“A wonderful vessel, but not what defines you”

Buster Posey, Kristen Posey

As his wife, Kristen, looked and listened, Buster Posey announced his retirement officially Thursday afternoon.

When Sandy Koufax first re-appeared in a Dodger uniform, joining the team as a low-keyed organisation pitching coach in spring 1979, Thomas Boswell profiled him for a Washington Post Sunday magazine feature. He’d dropped out of sight just to live life several years after leaving a gig with NBC’s old Game of the Week, returning almost as quietly as he’d slipped away.

The return, and Koufax’s introspection, led Boswell to conclude, “Koufax has seen through the veil of his game. A sport can be extremely difficult without being extremely important. Baseball could fascinate him, but not control him.” This week, the still-young man who may yet prove the second-youngest Hall of Famer to retire at or near his peak gave a similar impression.

Just as with Koufax over half a century ago, you can pull a pocketful of definitions out when Buster Posey’s name is mentioned. They can begin with knowing both, generations apart, played only twelve seasons of major league baseball until walking away before the game could walk, push, or shove them away.

You can pull out all the individual honours (from a Most Valuable Player award to two Comeback Player of the Year awards), three World Series championships, catching a perfect game and a few mere no-hitters. But you can also join Posey’s hand to Koufax’s for having the heart, soul, and presence of mind to pass it on before it was passed on for them.

As a pitcher, Koufax is frozen in time, the thirty-year-old lefthander still at the mountaintop, leaving the game before the extreme pain through which he pitched could throw him into a ghastly decline. As a catcher, Posey is liable to be frozen likewise, a 34-year-old still within his peak, leaving the game before the extreme pain through which he caught and hit could do the same thing.

These two fundamentally decent men put baseball away in order to rediscover things called living.

For Koufax, who played the game as a low-keyed bachelor, it was a time to get to know more about and live as the quiet man with more individual interests and self-education than many who played the game with and even after him. For Posey, it’s time to get to know more about his family and about the family guy he’s always been anyway.

When Posey made official Thursday what was first reported Wednesday, he didn’t so much reveal it as remind us of it.

His wife, Kristen, sat next to him at the podium. Their sixteen-month-old adopted twin daughters, Livvi and Ada, accompanied the couple’s ten-year-old fraternal twins, daughter Addison and son Lee.

His former manager, Bruce Bochy, accompanied the family to Oracle Park for the press conference. “He gets it. He gets it,” said the skipper with whom Posey and their Giants won those three World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. “The game, the pitching side, everything. He was just born to play baseball.” But Posey gets an awful lot more than just the depth of his game.

“First of all,” he began, “I’d like to thank the woman sitting up here with me today . . . You know better than anybody how hard, sometimes, I would take not performing the way I wanted to. But your love and perspective about what was truly important helped me through those times . . . I’m so excited to continue sharing life with you and watching our kids grow.”

“He was there,” wrote Andrew Baggarly, the Giants writer for The Athletic who broke the story of Posey’s retirement, “to let go of a baseball life, to move forward with the next phase and to fully wrap arms around the only role that he ever allowed to define him: husband, father, family man.”

Like Koufax in 1966, it turned out Posey went to spring training 2021 intending it to be his final season, come what may. What came was staggering enough.

Koufax led his 1966 Dodgers to a World Series and won a third major league-version Cy Young Award. Posey helped lead this year’s Giants to a 107-win season; he posted his highest single-season slugging percentage since his MVP season; he was ten defensive runs saved above his league’s average for catchers; he landed that second Comeback Player award.

Koufax walked away from a six-figure income that was baseball’s highest for any player at the time. Posey left a $22 million option for 2022 that nobody believed the Giants would reject. There was a $3 million buyout in his contract, but Baggarly says Posey and the Giants are negotiating how to turn that into an as-yet determined role in the organisation itself.

The Georgia guy who grew up rooting for the Braves but plighted his baseball troth to the Giants wants to keep it that way, even as he returns to Georgia for a spell to re-connect with his roots.

As a catcher, Posey retired the way he wanted to retire, as a Giant. As a man, he wants to remain a Giant one way or another without putting his family behind him. Baseball’s arguable best all-around catcher of the 21st Century’s second decade, too, saw through baseball’s veil and accepted what he saw without regret.

When he thanked his parents at Thursday’s announcement, Posey made a point of saying they’d given him “the foundation of knowing that baseball is a vessel that can be used to create wonderful memories and impact people’s lives, but ultimately it’s not what defines you.”

Koufax told Boswell of playing the game, “You are part of an entertainment. But you are not an entertainer. That is unnatural. But I enjoyed doing it . . . probably even more than the fans enjoyed watching. I thank them for enjoying it with me.”

Posey was at once part and parcel of maybe the single greatest decade the Giants have known since moving to San Francisco in the first place and unable to call himself the common element. “To me,” he said, “this is what encapsulates baseball. “It’s a lot more than just winning or losing games, although the wins do feel a lot better.”

It’s about the time spent with family, the countless nights and days, pulling for your team, riding the emotions of the highs, riding the emotions of the lows, and ultimately enjoying the people you’re with along the way and making great memories together. I’m so very humbled to play a part in some of those memories.

If Posey like Koufax walks away as much because the pain of his profession within a profession—the hip, back, knee, ankle injuries, the concussions—makes that profession impossible to practise properly anymore, he had a Koufaxian way or referencing it.

“I don’t regret one minute of the last twelve years,” Koufax said at his retirement press conference, “but I might regret one season too many.”

“It was just getting to the point where things that I was enjoying were not as joyful anymore,” Posey said. And that was it.

“Thursday’s gathering was not about adulation,” Baggarly wrote. “Posey didn’t need anyone to give him his flowers. His ego didn’t demand it. It felt more like a graduation of sorts, an acknowledgment that one part of his life was ending and an eagerness to embrace the fullness of his family. It’s someone else’s turn to slap the lectern at City Hall and say, ‘Let’s go win it again next year’.”

What remains—beyond a wish of Godspeed to Posey, his wife, his children—is a brief fantasy. The fantasy of a fully-matured Sandy Koufax going into that once-familiar windup, broad leg kick, and elegant, forward-snapping delivery, throwing one of his elusive fastballs or voluptuous curve balls to Buster Posey behind the plate.

Even Giant fans who’d rather be dead than Dodgers, even Dodger fans who’d rather be dead than Giants, might agree that these two inviolable men, knowing better than most of their contemporaries where they belonged in the game, knowing sooner than most when the game no longer belonged to them, would make a transcendent battery.

