Wednesday, July 11, 2012

No-Hitters Are Better

No-Hitters Are Better Bumper Stickers Should Be Issued.

The opening and closing quotes here are paraphrased lyrics from two different songs. Let's see if anyone can name both songs and the artist(s) who played them. I'm guessing I know the most likely person to answer correctly and he happens to be mentioned frequently in this post.

I've always had a fascination with no-hitters. It's probably not all that unusual a fascination, to be honest. But, for as long as I can remember, my personal rule when at a ballgame I'm not personally invested in is to root for both pitchers until they give up their first hit. Because, honestly, there's nothing more exciting than witnessing a no-hitter in person.

I was in Pittsburgh for Mike Schmidt's 500th home run in 1987. No doubt it was a fantastic milestone to witness, and it's a mark that has only been reached by 25 players, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. My college buddies and I had tickets, and he happened to hit his 499th the day before, so we knew there was a decent chance (a little better than one-in-five maybe).

In contrast, 275 no-hitters have been pitched since 1875, making the feat 10 times more common. But, it's still a much more unexpected occurrence, considering over 200,000 games have been played in that time span.

Milestones can be chased, as my pal Joe and I did when we traveled to Oakland for the first four games of the 1991 season, with Rickey Henderson two stolen bases away from tying Lou Brock's career record. Henderson stole one base and got thrown out twice in the the first two games of the series, then missed the final two because of injury.

But, although our attempt to witness history failed, the point I'm trying to make is that no-hitters are always a surprise and, therefore, are the ultimate ballpark experience.

So, this post will be dedicated to my experience with no-hitters and near misses I've been lucky and/or unlucky enough to say I was there for.

July 4, 1983 (Red Sox @ Yankees)
Early summer after my high school sophomore year, my best friend and next door neighbor's dad offered to take us on the 1 1/2 hour trip from our Dutchess County, New York neighborhood to the South Bronx. My dad was also invited, but he declined, so it was just the three of us.

We had pretty mediocre seats down the left field line, but it didn't matter, of course. We were at Yankee Stadium, and pretty soon the excitement of just being there was surpassed by the suspense of a chance for what certainly seemed like, and probably was, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I don't remember if we talked about the fact a potential no-hitter was in progress. I suspect we did, as we were two teenage boys and an adult who wasn't quite fanatical enough to buy into the superstition that we could actually jinx the thing.

What I do remember is that the buildup to the game's ultimate moment was just as suspenseful and exciting as game seven of just about any World Series I've seen, and that the final out—Dave Righetti's second strikeout of Wade Boggs on the day—was surreal.

Looking back at the box score, I realized that, as a gentleman named Dave LaPointe pointed out to me on Twitter, Righetti walked Jim Rice twice in three at bats. Looking further, I also noticed Tony Armas didn't provide much protection for Rice in the order. On the day, he struck out and grounded into a double play in three at bats. More importantly, he was in the midst of a frustrating first season in Boston, in which he would hit 36 homers and drive in 107 runs, but with a .218 batting average and a paltry .254 OBP.

Upon returning home, I wondered if my dad realized what he had missed. He hadn't watched the game on television so he didn't know, but he honestly didn't seem as disappointed as I expected. You see, dad grew up only a subway ride away from Yankee Stadium and, in fact, had previously witnessed one of Allie Reynolds's two no-hitters in pinstripes.

Of course, in my own experience, seeing one no-hitter only whet my appetite for more. As you've probably guessed, there would be opportunities, and close calls, involving potentially bigger moments. So, read on, if you're so inclined.

September 2, 2001 (Yankees @ Red Sox)
This game just so happened to be Lee Mazzola's first visit to Fenway. I recall we paid a pretty hefty price to sit in the bleachers, somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 from one of the only online ticket brokers I was aware existed at the time.

Lee hopped a bus from New York City early Sunday afternoon for the 8pm game and returned home in the wee hours of the morning, albeit a little less coherent than he arrived. He also forgot his glasses, which would turn out to be somewhat important.

