Friday, July 24, 2009

On Buehrle, no-hitters, the HOF and the shared collective experience

You'd grip your head too if it happened to you. Photo from this site.

The great thing about baseball is that it has more “stop what you’re doing and get to a TV/radio/computer” moments than the rest of the major sports combined.

A quarterback is approaching the record for yardage or touchdowns in a single game? I care only if he’s on my fantasy team, or playing against it. I’d say I’d drop everything to watch someone threaten Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 100 points in an NBA game, but only Kobe Bryant has come within 20 points of the mark and most teams these days have a hard enough time scoring 100 on their own, so I’m not too worried about that mark getting threatened. I don’t know much about hockey, but your good friend and mine Joe Haggerty says a hat trick is hockey’s version of the collective experience.

Pretty cool, I imagine, but I can’t imagine learning that a player has already collected two goals and doing what I did yesterday afternoon upon hearing that White Sox ace Mark Buehrle had thrown eight perfect innings against the Rays. I couldn’t find it on TV fast enough, couldn’t text my wife fast enough, couldn’t log on to the Internet fast enough so that I could track the last three outs with friends met and unmet via all sorts of social networking tools.

As you no doubt know by now, Buehrle—aided by a truly awesome, home run-saving catch by defensive replacement DeWayne Wise—set the Rays down in order in the ninth to complete the 18th perfect game in history and become just the 28th pitcher with at least two no-hitters to his credit.

I’ll halt whatever it is I’m doing if I hear someone has three-quarters of the cycle or has hit three or four homers in a game, but no-hitters have always been my favorite singular baseball accomplishment. The sheer randomness of the feat—Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Tom Glavine, the three active 300-game winners in baseball at the end of 2007, have fewer career no-hitters than Clay Buchholz—neatly summarizes the beauty of baseball and how every trip to the ballpark brings with it the possibility of history.

In addition, the no-hitter or perfect game is the one individual feat in sports in which the accomplisher seems as touched and moved by the moment as those watching it. Think Buchholz letting himself go limp in Jason Varitek’s arms after his no-hitter nearly two years ago, or David Wells leaping in the air repeatedly as the 27th out of his perfect game fell harmlessly into Paul O’Neill’s glove in 1998.

Or think of my all-time favorite sports shot: David Cone, his perfect game officially in the books 10 years and six days ago, putting his hands on his head, falling to his knees and into the arms of catcher Joe Girardi, as if the enormity of the accomplishment has left him unable to stand.

Buehrle did a pretty good approximation of Cone immediately after the final out yesterday, albeit without the quivering knees, and his pursuit of perfection was particularly interesting to me because he was one of the players whom I spoke to for perhaps my favorite story I penned while at Ye Olde Employer, a feature from late in the 2007 season about the unpredictability of no-hitters and the poignancy of one-hitters such as the one Curt Schilling authored two months before Buchholz threw his no-no.

Buehrle was a few months removed from his first career no-no when we spoke and was self-effacing about his place in history, noting that pitchers with better pedigree and better arsenals have never thrown no-hitters while a guy like himself who regularly ranks among the league leaders in hits allowed (three times in the last four years) makes history.

But a second no-hitter will significantly improve the perception of Buehrle, a textbook crafty southpaw who is annually the White Sox’ Opening Day starter yet rarely ranks first on the staff in terms of pure stuff. Two no-hitters and a decade of impressive consistency means it’s no longer laughable to mention Buehrle and Hall of Fame in the same sentence, as a friend of mine did yesterday when he sent over Buerhle’s numbers through his age-29 season (Buehrle turned 30 in March):

122-87, 3.80 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 1083 K/1847.2 IP, 2.55 K/BB, 23 CG, 7 SHO, 268 starts

Those don’t scream no-doubt Hall of Fame track, but as someone who has pitched in the heart of the Steroid Era, Buehrle should be judged differently than his predecessors. And his numbers are quite impressive in the context of the times: Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan noted earlier this month that Buehrle’s career ERA is nearly 25 percent better than the AL average.

As noted in June, when I identified Buehrle as one of a handful of pitchers with a shot at approaching 300 wins, it’s borderline foolish to try and project another decade of good health and fortune for any pitcher. But Buehrle has never been on the disabled list, has been perhaps the most durable pitcher in the American League the last eight seasons and is still only 30, so it seems as if he’s got as good a shot at the milestone—and sure-fire entrance into Cooperstown—as anybody.

If, of course, he wants it. Buehrle told Passan that he expects to retire after his contract runs out following the 2011 season in order to watch his kids grow up. Buehrle left himself plenty of room to change his mind, but he and those around him also painted a pretty compelling picture of an uncomplicated guy who just might walk away at the top of his game and leave millions and millions on the table.

Here’s hoping he doesn’t. Now that Jim Rice is headed for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame—more on that this weekend, as we’ll be in Cooperstown, how’s that for a segue—we need guys like Buehrle who can serve as the subjects for juicy is-he-or-isn’t-he debates.

At the very least, Buehrle should stick around as long as possible because baseball can use a player like him, one who is the poster boy for the unpredictability of the game, someone who can inspire a nation of fans to stop what they’re doing and head to the nearest TV, radio or computer and share in a moment that inspires goose bumps even in the middle of the summer.

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