Baseball’s strategic non-command

Warren Spahn

That was then: “Hitting is timing. Pitching is destroying timing,” said Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. This is now: “Pitching is timing. Timing is supposed to make Nolan Ryan resemble a junkballer. Batter down? Oops!”

When Steve Dalkowski died a little over a year ago, the legends and myths about the nine-season minor league lefthander arose from the dead one more time. Howitzer arm? Dalkowski threw fastballs like cruise missiles.

Fans with seats behind the plate said no thanks when he was going to pitch—they didn’t want to come away with holes in their heads. He was that fast. And that wild.

Dalkowski finished his professional pitching career with 37 hit batsmen. That’s an average of four drills a year. The wildest pitching oat of his and many eras was kale compared to what’s going wild today, when as of this morning the Cubs pitching staff has hit a Show-leading thirty batters. (One batter drilled by a Cub every 44 plate appearances against them.)

At that rate, the Cubs staff is liable to do in less than two full months what Dalkowski took nine years to accomplish. The last I looked, there isn’t a Cub on staff whose fastballs inspire the kind of thing Red Sox utility infielder/pinch hitter Dalton Jones said of Dalkowski’s gas: “Hearing him warm up was like hearing a gun go off.”

Yet.

The outlier Dalkowski was in his time has become the norm in our time, and with about 200 percent more batters taking it on the chin . . . and anyplace else today’s uncontrollable fastballs can reach. As of this morning 476 major league batters have been hit by pitches—one drill every 80 plate apperances.

They’re not just free-floating knuckleballs or curve balls that break inside unexpectedly, either. These days, for whatever perverse reasons that only begin with the misuse of analytics, baseball organisations hunt and capture human howitzers who can throw lamb chops past entire packs of wolves—and practically nothing much else.

The trouble is that the newest generation of speedballers has about as much control as a politician’s mouth. The further trouble is that someone has the potential to become the next Tony Conigliaro—if not the next Ray Chapman. And the poor soul doesn’t even know it.

“Starting at the amateur level,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, “the baseball industry has come to value stuff over command, velocity over artistry. According to baseballsavant.com, the average velocity of a four-seam fastball in 2008 was 91.9 mph; this season, it’s 93.6. The trend is not just a threat to the health of hitters, but to that of pitchers as well.”

Threat to their health? How about the night Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera opened an assignment by hitting Bryce Harper in the face-then-wrist—knocking his helmet right off his head between face and wrist, too—and Didi Grigorius in the back . . . back-to-back. Harper and Grigorius may have been lucky they weren’t beheaded back-to-back.

Cabrera wasn’t trying to relieve either man of a head or another part of their assorted anatomy. He looked and acted positively pained when Harper went down and Grigorius spun on the back drill.

Both players knew it, Harper going so far as to send Cardinals manager Mike Schildt a text message saying he knew Cabrera wasn’t trying to leave his head on the ground separately. Cabrera apologised after the game, too.

But you couldn’t ignore what Harper’s former Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman told the Sports Junkies podcast, either. “A couple years ago, these guys would be in Double-A or Triple-A for another year trying to learn how to pitch, but these teams just call them up to see if they can kinda hit lightning in a bottle,” Zimmerman said.

“If not, they send them back down. They don’t care if they hit four guys on the other team. What does it matter to them? The [general manager] of the other team is not in the box, so he doesn’t care. It’s a different kind of game but it is what it is and that’s where we’re at.”

This past Saturday night, Ronald Acuna, Jr. got hit in the hand by Phillies reliever Sam Coonrod, on a pitch that would have been ticketed for reckless driving and traveling 32.8 mph above the highway speed limit. After gripping his limb in obvious pain, Acuna managed somehow to return to the Braves lineup the following day and score their first run. Coonrod and everyone else in baseball were lucky Acuna’s X-rays showed nothing but a contusion on his left pinkie.

One particularly interested observer was a Hall of Fame pitcher, John Smoltz, working the Fox Sports One broadcast of the game. Not only does pitching inside have elevation now that it didn’t always have in his day or past generations, Smoltz told his viewers, matching velocity with elevation equals playing with fire if your control panel goes AWOL.

“To pitch inside waist-down, there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a (batter),” said Smoltz, who hit 57 batters himself in a 21-season career for an average three a year. “And there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a pitcher, other than you maybe leave it over the plate and it’s a homer. Now everybody through analytics is trying to get it to the letters. You throw that at 98 mph, there are not a lot of pitchers who know where that pitch is going.”

Nobody’s blaming Coonrod, either, not the Braves or anyone else. Not even knowing Acuna tied an early April game against Coonrod by reaching for a slider going away and hitting it out. All Coonrod wanted to do was pitch Acuna to the inside of the zone, which pitchers must do to stay in command. The problem was Coonrod’s lack of command.

When Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton threw the pitch that blasted Tony Conigliaro in the face, the horror of Conigliaro going down caused too many people to believe Hamilton was nothing more than a reckless headhunter. And Hamilton didn’t pitch in a time when organisations and scouts lived by velocity uber alles without a thought of anything else.

To the day Conigliaro died there remained a considerable crowd remembering Hamilton as a hard thrower who was borderline careless. To anyone who’d give him a reasonably fair shake, Hamilton would say he couldn’t have been a headhunter if he tried—he didn’t have the kind of control to make it possible.

Indeed. He pitched eight major league seasons and actually hit only thirteen batters—short of two a year lifetime. (Charlie Morton hit thirteen in 2017 alone and he’s averaged sixteen a year in his career—including leading his league three times with sixteen, thirteen, and sixteen, and the entire Show once with nineteen.) If that’s a headhunter, watch me paste this pathetic palooka with a powerful paralyzing perfect pachydoimis percussion pitch.

Carl Mays took it on the chin for just about the rest of his life after one of his submarine spitters coned Ray Chapman in 1920. Not only did it provoke baseball to make the spitter an illegal pitch, it left Mays with a slightly unfair reputation as a headhunter—he retired with 89 hit batsmen in a fifteen-season career (average: seven a year) . . . and he’s not even among the top one hundred drillers of all time.

With the relief pitchers there’s an issue a few more have started thinking about. Normally, a manager who sees his pitcher wild would have gotten him the hell out of there before he got an opposing batter clobbered or his own team facing retaliation. Then came the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, the sole exception being if they come in during a jam and get out of it facing less than three men.

