Stealing Home Excerpt: On the verge of perfect

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In the stands we watched the game unfold that was perfect, so far

Every one of baseball's other hundreds of thousands of games started out with the same chance — They’re all perfect for awhile. An official perfect game emerges over a long cycle of actions, nurtured by luck and daring those odds. I was taking my own long shot at two weeks of happiness using eleven hotel nights to see eight ballparks—all of which I’d never tried to find in thick traffic or the dark of the night. Every check-in, every fill-up, every Quarter-Pounder we discovered in the right place at a time that fit our schedule, every parking space or subway train caught, they were all individual plays in our larger game. Two weeks of road tripping with Nicky might amount to a string of disappointments as the experience fell short of my expectation. Because when the mustard is too spicy or the game is played in a drizzle or your team doesn’t win, that’s not perfect.

I thought we’d found perfection at our game in Chicago at Wrigley. The Friendly Confines was my exacting destination, the turn-back point for our journey. Wrigley was planned, something I could reach for—and then later on, burnish like a cup pulled down off a mantel.

Being in those hot seats at the Ballpark in Arlington was something far different. The baseball gods were giving me a tease, a hint this trip could end on an even higher note. It was something I didn’t dare wish for, but also a thing I desired more than anything. A perfect game would be a historic sign that I was meant to be more than a weekend dad. A ballgame even better than Nicky’s very first trip to Wrigley with his stepdad. No pressure there, for me—just come home with a perfect game, so you can call it a perfect trip with your son.

Once a game is more than halfway over and one team has squeezed out no hits, or even taken a base on a walk or errors, the focus tightens on what remains. It takes 27 outs in a row to make a perfect game. After we marked down the first 15 on our scorebook, counting every pitch and marking every play, I started to look ahead at the nearly impossible back half of the game. Just a single “ball four, take your base” could spoil perfection. Rangers pitching had been hammered all year long, giving up more runs than any team in that season. Perfection was too much to expect as they went onto the field for the sixth.

No hits, no runs for Reds

It happened again this week, for the 300th time in MLB history: an official no-hitter. A no hitter is rare, indeed. About 210,000 Major League games have been played so far. So that's .007 percent of them with no hits and runs, over nine complete innings, by one or more pitchers. Combined no hitters help make up the 300. There’s another kind of no-hitter, an extra level. Only 23 no-hit games have ever been perfect games. No walks. No errors. No dropped third strikes, safe at first. A perfecto gives the losing team no baserunners. Twenty seven up, twenty seven down.

I’ve had the good luck to see one of those 23. Add a decimal place; the perfectos make up about .0001 percent of every game ever played. Add in the number of tickets available for every one of those games, and each seat is a 6400-1 shot to be there. When you get three seats together at a perfecto, it’s a 19,000-1 shot.

We had three together on that night in July of 1994. Twenty-five seasons ago, Perfect Game Number 14 emerged before my wife Dottie, my son Nick, and me, all of us holding our breath then cheering at the end in The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

This week the Reds took their futile swings for all nine innings in Oakland. That 2-0 result was perfect for awhile, like all games are perfect as they begin. None of the Reds reached first safely until the fourth inning, when the A’s third baseman bobbled a ball and Jesse Winker arrived safe at first. After Mike Fiers and the A’s recorded eleven straight outs to start the game, the perfecto died at the hands of an A’s fielder.

It’s just one pitch (ball four, take your base) or one bobbled ball away from disappearing. The perfecto is the rarest outcome in all of sports. The good fortune that my family found in those 1994 seats is at the heart of my memoir Stealing Home. To beat those 19,000-1 odds, I had to be on the road with Nicky when he was 11 and in Little League, where we saw nine games in eleven days. It was the unscheduled tenth game, though, that was the perfecto. Only nine more have been achieved in the 25 years since our night. But Number 24 could happen today. Perfect is elusive, but it’s out there.