red Sox got on that night. Mussina retired the next batter, but I was too much in shock (and feeling too much disappointment) to think to switch my allegiance back to the Red Sox at that point.
It’s an interesting experience, to say the least, and I have no way of explaining how the emotions work in those rare and seemingly improbable moments that only the game of baseball (I submit) can provide. Suffice to say, I’m glad that I saw Dennis Martinez’ perfect game and that I saw Mike Mussina’s almost-perfect game, even though, in both instances, they beat the teams I most fervently root for and even though, in Mussina’s case, he won for the team I most emphatically hate.