The perfect game

I know I’ve been a little sports-heavy on this blog, but indulge me a few words about Matt Cain. The stalwart grand old man (at the age of 27) of the San Francisco Giants pitching staff sums up everything that’s good and just and right about baseball and sports in general. After seven years of dependable, often dominating, pitching, Cainer pitched his first no-hitter as a major leaguer last night. Not just a no-hitter, but a perfect game, meaning that he allowed no opposing players (in this case, Houston Astros) to reach base. To put this in perspective for non-sports fans, only 22 pitchers in major league history have pitched a perfect game;  no Giant has ever done it. And the only other pitcher to strike out 14 batters in a perfect game, as Cain did, was Sandy Koufax. Look him up, if you’ve never heard the name.

What makes Cain’s perfect game so, well, perfect is that it really could not have happened to a better player and a better man. Cain’s calm, mature demeanor on the field has made him the rock of the Giants staff. He is a quiet but fearless leader, the team’s player union rep. He never whines, never showboats. He handled his recent contract renegotiation with class, never issuing threats or ultimatums. He has been a Giant his whole career, and, thanks to the front office’s commitment to pitching, will finish his career as one. He is the face of the Giants’ connection to Project Open Hand, the venerable San Francisco charity that provides food for people living with HIV and AIDS, sponsoring the annual fun run the Giants hold to raise funds for the group. In the Showtime documentary series about the Giants, “The Franchise,”  Cain came across as a devoted husband and new father, and he remains one of those players about whom you never hear a whiff of scandal. When asked what he did on the day of the perfect game, Cain said that it had been just another homestand day:  had breakfast with his wife and daughter, let “my crazy one and a half year old” run around in a park, you know, family stuff.

And that’s the thing about sports history, you never know when it’s going to happen. You turn on the TV or you head to the park for just another Wednesday night game, except, in baseball, you can never be sure you’ll be seeing just another Wednesday night game. There’s always the potential for ordinary to turn extraordinary. Sports is unscripted drama, but not in the manufactured way of reality TV. It’s a drama (or, often, comedy) that plays out spontaneously, yet no one could have written it better. When Cain, the archetype of the broad-shouldered, un-flashy hero — think Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper  —  took the perfect game into the fifth, and then the sixth, and seventh, the crowd came to life, standing and urging Cain on with every pitch. His teammates went into a hyper-focused state, making impossible catches to take away runs, digging as deep as Cain was to avoid committing errors in the field that would have permitted a man to reach base.

When the final out came, the usually stoic Cain pumped his arm and shouted,  the Giants mobbed him and the crowd wept and cheered.  Recently voted the most unsung pitcher in baseball by his peers in an ESPN Magazine poll,  Cain had finally gotten the recognition he deserved. Catcher Buster Posey, who’s cut from the same preternaturally mature cloth as Cain and who spent most of 2011 recovering from a horrific on field leg and ankle injury, entered the record books as Cain’s battery mate in perfection — the baseball gods taketh away, the baseball gods giveth back and say, “My bad, bro.”

And that’s another beautiful thing about baseball:  Cain was not laboring alone out there, he needed Posey and his teammates (by the way, the final score was 10-0, for a team that usually takes a week to score that many runs) to ensure his achievement. A perfect game may be etched in one man’s legacy, but it is not his legacy, or his accomplishment, alone.  Matt Cain knows it, which is why he sat at the podium answering press questions flanked by Posey on one side and outfielder Gregor Blanco, of the magnificent catch, on the other. And, which is why Matt Cain will have a statue outside AT&T Park someday and Barry Bonds won’t.

Bruce Springsteen wrote a couple of lines in “Long Walk Home” about America itself,  but they apply to baseball as well, and I’ve been thinking about them today as I replay the game in my head:  “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born/ It just wraps its arms around you, nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone.”  Perfect words for a perfect game.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012


One thought on “The perfect game

  1. Not. Milo. Miles. June 18, 2012 / 12:16 pm

    Very important to write up stories like this and I’m glad to read them.

    I’ve always hated the all-wised-up attitude that says every famous player or performer is a fraud — not just a flawed human being, but a lie. More and more, though, I’ve come to believe the corrupt practices of sport coverage are as much to blame as anything. For every Charlie Pierce who points out “hey, this Woods guy ain’t much like his image,” there’s an army of shusshers and cheerleaders who drown out the bad news. I suppose OJ should have been case closed forever, but there were lots of detractors about him if you looked under the rug even a little bit.

    Still refusing to be all-wised-up, I think I scaled back some emotional involvement in individual athletes after the truth came out about Kirby Puckett. Who wouldn’t like the inspirational story, right? And he so looked and played the part. As someone who also has to deal with glaucoma, I felt his forced retirement was a tragedy — now it seems like some glowering cloud of karma descended on him.

    So thanks for adding a clean little gem to the other side of the scale.

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