It was a foolish rule to begin with even before Cabrera’s fateful drills of Harper and Grigorius. (Harper’s wrist injury kept him from playing in seven of the Phillies’ following eight games.) That relief minimum kept Schildt from taking Cabrera out of the game until after he faced a third Phillie, on a night he had absolutely no control. How long will Commissioner Nero and his head-up-their-you-know-what bosses let this stupid rule continue before someone does get killed?

And who has to have a career compromised or destroyed a la Conigliaro before the analytics mavens in today’s front offices quit chasing speed elevation uber alles and start chasing or developing pitchers who can learn how to control what they throw and think as well as thrust on the mound?

I don’t ask that question lightly. I’m an analytics maven myself. I believe more deeply than the deepest pennant contender that statistics are what Allen Barra has called them, the life blood of baseball. I can’t and never could watch every single baseball game ever played in my lifetime, so I look at the deepest of the deep stats when I want to know who really made the difference in those games and who really was (or is) as great as his Hall of Fame plaque suggests (or will suggest).

Those deepest-of-the-deep stats can also tell me whom among non-Hall of Famers actually belongs in the Hall of Fame (Dick Allen and Tony Oliva, anyone?) and whom among the Hall of Famers had no business being there except as a visitor. (Harold Baines, anyone?) One of the things those deeper stats can also tell me within all reason is which pitcher had Dalkowski-like heat or voluptuous breaking balls but had the kind of lack of control that might have made Dalkowski resemble the mature Sandy Koufax.

If I’m running a baseball organisation, and I see a young pitcher who can throw a ball through a cement wall but has no idea where it’s going, I should be crucified if I let that kid get anywhere near a major league mound before he gets the idea. Not before someone teaches him all the speed on earth means nothing if you don’t know where the ball’s going—or the one you get within the zone in spite of yourself gets hit into the Delta Quadrant.

Because one thing will remain true no matter the era: Show me a kid who’s got a sound barrier-breaking fastball, I’ll show you a major league hitter who’ll catch up to that fastball soon enough if the kid hasn’t got much of anything else to show that batter. Assuming he lives long enough after he gets coned by one of those speedballs.

Some of the old-school should still prevail. “Hitting is timing. Pitching is destroying timing,” said Hall of Fame lefthander Warren Spahn, whose fastest fastball would resemble a Lockheed Constellation compared to today’s Dreamliners. Today, hitting is still timing but pitching seems bent on making Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan resemble a junkballer. Batter down? Oops.

Spahn also had solid breaking stuff, a screwball he developed later in his career, and the kind of control an android would envy. Want to know how many batters Spahn hit in a 21-season career? Try 42—an average two a year. He also averaged only four wild pitches a year. Today’s impatient front office would deem him unsuitable for major league competition.

His fellow Hall of Famer Koufax once tied a single-season record for wild pitches—before the flaw in his delivery got spotted at last and corrected in spring 1961. Koufax had a fastball that exploded upward as it arrived at the plate and a curve ball voluptuous enough to make Jane Russell resemble Olive Oyl.

In twelve Show seasons Koufax hit only eighteen batters—an average two per year. But he didn’t just fix the hitch in his delivery in ’61. (He’d previously reared back far and hard enough that he cut half his strike zone sight off as he threw.) He learned at last how to think while he pitched. He knew what he was doing on the mound. Today’s front office would probably write him off for thinking too much and destroying radar guns too little.

It’s taken baseball’s best pitcher today eight seasons to hit twenty batters, an average of four per year. The last time he hit one was two years ago. This season he’s been shown throwing three figure speed—at almost any time of the game while he’s on the mound.

But he has something the rest of the pack with a couple of exceptions lacks: He knows what he’s doing on the mound and he also knows there’s an awful lot of real estate to cover within the perimeter of the strike zone. He also has more than just cruise missiles to throw—he’s got a wipeout slider and a changeup that could be accused plausibly of embezzlement.

You won’t see Jacob deGrom on the mound again until 20 May or later, thanks to an issue in his side that started with a lat muscle strain. Did he get it throwing one or two pitches a little harder than even he can throw them without great physical effort? Did he get it swinging the bat and/or running the bases? (DeGrom the Outlier is 7-for-15 as a batter this year.)

If the former, rest assured deGrom knows better. If the latter, it’s yet another argument for the defense on behalf of the universal designated hitter.

It might be fun watching deGrom bop hits but there’s no fun watching him get hurt swinging the bat or running the bases. Especially when you’re not paying deGrom (a converted shortstop) to get up there and slap his mound counterpart silly with his bat. But that’s an argument for another hour.

“[W]hy are pitchers such as Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer at the top of the sport?” Rosenthal asks, then answers. “It’s not simply because they throw hard. It’s also because they know how to locate. More of that, please, before more players get hurt.” Letting the kids play isn’t supposed to mean letting them blow someone’s brains out.

Diminishing the one whose record you break?

If Joe DiMaggio didn’t think Cal Ripken, Jr. diminished Lou Gehrig, neither should anyone else. Unfortunately . . .

You become accustomed to absurdity when loving, following and writing about a game. You see and hear it from those who love and follow it, those who play it, those who manage or administer it, and those who write about it. But then comes a remark that should win the ultimate Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary.

I saw it in the context of late-spring observations on the health of certain Yankees, aboard a Facebook baseball group to which I belong, mindful that for almost three years The New England Journal of Medicine could be the Yankee yearbook. I saw concurrent references to Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr., Hall of Famers both, one setting the consecutive games played streak the other broke.

Both Gehrig and Ripken played through assorted injuries to reach their milestones, perhaps foolishly. Gehrig ended his streak only under orders from the insidious disease that would kill him shy of two years after removing himself from the Yankee lineup. Ripken was able to play 501 consecutive games more following the night he passed Gehrig and 870 more games total before retiring with 3,001 major league games played.

Aboard that group, I couldn’t resist noting Gehrig’s plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park still calls him “a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.” Just as it did when it was first erected in the old Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July in 1941.

The night Ripken said “not quite,” one of Gehrig’s Yankee teammates was in Camden Yards to see it happen. “Well,” said Joe DiMaggio to Ripken and the crowd after the game ended, “that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken. And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”

Another group member thought not. “I still wish Cal would have stopped at 2130,” he wrote. “He would have been even more of a media darling if he said something along the lines of the memory of the man and the streak is too great to be broken therefore I am content to tie it and to hopefully be mentioned in the same breath as he in future conversation.”

Have I finally seen everything?

Well, I know better. But for abject absurdity if not sheer foolishness, that gets as close as possible. It only begins with Ripken having been a media target as much as a media darling the closer he got to meeting and passing Gehrig. For every one that marveled at his endurance, there was another who marveled that the Orioles put up with his “selfishness,” with putting his potential place in baseball history ahead of the team’s good.

