Scenes from my bulletin board: Being Perfect

From our start, we struggle with the idea of being perfect. We are taught that “practice makes perfect,” but that “nobody’s perfect.” Philosophers tell us, wisely — they’re not philosophers for nothing — that “perfect is the enemy of the good.” Yet the pursuit of perfection is widely expected. It’s considered noble. Nobody aims to land just short of perfect, even if we know that the target is, ultimately, unreachable.

Still, once in a while — and this is what the pursuit is all about — you can almost taste perfection. You hit the perfect iron, stand transfixed as the ball arcs silently toward the green, takes a natural hop, falls into a controlled roll and snuggles close to the pin. (It has, on occasion, happened even to me.)

You write what you think is a pretty-close-to-perfect sentence, or put together maybe the best Power Point ever produced, or you work that steak until it’s exactly medium. Just the way you like it. Perfect.

But, always, always, you miss the putt or shank the next shot, or you mix a metaphor with a simile or misspell committment, or you can’t get the damn projector in the damn conference room to work, or that juicy New York strip that held such mouth-watering promise ends up drier than, I don’t know, a blogger looking for a metaphor. Dammit.

The truth is, it’s not that hard to come close to perfection. Maybe touch it. But getting there and staying there for any meaningful stretch of time … now that’s a trick. Pull that off and you’re flirting with perfection.

perfect1Fifteen years ago, 15 years ago next month in fact, I witnessed something as close to perfection as someone can get. To be clear: I witnessed it. As far as perfection goes, I’m still chasing it.

More than 2,400 games are played in a Major League Baseball season every year. That fluctuates some, with rainouts and strikes. Plus, the season used to be a little shorter; the 162-game schedule has been around only since the early 1960s. (We’re talking about regular-season games, not exhibitions or postseason games.)

If you add it all up, in the 100+ years that professional batters have tried to mess up the little game of catch between pitchers and catchers, more than 200,000 regular-season games have been played. In all that time — and a single baseball game, if you haven’t noticed, takes a long, long time to play, especially lately — and in all those games, pitchers have thrown what is known as a “perfect” game only 23 times.

Quick calculation: For 200,000 games, that’s .0015 percent of all that time. And there’s now been way more than 200,000 games.

On May 18, 2004, a 6-foot-10 40-year-old left-hander for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Randy Johnson (^), strode to the mound in Atlanta’s Turner Field and mowed down the hometown Braves in a way that left batters literally laughing in their powerlessness and left Johnson — “The Big Unit,” he was called, one of the game’s greatest nicknames — laughing at the kid-like exuberance of his catcher after the final out. (That finish called below, by the inimitable Skip Caray.)

Twenty-seven batters up, 27 down. No hits. No errors. No walks. Nobody reached base.

Baseball perfection.

Nobody, really, came close to getting a hit that night. No miracle defensive play saved Johnson’s gem. No fly ball — he gave up only seven of them — reached the warning track and no ground ball (seven of them, too) was struck particularly hard. Johnson went to a three-ball count (it’s not a perfect game if a pitcher walks someone) just once. He had 13 strikeouts. Of his 117 total pitches — that’s barely more than four pitches in every at-bat — 18 clocked in at better than 97 mph. This was 15 years ago, before everybody threw 100 mph fastballs all the time.

It was later, after the game,in the clubhouse, that I first fully considered what I’d seen. I knew, of course, that Johnson had thrown a perfect game. Heck, from about the fourth inning on, everyone in the stadium knew — with Johnson’s background, with the stuff he had that night — that something special was happening.

But it didn’t occur to me until more than an hour after that joyous last strikeout, watching Johnson sitting quietly at his locker sipping at a canned beer and staring off into the mostly abandoned visitors’ clubhouse, what he must have been thinking right then. He still is the oldest pitcher ever to throw a perfecto. I remember wondering how reaching the unattainable — “Nobody’s perfect,” says everyone — could possibly feel.

Nobody, it’s true, is perfect. Most of us have trouble getting through a day that’s anywhere close to it.  Some of us still can’t grill a steak right. Ever.

But for a little over two hours on that May night 15 years ago, one man playing a kid’s game showed that, with a lifetime of hard work and dedication, some magical measure of perfection is possible.

I thought about that a lot in the days following that night. I think about it still, every now and then, on days when I’m feeling pretty good and on those days when pretty good seems an impossible reach.

Sure, nobody’s perfect. Not all the time. But what if you could touch it every once in a while? Or, what if, maybe just once? Just once?

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