Szwaja's Sports Blog

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A weird thing happened today that I'll never forget. My boss brought in his new MacBook Pro laptop, set it up in his office and gave me a few tasks to work on for the second half of my work day. As I began my work, I glanced across the room and saw the TV sitting there, and because its the only room in the office that's rarely occupied by patients, it sat there powered off, as if it was begging me to reach for the remote and bring it to life. I looked at my watch: 1:07 pm.

Thursday. Getaway day, which means the White Sox were playing a rare day game on Chicago's South Side. "Why not?" I thought to myself, so I reached for the remote, tuned the Polaroid 26-inch screen to channel 37, otherwise known as Comcast Sports Net. As the White Sox/Rays game began, and I continued on my day's work, a few thoughts crossed my mind as I pondered what this game might mean for my beloved White Sox...

-A win today coupled with a Tigers' loss would mean a virtual tie for first with Detroit's Tigers for first place in the American League Central entering a four-game series with the Tigers this weekend.

-Ozzie seemed to be playing some of his backups. Okay, I could understand that for a couple reasons. 1) Double-header tomorrow with the Tigers. Rest some of your regulars up for a big day tomorrow. 2) Mark Buehrle, the ace in the hole, was on the mound, so Ozzie's probably expecting a good performance from his pitcher. They probably don't need a ton of runs to win this game.

-But the White Sox get on the board early with a Josh Fields Grand Slam in the second inning. So much for not needing a ton of runs, but little did I, or anyone else, know that one was all the White Sox and their "perfect" pitcher Buehrle would need.

Buehrle was spot on all day, fooling one of the best offenses in the American League with pitches that moved more than Shakira's hips. Batter after batter made their way out of the batter's box back to the dugout shaking his head in disbelief at the fact that nobody seemed to figure out a pitcher whose fastball rarely clocks in more than 91 mph.

Next thing I know, Buehrle's nine outs away from pitching the 18th perfect game in Major League Baseball history. "Impossible," is my only thought. I would later hear a stat that would nearly back up my thought. That stat: More than 180,000 games have been played in MLB history, which means there have been about 360,000 chances for a starting pitcher to toss a perfect game. Before July 23, 2009, that had only happened 17 times in those 360,000 chances.

Eight innings down. It was really starting to look like this might be happening, but Gabe Kapler, in a moment filled with uber sports fan letdown, cracked the third pitch he saw to lead off the ninth inning deep to left-center, and the hopes of baseball fans everywhere were dashed ... or so it seemed. Dwayne Wise, a lifetime AAA journeyman, who had the spring of all springs just to make this team, was inserted into the lineup by White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen as a defensive sub prior to the top of the ninth in center field.

Wise, who always plays a shallow center because he uses his God-given speed to track down balls that travel over his head, was playing shallower than normal on this day just to make sure no ball off a Rays batter's bat got down between him and the infielders. Because of his positioning, it appeared there was no way he would get to Kapler's blast, partly because it appeared to have eyes for the outfield seats. Kapler had just hit a home run to break up Buehrle's quest at perfection.

Someday, somewhere, someone will hit a solo home run in the ninth inning to break up a perfect game, but as Viggo Mortensen famously said in The Return of the King, "It is not this day!" Wise ran a Ussain Bolt-like 40-yard dash to the wall in pursuit of Kapler's blast, lept up, glove extended high above the fence, and corralled the ball in his glove to rob Kapler of the home run. That, however, in this instance was not dramatic enough.

The force created by Wise's crash into the wall as he made the catch in the webbing of his glove jostled the ball out of that webbing and into thin air. But Wise was quick to improvise, using his free hand to palm the ball as he crashed to the warning track dirt. When the play was finally over and Wise had finally caught the ball, he raised it in the air like a child who had practiced that play up against the picket fence in his backyard thousands of times but never thought he'd actually get the chance to make it in an actual MLB stadium, let alone to keep a perfect game in tact. In a word it was ... well, pick any one of these....


If it had been a scene in a baseball movie, you would have laughed and said, "Ha, like that would really happen?" But happen it did, far away from Hollywood on Chicago's South Side, in a stadium that traditionally plays second-fiddle to baseball's shrine to the north. But today, for one day, this was Chicago's team. America's team, for there couldn't have been any baseball fans in America who weren't rooting for the White Sox ace to finish the job, aside from a few asinine fans on Chicago's north side and the few dozen Rays fans in central Florida. A Cub-fan colleague of mine walked into the office, looked at me and said, "I can't believe I'm cheering for the Sox to actually win a game, but I have to."

Buehrle struck out the inning's second batter and got the third one in traditional Buehrle fashion - on a two-hop groundout to the shortstop. A perfect way to end a perfect game.

Perhaps this selfish of me, but I realized later in the day, right before I started crafting this blog, that one of the best things about Buehrle's perfect game was that for one day, the White Sox not only ruled Chicago, but they ruled baseball. It didn't matter that the Cubs had an off day. They could have beaten the Cardinals 20-2, and it still would have been seventh page news in this city. On any other day, the Red Sox trading Julio Lugo to the Cardinals for Chris Duncan would have been the lead story on Baseball Tonight, simply because they're the Red Sox. Following that story closely would have been CC Sabathia's early-inning struggles against the A's at Yankee Stadium, simply because they're the Yankees. But not today. Today, people cared about the White Sox, and call me selfish all you'd like, but it felt damn good.

I'll leave you with some of the truly awesome stats and tidbits related to Mark Buehrle's perfect game on July 23, 2009 against the Tampa Bay Rays:

-Hawk Harrelson said Wise's catch was the greatest play he'd ever seen considering the situation. I would have to agree.

-Buehrle became the only pitcher in MLB history to face the minimum 27 batters in two no-hitters. (Although his 2007 no-hitter against the Rangers was not a perfect game, he picked Sammy Sosa off first base after walking him in the sixth inning of that game. No other Ranger reached base in that game, which meant Buehrle faced the minimum 27 batters.)

-The majority of the Rays stayed out on the field applauding Buehrle's performance after the game. These players and coaches tipped their hats to Buehrle as he exited the field.

-The Rays' at-bats averaged 54 seconds, from first pitch of the sequence until the batter was called out, which is a little more than half the average amount of time at-bats usually take in the big leagues.

-The Rays ranked third in the American League in runs scored entering the game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Rays were the most prolific offensive team to ever have a perfect game thrown against them.

-Buehrle's post-game press conference was cut short because President Obama had just called to congratulate him.

-It was the first time Ramon Ortiz had ever caught Buehrle.

-In a pregame discussion with regular catcher AJ Pierzynski, Buehrle mentioned it was the first time he'd ever thrown to Ortiz. Pierzynski told him to go throw a no-hitter. Buerhle replied that he had already done that. Pierzynski replied by saying, "Then throw a perfect game."

-It was the first time White Sox color analyst Steve Stone, who has been playing in and calling MLB games almost nonstop since 1971, had ever been in a major league ballpark to witness a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game.

-Umpire Eric Cooper was behind the plate for Buehrle's perfect game. He was also behind the plate for Buehrle's no-hitter in 2007.