The perfect game is one of baseball’s rarest gems; the 27-up, 27-down masterpiece that has been accomplished just 23 times in the history of Major League Baseball. It is the purview of Hall of Fame talents like Young and Koufax and Randy Johnson, but also of forgettable players like Charlie Robertson and Philip Humber. On any given day for any given pitcher, perfection potentially awaits.
But what about those who come tantalizingly close, only to have that dream of perfection yanked away by circumstance?
Those men are the focus of Joe Cox’s “Almost Perfect: The Heartbreaking Pursuit of Baseball’s Holy Grail” (Lyons Press, $26.95). MLB history also has an exclusive club of almost-perfect pitchers – 16 in all. Thirteen of them retired 26 consecutive batters, only to have fate step in at the final out. Three more actually did mow down 27 straight (or more), yet still found themselves without a perfect game in the end.
From the first in 1908 (George “Hooks” Wiltse for the New York Giants) to the most recent in 2015 (Max Scherzer for the Washington Nationals), Cox goes through each of these 16 contests, breaking them down out by out as they make their way to the fateful moment that leaves them almost perfect. But he also provides a great deal of context, offering a look at the careers of these men both before and after their brushes with history, giving us a glimpse at the aftermath.
The preponderance of almost-perfect games in recent years – five of the 16 have happened in the 21st century – results in some familiar names. Longtime Red Sox fans will recall Mike Mussina’s effort for the Yankees against Boston back in 2001. 2013 saw two such games – one from Texas’s Yu Darvish and the other from San Francisco’s Yusmeiro Petit – while the sports world learned a lesson in true sportsmanship and understanding from the aftermath of the blown call that cost Detroit’s Armando Galarraga his place in history back in 2010.
Another Red Sox-adjacent example is the game pitched by Pedro Martinez back in 1995 while he was still with the Montreal Expos. On June 3 of that year against the San Diego Padres, Pedro retired 27 consecutive hitters, striking out 10 along the way. Unfortunately, his team’s offense was also unable to score, leaving him to head back to the mound in the 10th where he allowed a hit to the leadoff batter and bid his perfect game adieu.
There’s also the legendary Ernie Shore game for the Red Sox in 1917, when Shore took the mound in relief of then-pitcher Babe Ruth after just one batter and went on a run. Two guys named Milt (Pappas and Wilcox) have both been almost-perfect. And of course, there’s the greatest of all – Harvey Haddix’s 1959 masterpiece in which he recorded 36 consecutive outs – 12 perfect innings - against a Braves lineup that featured some all-time greats.
Plenty of ink has been spilled covering the particulars of history’s perfect games. But what Joe Cox has done in “Almost Perfect” is tell stories that reveal a different truth about baseball. It can (and will) break your heart. Touching greatness isn’t easy; circumstances, skill and luck must all align to achieve it. And when even one of those things is the tiniest bit off-center, you can’t hold on.
These names might not have the overall cachet of those in the perfect game club. Just one Hall of Famer (Pedro) is in this crew, though one hopes to see Mussina eventually enshrined. Max Scherzer is on track to perhaps be there too. There are some very good pitchers (Haddix, Billy Pierce, Dave Stieb) and some journeymen (Tommy Bridges, Ron Robinson, Brian Holman), too. Really, the only thing they have in common is this missed grasp at perfection.
But each of these games is given its own moment in the spotlight; Cox treats every game with the utmost respect and sympathy. The depth of research is significant; he also spoke directly with six of the pitchers. The resulting work goes behind the basics and broadens our perspective; knowing both how these pitchers reached this point and how they proceeded afterward gives us an empathetic entry point. The sports world adores rarity and these almost-perfect games are even more rare than the actual perfect ones. This book is a fascinating look at pitchers whose feats, while essentially footnotes in the history of the game, are nonetheless impressive and worthwhile.
“Almost Perfect” lives up to its subtitle. We celebrate excellence on the diamond, and rightly so. But we should also admire those who couldn’t quite achieve the summit toward which they climbed. Heartbreak is a constant companion in the sports world, the notion of just-missed opportunity. Cox captures that sense, even as the men themselves acknowledge that this is how it goes sometimes in the game that they love.