My first response in the space of the group itself was to suggest such thinking as wishing Ripken stopped equal to Gehrig made it a wonder that any record would be broken. I remembered Henry Aaron saying, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth, I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.”

I also wondered whether Ruth himself would have said, in 1919, “Gee, I think I’ll stop at 27 [home runs] because I don’t want to ruin Ned Williamson’s memory.” (Ruth’s 29 homers that year broke Williamson’s 1884 single-season record.) I didn’t dare add that I was pretty sure Pete Rose in 1985 didn’t think for a single minute, “Jeez, I can’t do this to Ty Cobb, can I?” before slashing his Tying and passing career base hits.

Guess I should have described myself as a hopeless romantic instead of an idealist but i really do wish that was the way it went down,” said the group member in question who thinks and wishes Ripken had stopped at 2,130. “Everyone would have known Cal could have easily surpassed Gehrig and I can’t foresee anybody breaking or even coming close to 2130 again. Your point though is certainly well taken.”

What manner of “hopeless romantic” goes ballistic at the mere idea of anyone challenging Ruth’s former single-season home run record in 1961? Which one has kittens over the likelihood of plainspoken, charisma-challenged Roger Maris and not glib, charisma-loaded Mickey Mantle breaking it?

Idealists don’t send aspiring record breakers hate mail. Hopeless romantics don’t write venomous newspaper columns or throw things at them. Then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t hopelessly romantic, he was cynically selfish—as a one-time Ruth ghostwriter and permanent Ruth acolyte—demanding separation between 154-game and 162-game seasons the better to be damn sure ruthsrecord (yes, they said it that way then) couldn’t really be erased.

(P.S. You asked for it. Maris needed five fewer plate appearances to hit 61 in ’61 than Ruth did to hit 60 in 1927. If you re-set Maris’s clock to start his season the game in which he hit his first homer of ’61, it took him 152 games to hit 61. Take that, Edsel Frick.)

I wondered further about such “idealists” as the brain-dead and the racists (who are their own kind of brain dead) threatening Aaron every step of the way as he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list.

I resisted the temptation to ask my fellow group member if he was one of those ready to wear black arm bands when Sandy Koufax smashed two of Bob Feller’s records in one 1965, Feller’s major league single-season strikeout record and his career record three no-hitters. (Koufax really hit Feller where it hurt, too: his fourth no-hitter proved that practise makes perfect.)

Then I reminded myself no milestone passer or record breaker could possibly erase the memory or the legacy of the one whose milestone he passed or record he broke. I learned that early from Ted Williams himself, a man who was nothing if not obsessed with his own legacy. “The other day,” Williams said at his own Hall of Fame induction, “Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.”

Williams didn’t think Mays diminished him. Teddy Ballgame, of course, probably believed nobody could diminish him. While whacking balls during batting practise he was once heard to say, “Jesus H. Christ Himself couldn’t get me out!”

Was Ruth diminished by Maris and Aaron? Was Feller diminished by Koufax? Was Cobb diminished by Rose? Was Walter Johnson diminished by Nolan Ryan breaking his lifetime major league strikeout record? Was Gehrig really diminished by Ripken?

DiMaggio didn’t think so. “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record,” the Yankee Clipper told that cheering Camden Yards throng, “and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”

On the silver anniversary of the night he passed Gehrig (and whacked a home run while he was at it), I reminded anyone who cared to read it that Ripken didn’t (and doesn’t) live by 2,131 alone. He’s the arguable greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game. Says who? Says 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs (the only such middle infielder to do both) and +181 fielding runs (third only behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith), says who.

You should be half afraid to ask whether Casey Stengel managing five consecutive World Series winners diminished the John McGraw who’d once managed a mere four. Or whether Tom Seaver striking out a record ten straight to consummate a nineteen-strikeout game diminished the Steve Carlton who’d struck out nineteen in a game previously without ten straight punchouts to finish.

Carlton wasn’t accused of diminishing the Koufax who struck eighteen out in a game twice or the Feller who did it once.

Tomorrow is Opening Day. The Show will be back and with a full season to come, even. Last year’s pan-damn-ically shortened, irregular season will recede a little further into the ranks of the aberrations. There may be a few milestones reached and passed this year, if not exactly all-time records of all-time idols.

Miguel Cabrera needs a mere 134 hits and thirteen home runs to become the only player who ever reached 3,000 lifetime hits and 500 lifetime home runs in the same season. At least nobody—whether fan group member or professional writer—can accuse Cabrera diminishing someone else’s achievement if he makes both.

Nobody can predict, of course. The likelihood isn’t that great, either, but imagine if the aging Cabrera’s thirteenth home run this year becomes his 3,000th hit, somehow. He’d be only the third man in Show history to do it. Hands up to anyone foolish enough to think he shouldn’t even think about trying to go long for 3,000 because it might “diminish” the only two men whose 3,000th hits were bombs—Derek Jeter (who did it first, in 2011) and Alex Rodriguez (who did it in 2015).

At September 2019’s end, just about, Justin Verlander struck Kole Calhoun out twice in a game. The first time nailed Verlander’s 3,000th career strikeout, the second time his 300th strikeout of that season. No pitcher ever delivered that trick before. The only thing that diminished Verlander even slightly was what happened after he punched Calhoun out for 3,000: Andrelton Simmons hit the pitch immediately following the punchout over the center field fence.

Entering 2021 Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw have over 2,500 lifetime strikeouts each. Suppose one of them endures long enough that his 3,000th strikeout-to-be might also become his 300th strikeout of the season in question. Would it really diminish Verlander if one of them pulls it off? Should he just try throwing grounders the rest of the way? Should his manager relieve him on the spot? The better not to soil Verlander’s glory?

God help Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., or Christian Yelich if any of them should stand on the threshold of breaking Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Some bonehead somewhere is liable to suggest he should take a dive for game 57 on the grounds that it’s too great a record to be broken and, by the way, he shouldn’t ought to want to diminish DiMaggio’s memory.

Both Ripken and myself will probably be in the Elysian Fields before somebody else breaks Ripken’s streak, if somebody else actually does. But I’ll be there watching when Ripken and Gehrig holler down to the man, “Way to go, kiddo!” They won’t be screaming bloody murder with demands not to be diminished.

When Johnny Bench broke Yogi Berra’s record for lifetime home runs as a catcher, Berra wired him: “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.” Funny how Bench didn’t exactly diminish Berra. Funny how Berra didn’t exactly feel diminished. Funny, too, how nobody who’s since passed Bench —for the record, they’re Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza—diminished Yogi, either.

