Baseball: The Perfect Game

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Last season Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper posted an astonishing stat line: four plate appearances, zero at-bats, four walks, four runs, one RBI. Before Harper last year, no one had posted that stat line since 1914. Remarkably, Harper achieved that stat line by taking twenty consecutive pitches. He did not once swing the bat in the game.[1]

That a batter could achieve a kind of “perfect game” without once swinging the bat is for baseball not anomalous. Baseball has a counterpart in the pitcher’s perfect game—also known as a “game in which nothing happens”: no runs, no hits, no walks, no hit-by-pitches, no errors.

The comparisons between Harper’s “perfect game” and a pitcher’s do break down when you actually watch what a pitcher does to achieve a perfect game—he has to throw lots of pitches in or near the strike zone which are yet sufficiently fast, nasty, or deceptive to befuddle twenty-seven consecutive batters—and when you see the spectacular defensive plays made to preserve the perfect game (in nearly all perfect games there is at least one such play). And that’s to say nothing of the nerves of steel the pitcher and defensive players behind him need to finish the perfect game—can you imagine being the third baseman who, twenty-five outs into a perfect game, has to charge a softly-hit ground ball, bare-hand it cleanly, and make a strong, accurate throw to first base on the full run? But at the end of the game the box score throws an invisibility cloak over those efforts—the pitches, the defensive plays, the steely nerves. The box score records only that nothing happened. Perfection.

That the baseball community, a group notably obsessed both with history and statistics, calls these kinds of outlier games perfect is but a small example of a broader phenomenon. A good many of our predecessors, philosophizing under the influence of Plato, bequeathed to us a common idea of perfection as something defined negatively. Perfection is a state of no-sin, no-flaw, no-error. Sir Thomas More’s perfect society utopia is literally a no-place. We often describe the most marvelous friends of ours, the ones that have been most perfected in love, with slanders like self-less—as if the absence of the self rather than the presence of patience, kindness, and generosity were the point.

Against all that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews testifies:

Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him . . .

Platonist perfection may account for Jesus of Nazareth’s being “without sin.” It cannot account for his “prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears,” nor for his “learning obedience by the things he suffered.” The faithful Priest who has entered into Heaven itself, who has taken the part of Israel’s prodigals and the “other sheep not of Israel’s fold,” gained admission to the heavenly of heavenlies precisely by means of tears and blood and marks—marks the Resurrection did not erase.

As baseball season commences, then, we may regard a Perfect Game a little differently, along lines set forth in Jesus’ most famous story. In the game over which the angels in the heavens rejoice, the prodigal son makes it home by a hook slide that avoids his elder brother’s tag, and leaves dirt on his trousers and a strawberry on his elbow. And the Father receives him with open arms, blessing the dirt and the strawberry.

 

[1] I am indebted to Russ Ramsey for this story. I had missed the news of Harper’s once-in-a-century game, but he reported it at Hutchmoot 2015.

David Mitchel is a small-town lawyer who has represented clients in a broad spectrum of causes, ranging from business transactions to property disputes to the defense of criminal charges to federal habeas corpus and Civil Rights actions. His passion for literature and story, which he caught first from Tolkien, informs all of this work—which requires patient, careful adjudication of competing stories and creativity to help clients and courts write the rest of the story justly and wisely. David was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland, went to law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and now lives in central Virginia. When he’s not practicing his profession, David is usually on stage, or playing a stringed instrument, or reading, or writing.


10 Comments

  1. Carrie

    Yay! I saw that about the five fouls guy as they tweeted it yesterday–so fun. One of you mentioned in our session at HM 2015 about the fact that things regularly happen in baseball that have never happened before–that same combination of elements has never quite come together.

    The Tigers saw another one of those this year: Victor Martinez, in the first two games of the season, came in as a pinch hitter against the Marlins late in the game. He hit a homer in both of those at bats, one day batting right handed, the next day batting left handed.

  2. David Mitchel

    @

    Thanks, Russ. What a story. Five foul balls in a single game — how improbable is it that a fan even would have five chances in a single game? Lots of players don’t get five chances in a single game.

    In the words of the late Orioles PA announcer Rex Barney: “Give that fan a contract!”

  3. Nicole Eckerson

    I believe that baseball is the most perfect of sports. To see it used to describe an elemant of faith is one of my favorite things. Thanks for writing this.

  4. David Mitchel

    @

    Nicole: You’re welcome.

    Carrie: Victor Martinez is a ridiculously good hitter. That’s a pretty awesome accomplishment: pinch-hit homers in consecutive games from opposite sides of the plate.

  5. Miss Linda

    I must admit that I don’t understand the baseball part of this at all. But I can understand enough to get the point, and it is a point worth thinking about. Thanks!

  6. David Mitchel

    @

    Reagan: I haven’t checked to see whether audio is available, but the recording equipment was there.

    In the event the audio didn’t quite make it and you want a synopsis, I’m sure Russ, Carrie and I could satisfy your curiosity (I normally wouldn’t presume to nominate Russ and Carrie for such a task, but baseball nerds generally don’t need arm-twisting to talk baseball; getting them to stop is the more common problem). Also there were some outstanding questions and comments (including without limitation Sally Zaengle on Ted Williams). So if the gallery’s comments aren’t audible, hopefully all commenters can remember what they said — because it was all true, good and beautiful.

    Miss Linda: Sorry you don’t share the enthusiasm for the National Pastime, but I’m glad something of the greater story of Christ got through nonetheless. Cheers.

  7. Lindsey Scholl

    What an interesting connection between baseball and Platonism. Excellent point about the danger of connecting perfection with, well, nothing. Ancient and medieval Christian philosophers fell into the same trap with simplicity. God must be simple–not composite and not complex. I think that comes of their trying to make God into a philosophical principle, rather than a complex Person.

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