Of All the Perfect Games
History was made last night at the World Baseball Classic for Team Israel – and for me too.
I have been going to baseball games for 61 years, and it has been a blessing.
I have seen just about everything. Well, sure. Anyone who has attended baseball games for 61 years has seen just about everything. You keep showing up, you’re bound to catch a little baseball history now and then. I did.
I was eight when my father took me to Yankee Stadium for the first time to see the Detroit Tigers on May 27, 1962. I was already a fan from the year before, the glorious Yankees summer of ’61, but this was my first time live. A tradition was born: going to a baseball game.
Five years later, now 13, I had a dream one Saturday night that Mickey Mantle – my first childhood hero – would hit a home run the next day.
When I woke up, I told my mother, “I gotta go to the game.” I had never been to a game by myself.
“Okay, if you find a friend, you can go,” she said. It was Mother’s Day, and her Mother’s Day gift to me, because sure enough, Mantle did hit a home run that day. And not any home run. It was his 500th home run, May 14, 1967, and another tradition was born: catching historic moments.
Nine years later, I saw Chris Chambliss hit the walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to win the AL pennant. A year after that, I was at Game 6 of the World Series when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs. I was at Gaylord Perry’s 300th win in 1982, in Seattle; Reggie Jackson’s 500th HR at Anaheim Stadium in 1984; and Rod Carew’s 3,000th hit at the same venue in 1985.
I bribed a ticket-taker to get into Shea Stadium in 1986 when Mookie Wilson hit a ground ball through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the World Series. And I took my 14- and 11-year-old daughters to a game in 2010, when they and I saw Alex Rodriguez hit his 600th HR.
And at every one of those games, I was cheering the outcome.
So yes, I have been blessed, with 61 years of the most incredible memories a passionate baseball fan could ever hope for, in the process of attending over 600 Major League and minor league games. It never gets old.
But there was one thing I had never seen: a no-hitter. It was my baseball Holy Grail. I was desperate. Maybe I was being a chazer, a greedy pig who was overreaching. But dammit, baseball owed me that much after all I had given it.
Twice I saw no-hitters broken up in the ninth inning, and a couple of times, I just missed seeing one. There was one July 4 morning when my friend Jonathan called and asked if I wanted to go to the Yankees game that afternoon. Dave Righetti was pitching and was off to a 9-3 start, so why not.
No, I said, there’s this chick – as we used to say – who I’ve dated a couple of times, and her family has a cabana on Atlantic Beach. We’ll be alone, and it’s July 4, and it’ll be a perfect romantic spot for some action.
“Sure,” he said, laughing. “Go ahead, enjoy – it’s not like Righetti will pitch a no-hitter.”
Except he did. When I turned on the transistor radio to listen in when we got to the beach, the first words I heard from Phil Rizzuto were, “and that’s two outs in the eighth, and they’re on their feet cheering,” and I knew immediately: Righetti was throwing a no-no. When I got home, Jonathan had a message on my answering machine: “Oh, Elli, you blew it. You blew it bad.”
A year and a half later I was living in Los Angeles. The Angles were playing at home on the last day of the 1984 season, and I thought about going to say goodbye to baseball for five months. But sometimes your head’s not in the game, so I stayed home. And Mike Witt threw a perfect game. That night I said to myself, “Oh, Elli, you blew it. You blew it bad.”
There have been 275 no-hitters and 21 perfect games since 1901. Not many. But you would think that somehow in all those games by all those teams I saw in all those ballparks across America before making aliyah, I would have caught one.
But I never did.
Until last night.
And I wasn’t cheering the outcome.
In a four-pitcher perfect game combined with a mercy-rule win, Team Israel was beaten 10-0 by Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. It had never happened before. One of the WBC rules is that a team leading by 10 runs after the seventh inning wins automatically. So, when Puerto Rico scored their 10th run in the bottom of the eighth, that was that, 24 up, 24 down.