The game would prove to be quite the pitchers duel between Boston's David Cone and New York's Mike Mussina, although obviously one of them would gain a slight upper hand.

The Yankees got their first hit in the second inning, but it was the only one Cone would allow until the sixth. Mussina, however, was dominating, striking out five of the first six batters he faced and nine through five innings of a scoreless tie.

Three more innings of goose eggs put up by both pitchers would leave their pitching lines looking like this going into the ninth:

Mussina: 8 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 12 SO, 0 R
Cone: 8 IP, 4 H, 3 BB, 8 SO, 0 R

It was right about this time that Lee turned to me and said (about Mussina), "Has he given up any walks?"

I just continued looking straight ahead while shaking my head no. Yes, Mussina had a perfect game through eight.

I could swear Lee had earlier suggested the Yankees needed to get Mussina out of there, as they really needed to win this game. But, that really doesn't make much sense. The Yankees were eight games ahead of the Red Sox in the standings with only about 25 to go. So, either Lee was completely out of his mind, or it's possible I've misremembered.

Of course, Mussina's bid at the 17th perfect game in major league history was spoiled by Carl Everett on a 1-2 pitch with two outs in the ninth. To this day, Lee is convinced I think he jinxed Mussina's perfecto.

To that I say: "Lee, I forgive you."

May 5, 2007 (Mariners @ Yankees)
Lee and I would get another shot, however. This time, I traveled to visit him in the city, as I did at least once a year for ten years until I had to go and get my wife pregnant and ruin the streak last year.

This time, Lee was prepared. For one, he didn't forget his prescription eyewear—he may have been wearing contacts, so you see how I covered all (both) my bases there?—and he was prepared to act in a superstitious way.

Chien-Ming Wang was on the mound for the Yankees. 2007 was the second of his two very good seasons in pinstripes, but I still felt his lack of swing-and-miss stuff made him a less-than-likely candidate to throw a no-hitter. However, I think perfect games are a different story.

My theory, completely not backed by any sort of data, is that strikeout pitchers are more likely than their craftier counterparts to throw a no-hitter. There's obviously some element of luck involved regardless, but the fewer balls put into play, the lower the odds that the luck works against you.

OK, I realize that's not an earth-shattering hypothesis, but the next part is a little more of a reach. I think non-power pitchers are more likely to throw perfect games. Strikeout pitchers work deeper into counts more frequently, and the more deep counts, the greater the chance of a walk.

I know, I know. Balls in play also result in errors, which spoil perfect games. I didn't say my theory was sound scientifically, but again I'll remind you: perfect games require quite a bit of luck too.

Since there have only been 21 perfect games in history, there really isn't a large enough sample of them to confirm or deny my hypothesis, so please don't take me too seriously here.

Anyway, back to game. As it turns out, Wang would, in fact, flirt with a perfect game.

Lee recently accused me of not going to the bathroom during the Mussina near perfect game, but I don't think that was possible given the amount of beer I drank that night. I honestly think it was this particular occasion he was remembering. I refused to leave my seat from the moment it became appropriate to commence such ridiculous superstitions—I don't really have an answer as to when that is—through to the eighth inning when Ben Broussard spoiled Wang's bid for perfection with a one-out solo (duh!) homer.

7 1/3 perfect innings is a pretty incredible outing, but when you've experienced the heartbreak of being one out away from witnessing the sport's most incredible single-game feat, it pales in comparison.

One no-hitter and two near perfect games is probably my fair share for a lifetime, but...

I may see another, you never do know, because I've still got a long way to go.


  1. Wow. Is asking "Did you get out of your seat to pee?" really considered an accusation?

    I was hoping you would include the 9/1/07 Predictions Pool Party no-hitter we witnessed. We weren't exactly there, but it deserved a mention...

    1. Maybe accused was technically the wrong word here, but I thought you were playfully digging me for being overly superstitious.

      No attempt at naming the songs? C'mon, I'm counting on you.