SPORTS

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May 21, 2004

Perfect game solidifies Johnson's place in sports history

I was sitting around Tuesday night with a few friends, chattering excitedly about one of sports' most difficult accomplishments when I heard these words: "Boy, perfect games are getting pretty common now, huh?"

Don't kid yourselves. It's true that there have been three in the past seven seasons, and there has been one every three or four seasons since 1981. But I don't think a perfect game has fallen out of the "freakishly rare" column quite yet. Don't think Randy Johnson doesn't know it, either.

The last three days have seen a well deserved burst of publicity for the 17th perfect game in major league history. All the same, there have been some questions about the level of Johnson's excitement over his landmark night. Boston starter Bronson Arroyo, who went 27 up, 27 down for the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox last year, commented in yesterday's The Boston Globe that Johnson "looked like he had just thrown a complete-game shutout. It didn't seem like it was a big deal to him."

Keep dreaming. Randy Johnson, aside from being the ugliest man in the game, is a fierce competitor and a student of baseball. He knows how amazing this is. Maybe the 40-year-old Johnson, the oldest man ever to achieve perfection, has gone beyond the need to shout to the rafters about it, but, trust me, he knows.

He knows that only 16 previous players have captured lightning in a bottle, including some legends like Sandy Koufax and Cy Young and some forgotten pitchers, like Charley Robertson and Len Barker. He knows that, for all their great performances, all-time greats like Nolan Ryan (seven no-hitters), Warren Spahn (one of the three best left-handers of all time), and Roger Clemens (like the Big Unit, still Hall of Fame quality in his fifth decade) never came close. Clemens, for all that he's done in the league, has never even thrown a no-hitter.

He knows the amazing confluence of events that needs to take place, and just how easy it is for it all to fall apart. Surely, when walking out for the ninth, Johnson was trying hard not to think about Mike Mussina losing his shot at history with two outs in the ninth against Boston in 2001 or Pedro Martinez retiring 27 in a row in 1995, only to lose it on a tenth-inning double when Montreal couldn't score any runs in support.

It's really hard to conceive just how fine the line is. One weak dribbler between the infielders, one borderline full-count call, and perhaps worst of all, one hop just a little sooner than your shortstop anticipates, and it's all over. In baseball, numbers have a habit of adding up; even the worst major leaguers get a hit once in every five at-bats. Sooner or later, it's inevitable that someone's going to break through, especially in a game like Tuedsay's, in which a cheap bunt would have brought the tying run to the plate.

Baseball writer James Buckley has calculated that a perfect game happens on the major league level once every 10,575 pitching match-ups. In other words, for every time a starter has thrown a perfect game, more than 21,000 others haven't. One thing we can certainly take away from these figures is that there is not a whole lot of precedent for this. It's cheap to try to take something away from Randy Johnson's moment by attacking his reaction. How can you be ready to handle something that's beyond inconceivable? How do you react to going beyond your wildest dreams?

Sports are far too often treated as a metaphor for life, but on this occasion, it may be appropriate. From day-to-day and from game-to-game, the bigger picture is what's important. We don't look for perfection; we look for the win. Maybe that's because we know that perfection is unattainable. Sometimes, once every few lifetimes, there is that one moment when every little thing just comes together. Those are the moments you remember.

It's commonplace to overhype events in sports. Between Kevin Garnett and Pat Tillman, the last month has certainly shown us that the games we play demand to be kept in perspective. Derek Fisher's last-minute bucket doesn't make him a hero any more than Kellen Winslow, Jr. actually deserves to call himself a soldier. We too often find ourselves praising players for doing what they're being paid to do or for giving back just a meager amount of all they're given. All the same, this game deserves the attention it's getting.

It's okay to lavish praise on the rarest of human achievements. Tuesday night, one of baseball's greats reached out and grasped the infinitesimally small. After nine innings of total domination, the Big Unit can now claim to know how it feels to create something so few ever have.

Randy Johnson can show as little emotion as he wants. He's earned the right to be stoic. Sometimes, that's the only way you can really react to perfection.