Somewhere in the sixth inning of Phil Humber’s perfect game at Safeco yesterday, I started rooting for Humber and the perfect game and not my Mariners. Not that the Mariners are much to root for these days, but I felt a twinge of guilt, then it passed as I watched the most exciting and demanding event at Safeco in a decade.
Why would I root for a team against my team?
Well, I did not exactly root for the White Sox. I rooted for the pitching of a perfect game. A perfect game—no one gets on base and the pitcher faces only 27 batters—often requires a miracle or two in the field, but Humber supported by incredible pitch calling from A. J. Pierzynski pitched a masterpiece. Indirection, off-speed, confusion and dominating expectations lead to a 96-pitch game. He simply pitched a great game without the classic great pitch arsenal we associate with perfect game pitchers.
I know I am supposed to root for my home time and have invested 26 wonderful if futile years following the Mariners in games and on obscure blog sites as well as infecting my children. I even wore my hat during the game (On empirical evidence I may have to stop wearing my hate since the Mariner’s have lost all seven games I wore it, but that is another story).
Why root for your home team—I root for my home team out of loyalty and identification with them. It affirms my affiliation with the northwest and the place I live and where my children were raised. I root for them because winning makes me feel good and casts a glow around the community of seven people who still follow the Mariners. I root for them because I have grown to have a respect and affection for some of the player such as Ichiro and Felix Hernandez and, God help me, Brendan Ryan. The Mariner’s are woven into my family’s sense of continuity. It gives us a focal point of conversation and common emotional loyalty even in rough patches, “how about them Mariner’s?” when we may feel like killing each other.
So rooting for a home team possesses strong emotional and ethical roots. Why did I find myself edging towards rooting for Phil Humber and his unlikely quest for a perfect game?
A sense of excitement grows inside you when you watch a game like this. All the announcers mention it around the 6th inning, “no walks, no runners, no runs, 18 up, 18 down.” I know common wisdom says don’t talk about it, but Dave Sims brought it up front and center and enriched the game and my watching by it.
Baseball humbles people. Most batters and pitchers fail more than succeed even when a team wins. A perfect game defies the inexorable humbling. Each pitch starts to matter more. Each batter has more responsibility and pressure to end the quest. No team wants to be “no hit” or “perfect pitched;” these are not badges of honor in baseball.
Good baseball plays out with a focused intensity that rises with each pitch. A perfect game or no hitter just magnifies it all. So much can go wrong, but watching such a game draws you in either hoping your team breaks the cycle or hoping the pitcher gains baseball immortality by adding to the list of 20 perfect games in 120 years.
Now if the game mattered to the Mariners, the ethical stakes might keep my straying respect and excitement from migrating to Humber and Pierzynski’s game calling which really was magnificent. A lot of “ifs” could keep my support squarely with the Mariners. If a playoff place had been on the line; if the team was locked in a pennant race; if they were in playoffs; if they even had a chance of being a playoff team, when each victory really does matter in September.
No stakes for my team—but these are my Mariners. Playoffs lie several space-time continua away, and they are hitting 232 this year. High stakes does not come to mind when rooting for them. So rooting for them in this position becomes a negative, I want them to avoid humiliation. But these are negative reasons that can motivate players, but the draw of history and perfection really pull much more positively.
History unfolding before me—wanting to be part of an historical moment can catch a person up in the moment. It feels a bit selfish but also noble to be there and be a part of something special. Sports is full of games of the century, we have several a season in college baseball, but perfect games in baseball are really really hard and rare and complicated—so hard that some pitchers have pitched nine innings of perfect ball and literally lost the game in the 10th inning. Being a minor character witnessing history that is enshrined is pretty cool and slowly stole my allegiance.
Another aspect drew me to hope that Humber succeeded especially in the eighth and ninth inning—respect for the game.
Respect for game and athletes—Sport is hard work and winning involves skill, practice and luck. Humber and the White Sox were winning this one on skill and practice, not luck. This game was a pitcher/catcher in perfect sync with amazing results. I respect most sports I watch and respect each game’s complexities and unique challenges and beauties. Seeing a perfect game unfold, unless you miss the steroid inflated home run 90’s, the perfect game reduces baseball to its essence—you catch the ball, you throw the ball and you hit the ball in the immortal words of Bull Durham.
It might seem boring to have no one on base and no runs being scored—it does happen all the time to the Mariners—but to watch it unfold each second and each pitch with each one a possible quest ender, that focuses a fan and player’s attention upon the core activity.
I can also respect the athletes on the quest. Professional sports offers so many games and baseball more than double anyone else. It can become drudgery even for committed professionals. Good professionals keep bringing it and can up their game when the moment requires. The quests are season long for playoffs, total wins, batting averages etc. But here the quest reduces to one game, nine innings, one pitch at a time, one play at a time. This is the game stripped to its core. The players must rise to the occasion as it reduces the season to a magnificent nine-inning quest.
Every sport has perfect moments—a great catch, a great pass, and an amazing stop. Baseball itself has perfect moments such as a perfect catch, perfect pass, perfect hit or perfect stop. A coach and team can experience a play unfold just like it is drawn up in its Platonic perfection. The skill and artistry and demands of the situation combine for an exquisite never to be repeated moment that any sport can deliver at any time. This moment of perfect achievement keeps us going back to watch the same games over and over.
But only baseball permits a perfect game, not just a moment. Here the form of perfection breaks through the permeable layers separating our world from other worlds of form and beauty. Every perfect moment breaks that barrier and reveals the mystery and possibility of our lives and makes us glad to be humans.
Only baseball extends that ecstatic moment to an entire game.