The only one diminished by suggesting that breaking venerated records diminishes the original record setter is the one making the suggestion in the first place.

“Wins” aren’t everything . . .

If you still think the towering Met didn’t earn his back-to-back Cy Young Awards . . .

When Jacob deGrom won back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards despite ten wins the first time and eleven the second, enough of the Old Fart Contingent (OFC from here forward) went nuclear. They’ve really lost it this time, the OFC fumed over the award voters. They still fume, occasionally.

What was Max Scherzer with his three-way-tying eighteen wins, then? What was Miles Mikolas, with the least number of losses among the three with eighteen wins? (And the best winning percentage in the league.) That’s the OFC fuming. The proper question really is, what’s this continuing nonsense about judging pitchers first by their “wins?”

Well, maybe not. The truly proper question is: Name me one pitcher who got all 27 outs in the game all by his lonesome, with no help from the catcher calling his pitches or blocking pitches or spearing potential wild pitches; no help from the fielders behind him. (I could be a real rat and follow it with another question: Name me one pitcher who created and produced every run scored by his team during every one of his “wins.”)

While the crickets continue chirping from the OFC grounds, I’d like to show you a table of three 27-game “winners.” The only other thing this trio has in common is winning the Cy Young Award in those seasons. I’m going to show you their “won-lost” records first:

  W-L
Pitcher A 27-6
Pitcher B 27-9
Pitcher C 27-10

The OFC who looks at the “wins” and “losses” first will tell you Pitcher A was the best of the three when he had his 27-“win” season. Now, will the OFC have a look at the trio’s earned run averages, fielding-independent pitching (FIP; kind of your ERA when your fielders’ work is removed from the equation), strikeouts (screw Crash Davis, missing bats is not fascist), strikeouts per nine innings, and earned runs surrendered? (An [#] means leading the entire Show; a [*] means leading the league.)

  ERA FIP K K/9 ER
Pitcher A 2.95 4.19 127 1.7 78
Pitcher B 1.73# 2.07# 317# 8.8# 62
Pitcher C 1.97* 2.01# 310* 3.6* 76

Pitcher A’s 27-6 doesn’t look quite the leader of the pack now, does it? By the way, Pitcher A received 5.0 runs of support from his team while he was on the mound in his games that season. Pitcher B received 4.0 runs of support while he was on the mound in his 27-winning season. Pitcher C received 3.4 runs of support while he was on the mound in his 27-winning season.

The more runs a pitcher has to work with, the less stressful his day’s work will be, of course. Notice Pitcher A was a little too comfortable, surrendering the most earned runs of the trio while striking out the fewest. Pitcher C worked 26 more innings, approximately, than Pitcher B, and surrendered six more earned runs and struck out seven fewer batters. Pitchers A and C experienced fluke seasons overall; Pitcher B had just pitched his sixth straight season leading the entire Show in FIP.

Pitcher A is Bob Welch. Pitcher B is Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. Pitcher C (perhaps appropriately) is Steve Carlton. Koufax and Carlton were the no-questions-asked best starting pitchers on their teams. Welch wasn’t. Not even close. As a matter of fact, two starters (including Dave Stewart) and two relievers (including Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley) had better FIPs than Welch in 1990, while the same quartet also had better ERAs.

So how on earth did the 1990 American League Cy Young Award voters give Welch the award? They saw the 27 “wins” and didn’t bother looking at the real indicators of a pitcher’s effectiveness. If they had looked that deep, they would have handed the 1990 American League Cy Young Award to Roger Clemens. (ERA: 1.93; FIP: 2.18; K/BB: 3.87—all of which led the entire Show.)

“In baseball,” wrote Keith Law in Smart Baseball, “team victories matter, but the idea of a single player earning full credit for a win or blame for a loss exposes a deep ignorance of how the game actually plays out on the field.”

If you’ve ever actually watched an actual game of baseball, you know that the sport doesn’t function this way: even a pitcher who throws a perfect game gets some help somewhere—from his defense, from his catcher, and of course from the offense that scored at least one run so he didn’t have to go out and pitch the tenth inning—which happened to Pedro Martinez in 1995 while he was still a Montreal Expo. Pedro threw nine perfect innings against the Padres, but the Expos couldn’t push a run across until the tenth inning; only after that did he qualify for the win despite retiring all 27 batters he’d faced to that point. As the pitcher, Martinez couldn’t have done any more to help his team win the game, but he didn’t “earn” the victory until his teammates scored. This is because the entire thought process that led us to this point, where a starting pitcher gets that credit or blame, is both out of date and very, very stupid.

Don’t you just love watching the OFC temperatures bursting the mercury tubes? Would you like to send them straight into the ionosphere? Let me give you two more pitchers, one of whom won the Cy Young Award in the season in question and the other of whom out-pitched him profoundly:

  W-L ERA FIP K K/9 ER
The Winner 21-8 3.48 3.75 157 6.3 86
The Shoulda Been 16-7 2.87 2.80# 238# 9.2* 74

The winner was Bartolo Colon, 2005. The shoulda-been 2005 winner (if you’re picking strictly starting pitchers) was Johan Santana.

The OFC will tell you those 21 “wins” which led the American League made Colon a no-brainer. (How about one more “loss” than Santana?) The Show-leading FIP and strikeouts, plus the American League-leading 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings and surrendering 12 fewer earned runs, should have told voters Santana was the best starting pitcher in the league that season.

The only American League starter that year who got close to Santana’s ERA was Kevin Millwood, whose 2.86 led the league. But Millwood’s FIP (3.73) was only two points lower than Colon’s; he didn’t miss as many bats as Santana or Colon (146 strikeouts; 6.8 K/9); and, his K/BB ratio (2.81) wasn’t even Colon (3.65), never mind Santana (5.29).

Let’s look in another direction. In 1965, Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game. Koufax struck fourteen batters out, including striking out the side in the ninth. The remaining thirteen outs came through the courtesy of three ground outs and ten fly outs. It’s absolutely fair to say Koufax himself took care of one more out than his fielders did. It’s absolutely fair to say that Koufax did more to win the game than the rest of the team did.

A year before Koufax’s jewel, Hall of Famer Jim Bunning pitched the National League’s first perfect game of the World Series era. (1903-present.) Bunning struck ten batters out. The remaining seventeen outs came by way of eleven fly outs and nine ground outs. Bunning needed more help than Koufax needed to consummate the game. So did a lot of other perfect game pitchers.