I sat stunned. Of all the perfect games in all the ballparks in all the world, this one walks into mine. I just wanted to cry. I did cry. Not for the loss, difficult as it was to see my country lose like that, but for the inability to cherish baseball history.
I could have handled a perfect game thrown against my Yankees, even rooted for it in the ninth. But my country? I finally understood why so many players are eager to sign on to play in the WBC. It’s a different brand of loyalty. From the kishkes.
There is already much debate on Twitter: if there weren’t 27 outs, was it really a Perfect Game? A Modified Perfect Game? A WBC Perfect Game? A Mercy Perfect Game? It’s certainly a one-off. As ESPN baseball columnist Jeff Passan tweeted shortly after the game:
Here’s a sentence that has never been written before and won’t ever be written again: A baseball team just finished a perfect game with a walk-off hit in the eighth inning. Puerto Rico 10, Israel 0. Four pitchers combine for the first perfect game in WBC history. Mercy-rule win.
That is assuredly true, not only because a perfect game is rare enough, but having another one end after eight innings of perfect baseball plus the winning team ahead by 10 runs is too much to twin together. So no, it is not happening again.
The theoretical argument of whether the team could have gotten a hit in the top of the ninth is a lovely baseball discussion. Of course, it could have. It could also have scored 11 runs in the top of the 9th because, of course, that’s baseball. But what were the odds?
Not good. In the bottom of the fifth inning, with 12 outs to go, Javy Baez stood on second with a leadoff double. At that moment in time, according to MLB’s Savant website, the odds of Team Israel winning the game were 1.4%. Puerto Rico scored three more times that inning, and by the top of the 7th, it was at 0.1%. In the middle of the eighth, it was 0.0%. True, that was about winning, not scoring a run, or even getting a hit. But Puerto Rico was so dominant, and Team Israel so overpowered that nothing seemed possible.
“That was the best in-person, [sitting-]in-a-dugout pitched game I’ve ever seen,” said pitching coach Josh Zeid, an original member of Team Israel from 2012.
The players were somber after the game, needless to say. “There was no crying in the locker room, but it was silent,” one team member told me. “More silent than a regular loss. Deadly silent. We didn’t lose over one thing, so nobody is beating themselves up over one pitch. It was just a shitty game; everyone’s gonna make it go away. But no one was putting music on. I mean, it was silent.”
The players shuffled out of the locker room alone or alongside one teammate and headed to the bus waiting outside to take them to their hotel. To a man, their heads were held high, and all they talked about was looking ahead to tonight’s game against the Dominican Republic.
But it was tough as the innings, and the outs, kept mounting.
“I think we honestly had some good at-bats throughout the game, and it definitely felt more like we’re about to get the first guy on, and that’s gonna lead to another guy,” said shortstop Ty Kelly, a Team Israel veteran who played in the 2017 WBC and on Israel’s Olympic team. “A lot of guys had plus counts, and then ended up not taking advantage of it.”
By the fifth inning, like in all no-hitters, it now became “a thing” to watch for. Or avoid.
“I think everyone’s obviously aware of what’s going on, but also trying not to fixate on it too much,” said bullpen coach Nate Fish, another Team Israel foundation stone who goes back as far as playing in the Israel Baseball League in 2007. “Just play the game – get a guy on, and get another guy on, and see what happens. You’re just playing the game; you’re aware of what’s going on, but you’re just trying to go one guy at a time, like always.
“On some level, you know what’s going on, and on some level, you’re just playing the game the same way you always play it. Everyone knows what’s going on. Occasionally a guy would come up and say, ‘we haven’t had a guy on yet, have we?’ And I would say, ‘no, we haven’t.’ And then we would stop talking about it.”
By the time the team went to sleep, it was behind them, and that’s not surprising because they are all professionals, the very elite of the elite in their chosen field. That is what pros do: they shake it off. That is how the sport is built, and that’s how they are built.
But they all know they are the talk of the sports world today, that history was made, and it was not pretty. They will never forget it. And I finally got my no-hitter, a bitter-tasting blessing. I won’t forget it, either.