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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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Kristan had given birth to John Gregory Humber 10 days after the perfect game, and as the summer wore on, Humber brought his mound troubles home with him. "I was doing as much as I could with the baby, but at the same time I just wasn't mentally there," he says. One night he came home and Kristan said, "You're not yourself. This is hurting our family."

His slider was the key to his perfect game, so Humber kept coming back to the pitch, throwing it more than ever. The pitch is hard on the arm though, and Humber suspects his overuse of it led to an injury: In June he went on the disabled list with a strained right elbow. In his 10 starts after the perfect game and before he landed on the DL, Humber was 2--4 with a 7.47 ERA. After he returned to the rotation in July, he was no better: a 6.53 ERA in four starts, including a disastrous three-inning outing against Detroit in which he allowed two home runs to Miguel Cabrera. ("He can personally thank me for the Triple Crown," Humber says.) In early August he was banished to the bullpen. Rock bottom came on Sept. 4, when he entered in the fifth inning of a game against the Twins and gave up seven hits and eight runs while getting just one out.

The crowd at U.S. Cellular Field booed him off the field. Four months after throwing a perfect game, Humber was more lost on the mound than he'd ever been. With the White Sox locked in a race with the Tigers for the American League Central title, he appeared in only one more game, throwing a meaningless inning of relief. He finished the year with a 6.44 ERA—the highest of any pitcher in baseball with at least 100 innings. After the last game of the season, he toured the White Sox clubhouse and said his goodbyes. Humber figured his days in Chicago were over, and he was right. On Nov. 28 the White Sox placed him on waivers. A pitcher with a perfect game on his résumé was available to any team that wanted him.

Is this the end? The beginning? Philip Humber doesn't know what will come next in his baseball story. This he knows: He's done chasing perfection. He's done trying to be the pitcher with the magical fastball and the unhittable slider. He knows he's a 30-year-old pitcher with a fading heater and a curveball that doesn't bite like it once did, and he accepts that. He also thinks that he's a wiser pitcher who can still win games for a major league team. "Next time I throw a perfect game," he likes to joke, "I'll know how to handle it better."

On a chilly day in November, the Humbers were having a conversation in their kitchen in Tyler, Texas, about where Philip might find his next job. "It would be a dream if it were the Astros," Kristan said. That would be a kind of homecoming—Houston is where Humber dominated at Rice, and the city is just 200 miles from Tyler and from Carthage, the town where Humber grew up.

The next day, Humber's agent called with the news that the Astros had picked him up on waivers. When general manager Jeff Luhnow called and told Humber the team believed he could be a rock in its rotation, Humber said, "I think you're getting a good combination of a guy who has the skills to be a quality major league pitcher, and a guy who is really hungry to prove that."

He still has the jersey, the hat, the lineup card, the glove and a bunch of baseballs from that day in April—everything is in a box, shoved underneath a bed in the guest room. The perfect game is behind him. "There are very few guys in our game that are just dominant, and those are the guys that are making millions and millions of dollars," Humber says. "Most guys are like me—they have a lot of ability but haven't figured out how to exactly put it together consistently. I'm still searching for that. But I'm also one of the lucky ones. Even if I never find that place, I know I've made a mark. I know that perfect game is always going to be there."

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