There are 21 perfect games in the World Series era, including one that was pitched in a World Series. Nineteen have available game logs, beginning with Charlie Robertson’s perfecto of 30 April 1922. We’ll see their strikeouts, ground outs, and fly outs. I’ll assign each pitcher a win factor (WF) based on his strikeouts (which he got by himself) divided by the sum of ground and fly outs (for which he needed more than a little help from his friends). I’m also including their fielding-independent pitching rates for those seasons.

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP (Yr.)
Charlie Robertson (1922) 2-0 6 7 14 .286 3.85
Don Larsen (1956)* 2-0 7 6 14 .350 4.27
Jim Bunning (1964) 6-0 10 6 11 .588 2.75
Sandy Koufax (1965) 1-0 14 3 10 1.077 1.93
Catfish Hunter (1968) 4-0 11 7 9 .688 3.46
Len Barker (1981) 3-0 11 9 7 .688 2.46
Mike Witt (1984) 1-0 10 13 4 .588 3.16
Tom Browning (1988) 1-0 7 10 10 .350 4.50
Dennis Martinez (1991) 2-0 5 17 5 .227 3.17
Kenny Rogers (1994) 4-0 8 7 12 .421 4.55
David Wells (1998) 4-0 11 6 10 .688 3.80
David Cone (1999) 6-0 10 4 13 .588 4.28
Randy Johnson (2004) 2-0 13 7 7 .929 2.30
Mark Buehrle (2009) 5-0 6 11 10 .286 4.46
Dallas Braden (2010) 4-0 6 7 14 .286 3.80
Roy Halladay (2010) 1-0 11 8 8 .688 3.01
Philip Humber (2012) 4-0 9 5 13 .500 5.77
Matt Cain (2012) 10-0 14 6 7 1.077 3.40
Felix Hernandez (2012) 1-0 12 8 7 .800 2.84

Notice that only two of those perfect games have a pitcher win factor one or higher. They just so happen to be tied for the most strikeouts in a perfect game while we’re at it. On the other hand, Koufax got ten outs in the air and three on the ground. Still, Koufax and Cain were equal keeping the ball in the yard for a little help from their friends.

“How about we just de-emphasise the win?” —Clayton Kershaw.

So why shouldn’t Cain be regarded as Koufax’s equal? Aside from the obvious (Koufax is a no-questions-asked peak value Hall of Famer; Cain is maybe the 282nd best starting pitcher of all time), Koufax’s game kind of proved that practise makes perfect: he’d thrown one no-hitter in each of the three previous seasons. Cain’s perfecto was the only no-hitter of his career, and he had the most runs to work with of any of these perfect game pitchers.

Koufax also had a lot less to work with. He also pitched with the anomaly of his mound opponent, Bob Hendley of the Cubs, coming thatclose to pitching a no-hitter on the backside of the game. The lone run of the game scored on a walk, a sacrifice, a steal, and a throwing error on the steal; the only hit of the game was a double after which the batter was stranded without another baserunner.

The closest to the Left Arm of God was the Big Unit: Hall of Famer Randy Johnson had only two runs to work with while striking thirteen out. Johnson and fellow Hall of Famer Roy Halladay are also the only ones of the perfecto pitchers to divide the work among their teammates evenly between the infield and the outfield.

Don Larsen’s opponent in Game Five of the 1956 World Series was Dodger nemesis-turned-teammate Sal Maglie, who’d thrown a no-hitter of his own during the regular season while helping make the final Brooklyn pennant possible. Decades later, Maglie told Peter Golenbock (for Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers), “I wish we had played in Ebbets Field the game that Larsen beat me, ’cause we hit some mighty long balls that were caught. In our ballpark, I don’t believe they would have beat me.”

Sour grapes? Among the above perfecto pitchers, Larsen tied with Charlie Robertson and Dallas Braden for the most fly outs. These are the flies from which Larsen benefited:

Duke Snider—liner to right field. (1st.)
Jackie Robinson—liner to third. (2nd.)
Sandy Amoros—pop fly around second base. (2nd.)
Carl Furillo—right field. (3rd.)
Sal Maglie—liner to center. (3rd.)
Jackie Robinson—deep right field. (5th.)
Gil Hodges—deep left center field. (5th.)
Carl Furillo—pop fly around second base. (6th.)
Roy Campanella—short center field. (6th.)
Pee Wee Reese—deep left center field. (7th.)
Duke Snider—fly to left field. (7th.)
Gil Hodges—liner to third. (8th.)
Sandy Amoros—deep left center field. (8th.)
Carl Furillo—right field. (9th.)

Maglie was probably right about Hodges in the fifth, Reese in the seventh, and Amoros in the eighth. Balls hit in Yankee Stadium’s impossible deep left center field just might have meant extra-base hits or home runs in Ebbets Field’s shorter dimensions. Robinson’s fifth-inning fly might have hit Ebbets Field’s higher, beveled right field wall. Hodges, Reese, or Amoros, maybe even all three, just might have had home runs if Game Five was played in Ebbets.

Dodger Stadium in 1965 was no hitter’s paradise, either, but Koufax surrendered only one deep fly out—Byron Browne’s high liner toward the back of right center field in the top of the second—that might have been extra bases or a possible home run if the game was played in Wrigley Field.

So what’s the point of all that? Maybe the point is that, even if you pitch a perfect game, you didn’t win it all by your lonesome unless you struck out every one of the 27 men you faced to get there without your catcher having to hold onto a foul tip or throw the batter out at first after bobbling or losing the ball on strike three.

Among the perfecto pitchers, Koufax and Cain got the closest. But if you also measure by each perfecto pitcher’s FIP in the season he turned his trick, Koufax was the most likely to pitch a perfect game the year he did it among any of the nineteen listed who did it—and Philip Humber was the least likely to do it.

(If only we had the game log for Cy Young’s 1904 perfecto! Pitching in the dead ball era, when pitchers were still encouraged to let the batters make contact as best they could, Young’s 1.83 FIP made him look like a candidate to pitch a perfect game, but with a 4.7 K/9 ratio you’d also think he needed a lot more help from his friends than Koufax [10.2 K/9 ration in 1965] did to nail one.)

The five pitchers who struck 20 or more batters out in a single nine-inning game did more to win those games than even the perfecto pitchers did.

