On the Perfect Game

There are fewer things I like to do as a Cubs fan than heap praise on the White Sox as an organization or on a White Sox player. That disclaimer given, firstly, sincere congratulations to Philip Humber on his perfect game against the Seattle Mariners Saturday night (White Sox 4, Mariners 0). He hit all his spots, his breaking ball was lethal, and the defense behind him was more than solid. More importantly, when Pierzynski sealed the deal by throwing to Konerko at first to record the out after Brendan Ryan struck out on an outside breaking ball, he was rushed by his teammates who were genuinely thrilled to honor Humber and recognize his place in baseball history. The affection was genuine, and that’s always good to see.

The perfect game in baseball is pretty much the Holy Grail of team sports. Baseball, like no other team sport, is both a game in which the whole is greater than the parts and one in which the parts can achieve a statistical measure of greatness that other team sports can’t offer. Perhaps this is because baseball is more analyzed by advanced statistics than any other team sport (though basketball is catching up). More likely, it’s due just to the nature of the game: that, in order to advance the team, it comes down to one individual against another, batter versus pitcher, whether one out in the bottom of the ninth or 27 outs over the course of a game. The only remotely comparable achievement is a keeper in soccer keeping a clean sheet, but that’s a commonplace (an achievement no doubt, but hardly rare).

The concept itself of perfection is deeply embedded in American society, from our idolization of millionaires and surgically-“perfected” nymphets to the adoration of power and financial success in general. This, of course, borne out by HGTV, MTV, TLC et al. I don’t even need to list the shows.

Perfection in baseball is something only available to pitchers. Sure, a batter can break records hitting 5 HR in a game or 13 RBI, but it’s just not the same. For batters, the immortal glory comes with (unadulterated) lifetime records like Hank Aaron’s (yes I know that Barry Bonds technically holds the all-time career home run record, but his is tainted) career home run record. It’s been dissected by far more accomplished writers on baseball than myself, but the perfect game is almost an enigma in contemporary professional sports. It requires skill, the right conditions, luck, and a stolid defense, yet comes down to one man staring down another man from a distance of 60 feet, six inches.

And maybe that’s why baseball — while now imported to practically the entire globe — is considered America’s Game. Combining that sense of rugged individualism with workmanlike cohesiveness with the possibility of redemption through a goal greater than oneself. Above it all, of course, the idea of perfection. Those are key notes in the mythos of America and American greatness. We celebrate a perfect game in the sense of honoring the individual who accomplished that remarkable feat, but also in the sense of honoring perfection itself as an ideal to which we can and must aspire, and an ideal that’s achievable if we only work hard enough.

All of which is fine and good. Go big or go home is a personal motto, and I sincerely congratulate Philip Humber on his remarkable accomplishment. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the better story and better role model is 49-year old Jamie Moyer, for the time being staff ace of the Colorado Rockies, as well as the oldest individual ever to record a win as a pitcher in the Major Leagues. Moyer’s fastball tops out at 82 on a good day. But he knows the game inside and out, he knows how to pitch, he hits his spots, knows how to fool a hitter half his age, and is the best student of the game still on the field. His approach is never to be flashy, but always consistent and consistently good. And why? Because he puts in the work day in and day out. Moyer’s never wowed anyone, but he’s also never let any team down. Not to say that Humber has or won’t be starting for a very long time. I hope he does. Saying that in the fever flare of Humber’s perfect game we don’t lose sight of the Jamie Moyers of baseball and everyday life.

Personally, I’d rather be a Jamie Moyer.

~ by Benji on April 22, 2012.

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