- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

Baseball is no place to look for perfection. Heck, even Hall of Famers make out seven times out of 10. (And the record for strikeouts by a batter, let’s not forget, has been held by Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and now Reggie Jackson).

So the perfect game — like the one Randy Johnson tossed Tuesday night against the Braves — has always been an object of fascination. It’s such an improbable thing, retiring 27 straight batters without a hit, walk, error or Steve Bartman getting in the way. Especially in this day and age, the era of the six-inning pitcher. To get credit for a perfecto, after all, you have to pitch the whole game (something Roger Clemens didn’t do once when he won the American League Cy Young Award two years ago).

Here’s what’s strange, though: More perfect games have been thrown in recent years — many more, in fact — than ever before. Indeed, you could almost make the argument that the perfecto has become too commonplace. Let’s see, there was one in 1999 (David Cone), another in 1998 (David Wells), another in 1994 (Kenny Rogers), another in 1991 (Dennis Martinez), plus the game in 1995 in which Pedro Martinez threw nine perfect innings before giving up a single to start the 10th (and thus was denied a place on the Perfect List).

That’s six pitchers who have set down 27 consecutive batters in the last 13 years. And to think, before runaway expansion there were gaps of 34 and 24 years between perfect games.

The first was in 1880 by John Lee Richmond of the Worcester (Mass.) team in the National League. Richmond hurled his gem against Cleveland — with the help of an unusual 9-3 putout by his right fielder. Exactly five days later, Providence’s John Montgomery Ward racked up the second perfecto at the expense of Buffalo — and the NL didn’t see another until 1964. (The American League had several, though, including one by Addie Joss in 1908 in which the home plate umpire was a relative of mine, Tom Connolly of the Natick, Mass., Connollys.)

I remember the one in 1964 particularly well. Or rather, I remember the first three innings of it. Then I turned off the TV and went out to play, as 10-year-olds are wont to do. (Pitchers retired the first nine Mets all the time back then. There was no reason to think history was in the making.) It was only later I found out that the Phillies’ Jim Bunning had thrown a perfect game (a feat that earned him one of sport’s highest honors — an appearance on that night’s “Ed Sullivan Show.”)

I waited 40 more years to see the end of a perfecto, until colleague Bob Cohn called me up Tuesday night and said, “You might want to turn on TBS. Randy Johnson’s got a perfect game going with five outs to go.” And darned if Johnson didn’t finish it off, whiffing Nick Green and Eddie Perez for the final two outs. Then, in typical Big Unit fashion, he refused a postgame interview with the station’s on-field reporter, claiming he was “exhausted.” (Yeah, so exhausted he was throwing in the upper 90s in the last inning.)

Who knows what brings these performances on? Cy Young’s perfect game for the Boston Pilgrims in 1904 was supposedly inspired by Rube Waddell’s showboating after throwing a one-hitter against Boston a few days earlier. (Young not only outpitched the A’s goofball in his perfecto, he retired him for the final out.) But Young was also on an incredible hot streak at the time, one that would see him pitch 241/3 straight hitless innings (still the record) and 45 straight scoreless innings. That might have had as much to do with his perfecto as anything.

Wells, a latter-day Waddell, claims he had a hangover when he tossed his gem against the Twins. The day Cone retired 27 Expos in a row, Don Larsen — he of the perfect World Series game in 1956 — threw the ceremonial first pitch. (The shadow of Larsen is everywhere, it seems. He went to Point Loma High School in San Diego, the same high school as Wells, and threw 97 pitches in his perfect game, the same number the Angels’ Mike Witt threw in his 1984 perfecto versus the Rangers.)

Then there’s Tom Browning, the erstwhile Reds southpaw. Browning won’t be getting many Cooperstown votes, but the man was clearly inclined toward perfection. Three times in 13 months he took a perfect game into the ninth inning, and he closed out the second one against the Dodgers in September 1988.

(And while we’re on the subject, everybody talks about hard-luck Harvey Haddix pitching 12 perfect innings and losing in 1959, but was he really any more star-crossed than Ed Karger? Karger, a lefty of little repute, set down the first 21 batters for the Cardinals against Boston in the second game of a 1907 doubleheader. Alas, it had been agreed upon beforehand that the teams would only play seven innings — likely because one of them had to catch a train — and so Karger never got his shot at immortality.)

A decade ago, when Randy Johnson turned 30, the odds that he would ever throw a perfect game — or anything close — were almost as long as Karger’s. It wasn’t that Johnson didn’t have Serious Stuff, it’s just that he needed a divining rod to find home plate. He’d averaged nearly 150 walks the previous two seasons, and his career record was a mere 64-56. No one would have called him, as Atlanta’s Chipper Jones did Tuesday night, “a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”

But at the urging of Nolan Ryan, Randy shaved a few miles per hour off his heater, and now he’s the closest thing to Koufax since Koufax (as left-handers go, that is). And the other night he didn’t let a single Brave reach first base — except, of course, for Glenn Hubbard, who was standing in the coach’s box, glad to be retired.

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