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Roger Clemens (1986) 3-1 20 3 4 2.86 2.81
Roger Clemens (1996) 4-0 20 8 4 1.67 3.43
Kerry Wood (1998) 2-0 20 5 3 2.50 3.16
Randy Johnson (2001) 4-3 20 3 6 2.22 2.13
Max Scherzer (2016) 3-2 20 3 10 1.54 3.24

Five starters in major league history struck out 20 in a nine-inning game and only two of them (Clemens, Wood) threw shutouts. Wood usually gets the big enough edge because a) he had half the runs to work with that Clemens had; and, b) only three balls hit off him traveled skyward. But Clemens needed one fewer out overall. That’s while pondering that, based on FIP, Johnson may have been the most likely of the quartet to punch out twenty in a nine-inning game.

If by now you’re beginning to think that maybe pitching wins aren’t everything for a pitcher, perhaps you’d like to have a look at a game illustrating that maybe pitching losses aren’t exactly everything for a pitcher, either:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
The Hardest-Luck Loser? 1-0 8 14 16 .267 3.40

That was Harvey Haddix’s thirteen-inning heartbreaker in 1959. When he pitched twelve “perfect” innings only to have it broken up in the thirteenth for the loss. (The game is said to have inspired Lew Burdette—the Braves pitcher who went the distance to get credit for the win—when he talked contract before the following season: That guy pitched the greatest game of all time and he still couldn’t beat me—so I must be the greatest pitcher who ever lived. The prankish Burdette got his laugh . . . and his raise, so the story goes.)

There’s no question Haddix worked his tail off to get the game as far as he got it, but a combine of thirty ground and fly outs means he got a lot of help from his friends. Pitchers always do, when all is said and done.

The only friends from whom Haddix got no help were in the Pirates lineup, unable to push runs across the plate despite twelve hits including first and third in the top of the ninth. (They went 0-for-2 with men in scoring position and hit into three double plays while they were at it, too.)

Back to Jacob deGrom. We’ll have a look at his work during his two Cy Young Award seasons, the ones the OFC still believes shouldn’t have gotten him the awards because he didn’t “win” enough. Using the same win factor formula as I used to review the perfecto pitchers, this is the towering Met in 2018-2019:

Pitcher K GB FB WF FIP
Jacob deGrom (2018-2019) 524 360 331 .758 2.33

DeGrom’s win factor shows he pitched more than well enough to earn more “wins” than he actually earned over those two years and to avoid more “losses” than he was charged with in the same period. But enough of the OFC will insist deGrom’s 22 “wins” in 2018-19 mean he wasn’t even a winner, never mind Cy Young Award worthy.

There’s an active three-time Cy Young Award winner who could have been charged with heresy by the OFC for a remark he made during an interview with MLB Network at the 2012 All-Star Game. He actually said, more or less, that pitching “wins” aren’t everything.

Well, he was asked if the pitching win ought to be sent the way of the 78 rpm record. (Well, not quite in those words.) According to Ahead of the Curve author Brian Kenny, one of the three interviewers, this pitcher “said he thought there were many more important categories and thought the W-L was frequently misleading. [Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac] groaned, lamenting a missed opportunity to crush me.”

I seized on it, asking, “Can we then count on you for the Kill the Win program?” [This pitcher] answered diplomatically, “How about we just de-emphasise the win?”

I’ll take it, Clayton.

That’s Clayton as in Kershaw, he with a pair of 21-game “winning” seasons and the lifetime 175-76 “won-lost” record. The pitcher who nailed back-to-back Cy Young Awards with a 1.91 FIP, a 1.96 ERA, and a mere 16 “wins” in the second of the two seasons. (The first: 21 “wins.”) The fellow who struck out 530 batters over those two seasons, against 418 ground outs and 235 fly outs—for an .812 win factor.

When a man winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards with a win factor higher than those seasons’ “winning percentage” talks, it might be wise to listen.

If it’s any comfort to either himself in the Elysian Fields, or to the OFC any old place you choose to place them, Harvey Haddix’s 1959 FIP says he was more likely to pitch and consummate a perfect game than eight pitchers who actually did pitch and consummate them. Including the million-to-one shot who did it in a World Series.

Practise makes perfect

Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax poses after the perfect game he pitched 55 years ago tonight. Said Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley, who almost no-hit the Dodgers on the backside of the game, “It’s no disgrace to get beat by class.”

Now and then the best story of a particular baseball game doesn’t happen during the game itself. I can think of one that happened four decades after the fact, a story Sandy Koufax’s biographer Jane Leavy exhumed when writing her remarkable book, which wrapped  around the perfect game he pitched 55 years ago tonight.

Leavy had just written that Koufax remains proud of his accomplishments while refusing “to exist in cinders and ashes” when she described him as a good friend who remembers birthdays and has an open heart. She also observed, almost insistently, that Koufax would love nothing more than to be another regular guy if only people would let the man come before the legend—as he strives to do even now.

“He does not disavow who he was or what he accomplished,” she wrote. “He is proud of it . . . He doesn’t speak of himself in the third person, but he does think of ‘Sandy Koufax’ as someone else, a persona separate from himself.”

Her immediate example of the open heart from there was Bob Hendley, the righthanded Chicago Cubs pitcher he defeated in the perfecto. Earlier in the same chapter, Leavy noted that Hendley’s youngest son, Bart, clipped a local article about Hendley and the game and sent it to Koufax. Koufax returned the clip autographed and included a note saying, “Say hello to your father.”

Then, around the actual anniversary, Hendley received an unexpected package. Inside was a clean baseball hand-inscribed, “What a game.” Included was a handwritten note: “We had a moment, a night, and a career. I hope life has been good to you—Sandy.”

Koufax’s path to the Hall of Fame includes that he threw no-hitters against the embryonic New York Mets in June 1962, the San Francisco Giants in May 1963, and the pennant-contending/ultimately collapsing Philadelphia Phillies in June 1964. It looked then as though among the other achievements that placed him somewhere in his own quadrant, a Koufax no-hitter was likely to become an annual ritual.

Then he squared off against Hendley in Dodger Stadium that Thursday night 55 years ago. Except for Dodgers outfielder Lou Johnson in the bottom of the seventh, Hendley himself would have pitched a no-hitter on the backside of Koufax’s jewel. Surrealistic as it still sounds, Johnson accounted for the game’s only hit and the game’s only run but never the twain did meet.

With two out, Johnson blooped one behind second, eluding both Cub second baseman Glenn Beckert and Hall of Famer Ernie Banks running over from first. By the time Banks reached the ball, Johnson had second, credited with a bloop double. Dodgers right fielder Ron Fairly grounded out to shortstop Don Kessinger for the side.

