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The Problem with Perfection
Albert Chen
December 31, 2012
FOR ONE MAGICAL APRIL AFTERNOON, PHILIP HUMBER WAS FLAWLESS. BUT THAT RANDOM SMILE FROM THE PITCHING GODS CAME WITH A HEAVY BURDEN: THE PRESSURE TO LIVE UP TO A STANDARD NO ONE CAN MEET
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December 31, 2012

The Problem With Perfection

FOR ONE MAGICAL APRIL AFTERNOON, PHILIP HUMBER WAS FLAWLESS. BUT THAT RANDOM SMILE FROM THE PITCHING GODS CAME WITH A HEAVY BURDEN: THE PRESSURE TO LIVE UP TO A STANDARD NO ONE CAN MEET

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They are Hall of Famers and journeymen, unforgettable alltime greats and middling talents who would otherwise be long forgotten, linked by a singular achievement. Cy Young, at age 68, said of his 1904 perfect game, "Of all the 879 games I pitched in the big leagues, that one stands out clearest in my mind." Don Larsen always said that there wasn't a day that he didn't think about the gem he threw in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, the most famous perfect game in history.

When Humber took the mound at Safeco Field, 18 pitchers in the modern era had thrown perfect games. Only one had fewer wins before their perfectos than Humber, who was 11--10 with a 4.06 ERA in 55 career games on the morning of April 21: Charlie Robertson, the 26-year-old White Sox righthander who was perfect against the Tigers in 1922, in just his fourth career start. Still, Humber wasn't exactly a nobody: A decade ago while at Rice, he was one of the NCAA's most dominant pitchers, and the Mets took him—over Weaver—with the third pick in the 2004 draft. "When I got drafted I thought, O.K., I'll go play 10 years in the big leagues, then shut it down and hang out at my ranch," he recalls. "I never thought about the minor leagues—the struggles, that never crossed my mind."

By the time he got his first major league win, with the Royals in 2010, Humber had undergone Tommy John surgery ('05); turned in a disastrous start for the Mets near the end of the their historic September '07 collapse; and been traded to Minnesota in the deal that brought Johan Santana to New York ('08). After the '09 season—he spent it mostly in the minors, had an 8.00 ERA in an eight-game call-up with Minnesota and then was granted free agency—Humber began to wonder if he had a future in the game. "If he had something else to fall back on, I think he could have walked away," says his father, Greg. "But baseball is all he's ever known."

For Humber, 2012 would be a pivotal year. He was coming off his first promising season: The White Sox had picked him up off waivers from the A's in January '11, and he went 9--9 with a 3.75 ERA and his best strikeout-to-walk ratio that year. Humber also knew he would be eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2012 season, so millions of dollars could be riding on his performance. That was no small concern. His wife, Kristan, was pregnant, and Humber would soon have a family to support. "Every player thinks about that," he says. "You're trying to get to that point where you can make money for your family. There's pressure because you're thinking in those terms."

The biggest problem with Humber wasn't his talent. It was, according to those close to him, the unrealistic expectations he set for himself. "He's a perfectionist," says Robert Ellis, a former major league pitcher who lived in Carthage and started mentoring Humber when he was 10. "You never wanted to tell him too much because he'd run with everything."

For much of his career, Humber was so tightly wound and wracked with doubts that he "felt like a folding chair on the mound." But here, on the mound in Seattle, his mind is as clear as the cloudless sky. Humber is on the attack: The Mariners hitters aren't taking good swings, and he decides there's no reason to let up on his slider. In the fourth inning, facing Dustin Ackley, Seattle's talented young second baseman, Humber throws a 1--1 curveball that he knows he's left too high. Ackley rips it to right, and Humber thinks he's given up his first hit of the game. He turns his head ... and sees rightfielder Alex Rios, positioned perfectly, take five steps back and to his right and make the catch.

It's the hardest-hit ball Humber will allow all afternoon.

At the Humbers' downtown Chicago apartment, Kristan, nine months pregnant, is sitting on a love seat in the living room. Philip's mother, Janet, is lying on the couch. The game is on TV, and as Philip walks off the mound after a 1-2-3 fifth inning, Kristan sees him shake his head. She knows what her husband, the perfectionist, is thinking: I'm not even at my best, and I'm still getting these guys out.

Humber looks at the scoreboard: He's thrown just 51 pitches through five innings. Have a chance to pitch deep into this one, he thinks, even though in his 29 previous big league starts he'd never pitched past the eighth inning. Most of the country has been watching the Red Sox--Yankees game on Fox, but when Humber is still perfect through six, the network goes to a split screen with the game in Seattle. Humber knows the seventh will be his toughest inning of the game: top of the order, third time through, and the hitters will be sitting back on his breaking pitches now. Seattle's leadoff hitter, Chone Figgins, does exactly that to start the inning, so Humber blows a fastball by him—at 94 mph, his hardest of the day—to strike him out.

After an easy 11-pitch eighth inning, Humber takes the mound for the ninth and begins to feel the weight of the moment. His first two pitches to the first batter, Michael Saunders, are fastballs that get away, high. The count goes to 3 and 0, Humber's first three-ball count of the day, and he exhales and says to himself, Do what you know how to do. The pitch is a fastball over the inside corner—his most difficult one of the day, he'll say later—which Saunders takes. Two pitches later he strikes out the centerfielder, who flails at a slider for the first out.

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