So far in 2011, Justin Verlander has been great on the mound for the Detroit Tigers. He’s actually managed to make nearly throwing a no-hitter look easy. But it’s not easy, and getting late into a game with a no-hitter is not a normal occurrence, unless your name was Nolan Ryan.
Throwing a perfect game is even more rare, one of the toughest things to do in sports. Last season, Tiger fans were nearly treated to that rare event when Armando Galarraga retired the first 26 batters in a June game at Comerica Park against the Cleveland Indians. Galarraga raced to the bag to receive a throw from first baseman Miguel Cabrera for out #27, but umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe. A decision that was proved to be incorrect by instant replay. Thus, Tiger fans and Galarraga were disappointed.
Almost 30 years earlier, another Tiger pitcher felt that disappointment, narrowly missing a perfect game after he retired the first 26 batters he faced. Milt Wilcox never had the stuff that Verlander has, in fact he was never a pitcher that opposing teams ever really feared. But he was an effective starter for Detroit for the better part of ten seasons in a Tiger uniform.
I can recall watching the game where Wilcox nearly etched his name in history back in April of 1983. It was a televised game and I was watching the broadcast with my parents. I was a 15-year old baseball loving nerd who had nothing else to do on a Friday night. Not much has changed, by the way. Now I’m a 43-year old baseball loving nerd who spends most of my Friday nights at home watching the Tigers when my kids will let me have the game on.
On this night in Chicago, Tiger broadcasters George Kell and Al Kaline would have to dance carefully around the ultimate baseball taboo: the fact that inning-by-inning, out-after out, Wilcox was approaching history. Baseball people are superstitious folks, and mentioning a no-hitter or a perfect game while it’s in progress is a no-no (excuse the pun).
Lance Parrish was behind the plate handling the catching chores for Wilcox, and as if that weren’t enough pressure as Milt was retiring batter after batter in ho-hum fashion, Parrish played a central role in the Tiger offense. His double in the second started a two-run rally. In the sixth, Parrish doubled again to drive in Howard Johnson. The Tigers stretched their lead to 6-0 in the top of the eighth inning on RBI singles by Glenn Wilson and Chet Lemon. By that time, Wilcox had retired 21 straight in a surprisingly manner.
Through seven innings, the right-handed Wilcox had coaxed nine groundball outs, four harmless pop-ups, six strikeouts, and two line drives hit directly to first baseman Rick Leach and left fielder Larry Herndon. Herndon had to drift slightly to his right to catch the liner off the bat of Harold Baines, the best pure hitter in the White Sox lineup. But it was still a routine play. Not a single Chicago batter had come close to a base hit. In the sixth frame, Wilcox had mixed his fastball and patented palmball to strike out the side.
By the seventh inning, I had given up trying to sit still. When the Tigers would come to bat, I’d retreat to my bedroom where I’d leaf through my Baseball Encyclopedia, that 10-pound tome of diamond knowledge that I was constantly reading. I was the only teeanger who could spend 10 minutes telling you the details of the 1923 World Series.
When Wilcox climbed the mound again for the eighth, the linescore flashed across the bottom of the screen, and Kell drawled, “The Tigers have 13 hits tonight – 13 more than the White Sox.” Nary a peep was heard from Kaline.
Sparky Anderson had replaced HoJo at third base with Tom Brookens, the scrappy little infielder who most reminded Sparky of himself, and who had a glove that seemed to have velcro in it. But Brookens wasn’t needed: Wilcox struck out Greg “The Bull” Luzinski, got Ron Kittle to fly harmlessly to Lemon in center, and struck out Greg Walker looking to end the inning. Three outs to go and now my heart was racing. I think my Dad’s was too. My Mom had left the room, as she always insisted that when she entered the room during a Tiger game the other team got a rally going.
By this time we were rooting for the Tigers to make outs so we could see Milt get back out there as quickly as possible. He seemed destined to join the exclusive ranks of the perfecto club. Once the Tigers were out in the top of the ninth, I returned to the living room to watch history unfold.
Looking every bit as if he was nervous, Wilcox got Carlton Fisk to loft a lazy fly to Herndon for the first out. Chicago manager Tony LaRussa (who’s still managing in the big leagues today!) sent up his first pinch-hitter, Mike Squires. That’s when I started to sweat. Squires was a Michigan native and if our hearts were going to get broken I just knew it’d be by someone from Kalamazoo. But Squires actually looked more nervous than Wilcox and he grounded weakly to Leach at first base. Two outs, one to go!
At that moment, Jerry Hairston strolled to the plate. Hairston was a professional pinch-hitter, it’s waht he did. Never in his 14-year career would he ammass as many as 300 at-bats in a season. He was paid to sit on the bench and be ready to hit. Though he was a slight-built man, the sight of him was terrifying. My Dad didn’t know it, but I knew it from squinting at the tiny lines in the Baseball Encyclopedia: Jerry Hairston thrived on pressure. It was the primary skill that kept him in the big leagues. Hairston was a baseball lifer who was the grandson of a major league player, the son of a major league player, and would father two future big leaguers: Jerry Jr. and Scott. The Hairstons could just plain hit.
Wilcox took one big loop around the mound before stepping onto the rubber to face Hairston. Just one out from perfection, it seemed almost impossible that Wilcox had come this far. Surely teammates Jack Morris and Dan Petry, both with much better stuff and more talented right shoulders, would have been more likely to throw a perfect game. But it was Wilcox, the fiesty #3 starter in Sparky’s rotation who was on the brink of history.
Wilcox fired a waist high fastball – a pitch that he got a little too high – and Hairston sliced his bat through the strike zone and lined the ball to dead center field. It landed several feet in front of Chet Lemon, whose body language personified the frustration of thousands of Tiger fans. And by this time many of the White Sox fans in Comiskey Park were disappointed too. They’d missed out on seeing history, too.
Wilcox hung his head near the mound and smiled a half smile. He’d made a bad pitch to the one guy on the White Sox team who was paid to come in late and make pitchers pay. He had lost his perfect game. Hairston simply stood on first base casually, having done his job. Wilcox retired the next batter on a grounder to first base. He had a shutout and a one-hitter, but he had lost the perfect game and the chance to forever be remembered.
I was so mad when Hairston lined that single, I threw something at the television (my sock? my slipper? the item has been lost in my memory). My Dad didn’t even bother to chastise me. He was mad too. We’d spent the better part of Friday night watching a Tiger pitcher do the unthinkable. Then, just when he was poised to seal the deal, he’d fell one pitch short.
It underscores the difficulty of pitching a no-hitter and a perfect game. Justin Verlander may make it look routine, and he may throw another no-hitter or even two or three, but it’s not easy. Just ask Milt Wilcox.