The irony was Johnson scoring the game’s only run two innings earlier. He led off with a walk, took second on Fairly’s bunt, then stole third with eventual 1965 National League Rookie of the Year Jim Lefebvre at the plate and scored when Cubs catcher Chris Krug’s throw sailed past Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo.

Of all the cliches about the mid-1960s Dodgers, the most enduring one is that they were so weak at the plate the leadoff batter working out a walk, taking first base clean after a strikeout pitch was lost by the opposing catcher, or getting hit by a pitch was equivalent to starting a rally with the bases loaded and nobody out.

The pitching win has become devalued in the decades since Koufax’s time, mostly because you can count on half your hand how many pitchers really do the bulk of the work needed to win. Koufax was one of those pitchers when all was said and done.

In 1965 he was probably lucky to average three runs to work during the games he pitched. Marry that to the league hitting .179 against him while he led the entire Show with a 2.09 earned run average and a 1.93 fielding-independent pitching and Sandy Koufax earned every one of his Show-leading 26 wins and the second of his three major league Cy Young Awards.

Perfect games aren’t usually the sole work of the pitcher who performs them, either, but Koufax again is an outlier.

When he no-hit the Mets in June 1962, he struck out thirteen but walked five while facing thirty batters, accounting for 43 percent of the game outs himself. Against the Giants in May 1963, he struck out only four and walked two while facing 28 batters, accounting for 14 percent of the outs himself. Against the Phillies in June 1964, he struck out twelve and walked one while facing the minimum 27. (He walked should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen with two out in the fourth, but Allen was thrown out stealing while Koufax pitched to Danny Cater.) That meant he accounted for 44 percent of the outs himself.

But when he pinned the Cubs 55 years ago today, Koufax struck out fourteen including nine straight in the final two innings. He was responsible for 52 percent of the outs directly. Breaking Bob Feller’s record of three career no-hitters, Koufax did what Feller couldn’t—he proved that practise makes perfect.

Only one other pitcher has struck out as many as fourteen batters in a perfect game, and that was Giants pitcher Matt Cain striking fourteen out in 2012. Unlike Koufax, Cain didn’t strike anyone out in the ninth. It also took half a century before another no-hit pitcher struck out the side in the ninth, when two pitchers—the Giants’ Chris Heston and the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta—did it in 2015.

Koufax is also the only pitcher to consummate two no-hitters against two separate teams by retiring the same batter. He did it to grizzled veteran Harvey Kuenn to finish his 1963 no-no, with John Roseboro behind the plate for him, getting Kuenn to ground out right back to the box. Then, finishing the 1965 perfecto, with Jeff Torborg behind the plate for him, he got Kuenn—traded by the Giants to the Cubs with Hendley himself in May 1965—on a swinging strikeout.

The 1965 strikeout climaxes Vin Scully’s much-anthologised call of the ninth inning, often under the title, “29,000 People and a Million Butterflies.”

He is one out away from the promised land, and Harvey Kuenn is coming up. So Harvey Kuenn is batting for Bob Hendley. The time on the scoreboard is 9:44. The date September the ninth, 1965. And Koufax working on veteran Harvey Kuenn.

Sandy into his windup, and the pitch—fastball for a strike. He has struck out, by the way, five consecutive batters, and that’s gone unnoticed.

Sandy ready, and the strike-one pitch—very high, and he lost his hat. He really forced that one. That was only the second time tonight where I have had the feeling that Sandy threw instead of pitched, trying to get that little extra, and that time he tried so hard his hat fell off. He took an extremely long stride toward the plate and Torborg had to go up to get it. One and one to Harvey Kuenn. Now he’s ready—fastball, high, ball two.

You can’t blame a man for pushing just a little bit now. Sandy backs off, mops his forehead, runs his left index finger along his forehead, dries it off on his left pants leg. All the while, Kuenn just waiting.

Now Sandy looks in. Into his windup, and the two-one pitch to Kuenn—swung on and missed, strike two. It is 9:46 p.m. Two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away.

Sandy into his windup. Here’s the pitch—swung on and missed, a perfect game!

When the game ended, Koufax faced reporters, one of whom asked, “Who gave you the most trouble?” Still spent from his evening’s work, Koufax quipped, “Torborg.” The rookie catcher lingered to get a Koufax autograph on something as a memento. The joke went past the scribes faster than Koufax’s final fastball shot through Kuenn’s swing.

The same home plate umpire who called Koufax’s 1964 no-hitter against the Phillies worked behind the plate for the perfecto. “He had a perfect game, too,” Hendley said of Ed Vargo. “Except for getting hit by a foul ball,” Koufax said. So call Vargo the only umpire in major league history to be hit by a foul calling two no-hitters by the same pitcher when he was behind the plate.

Koufax didn’t let Vargo’s work go unheeded, Leavy recorded. When the tumult and shouting dissipated in the Dodger Stadium clubhouses, Koufax handed Vargo a ball signed, “Thanks for a second great game, Eddie.” To which Vargo could reply, appreciatively, “The game called itself.”

Bart Hendley, the same son who sent Koufax the commemorative newspaper clip, looked at the ball and accompanying note Koufax sent around the 35th anniversary of the game. “Dad,” he said, “this ball is from that era.” It was, indeed—a 1965 Rawlings ball, showing the official signature of then-National League president Warren Giles.

Koufax and Hendley squared off again later that September. That time, Hendley beat Koufax, 2-1. The two pitchers posed for pictures at Wrigley Field before the game. An Internet search shows a copy of one showing Hendley to Koufax’s right, Hendley in his home Cubs uniform and Koufax wearing a Dodgers jacket over his road uniform. Koufax autographed the picture—on Hendley’s side.

Hendley became a physical education teacher and high school baseball coach near his home in Macon, Georgia, after his pitching career ended. He told Leavy he would have liked doing better in his own pitching career, but that he wouldn’t have wanted to be Koufax. Not even if the roles could have been reversed and he’d thrown the perfect game while Koufax settled for just missing a no-hitter on its backside.

“I am who I am,” Hendley said. “I’m from where I’m from. I understand he has a problem wherever he goes, he’s swarmed. I don’t want to switch places.” He admitted to Leavy he’d have liked to have something like a signed ball to pass to his grandchildren, but he didn’t expect something like that.

Then came the autographed newspaper clip to his youngest son, and that 1965 National League ball with the accompanying, handwritten note. “I’d often been asked what it was like to be the other guy,” Hendley told Leavy. “I wrote Sandy a note and I said I always responded, ‘It’s no disgrace to get beat by class’.”

What a game.