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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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Strange, how the mind can wander when you're alone on that mound, even with 22,472 screaming fans on their feet, the ballpark rocking like an old furnace about to explode. Ninth inning, history within reach, and he has a million thoughts in his head. He's thinking about how much he wishes his wife were here, sitting in the stands under this perfect bluebird sky. He's thinking about his grandfather, who died suddenly just days earlier: Papaw never liked baseball, but maybe he is somewhere watching. He's thinking about what will happen if this all ends the way he knows it will—is he supposed to fall to his knees in the grass? Cry? Stand there like a statue? Over the past 108 years, 18 others had wondered the same thing. What had they done at the moment they made history?

Strange, this calm that Philip Humber feels settling over him. All the struggles, all those long summers in the minors—they've all led to this moment. He has been a hot prospect and a bust, a starter and a reliever, a Tommy John reclamation project and a journeyman. But at age 29, his baseball story, the one he always imagined, is finally about to begin. This pitcher today, the one with the magical fastball and the unhittable slider and the unflappable cool? This is the pitcher he was always supposed to be.

Humber knows that this perfect day in April will be a great blessing. There will be a phone call from the President, an appearance on Letterman, a signed jersey from his hero Nolan Ryan, a tweet from Tim Tebow, an avalanche of interviews, enough memories to last a lifetime. He will become a hero on the South Side of Chicago and a member of pitching's most exclusive club. He will be immortalized in Cooperstown.

What he doesn't know is that this blessing will also be a curse.

The magic of the perfect game is that we never see it coming. But if there would ever be a day when one feels possible, even likely, it's April 21, 2012. We're in a new golden age of pitching, and on this Saturday five of the game's current greats—Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay, Jered Weaver and Stephen Strasburg—are taking the mound in different cities, a slate to make a pitching connoisseur hyperventilate. Then there is the White Sox--Mariners game: Chicago's Philip Humber versus Seattle's Blake Beavan, 1:08 Pacific time at Safeco Field. Of the day's 16 pitching matchups, it's the 13th most interesting. Maybe.

"Does Humber know he's pitching today?" a voice booms.

It is noon in Seattle, and White Sox bench coach Mark Parent has just walked by the starter in a hallway off the visitors' clubhouse at Safeco. Humber is tossing around a medicine ball and sweating through his shirt; he has already completed a morning workout in the weight room. Most pitchers sit like monks at their lockers on the days they start, headphones on, faces sober as headstones. But not Humber, who arrives at the ballpark four hours before the first pitch to get in a workout. This has been true going back to his days as a star at Carthage (Texas) High, where none of his teammates ever wanted to play catch with him because he lasered the ball 90 mph during pregame warmups.

The righthander's bullpen warmup doesn't go well—his breaking balls either tumble into the dirt or hang like laundry. As he takes the mound in the bottom of the first inning, he's thinking about something pitching coach Don Cooper said in a pitchers' meeting a day earlier: The Mariners' lineup is young and aggressive. Even the great Ichiro, never the most patient hitter, seems more anxious to swing than usual now that he is hitting third in the order. Humber tests out Cooper's theory right away. After the Mariners' first two hitters ground out, he gets ahead of Ichiro and, on a 1--2 count, gets him to line out weakly to shortstop. He needs only 12 pitches to get through the inning.

O.K., slider's working today, Humber thinks. Still, he doesn't feel particularly sharp. In the dugout between innings, he says to his catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, "That was real sloppy."

After Humber strikes out the side in the second, Pierzynski jogs by him as they head back to the dugout, taps the pitcher with his glove and says, "Keep throwing it sloppy."

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