Monday, April 19, 2010

Once is Special, but Twice is Unforgettable

I start out watching every baseball game the same way: wishing for a no-hitter. Sure, a perfect game would be ideal, but I'm not greedy. The no-hitter will do just fine.

Now, of course, with this approach comes plenty of disappointment. Inevitably, in the first couple of innings, both teams will erase the zero from their hits column and my dream officially goes up in smoke.

But then there are those rare occurrences when everything falls into place. The pitcher has his A+ stuff working, the defense behind him is extraordinary, and the opposing lineup trots out a slew of strikers south of the Mendoza line. This perfect storm of events converged in Atlanta on Saturday night.

Ubaldo Jimenez entered the game against the Braves looking for something. As a 6-foot-4 flame throwing right hander, the sky has always been the limit for the Rockies' Jimenez. In his rookie year, he went 4 and 4. He came back the next season and finished 12 and 12. Finally, last year, he shed the "Even Steven" label. Jimenez reeled off nine wins after the All-Star break on his way to a 15-12 mark. Still, he wasn't quite on the baseball map.

Jimenez took the hill at Turner Field with intentions of announcing himself to the world. Two hours and thirty-one minutes later, his mission was accomplished. The game was over, the Braves had zero hits, and his name would forever be part of baseball lore.

But one thing always enters my mind as soon as the euphoria of the no-hitter dies down. What happens next??

Ubaldo Jimenez will get the ball again in about a week and in all likelihood, the game will be less than memorable. Our hero from just five nights prior will likely allow a hit early in the contest, grind out a workmanlike outing, and watch as the baseball spotlight shifts its focus to the next big thing. Jimenez will have had his moment in the sun, and that will be that.

There have been 222 no-hitters twirled since 1900. Of those 222, some were thrown by Hall-of-Famers (Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan) and some were thrown by virtual unknowns (George Culver, Juan Nieves). Some were thrown by cagey veterans (Bret Saberhagen, Dave Stieb) and some were thrown by fresh-faced rookies (Bobo Holloman, Bud Smith). Some completed their no-hitters as part of a perfect game (Kenny Rogers, David Wells) and some finished the job without recording a single strikeout (Ken Holtzman).

Scroll your way through the list and you can find just about any type of player you are looking for. The gamut of no-hitter hurlers runs from A to Z. But one man refused to be like the rest. Whereas his fellow mound men took the ball in their next start and simply faded into the sunset, this pitcher recaptured history just four nights later.

Johnny Vander Meer.

To any baseball trivia guy worth a hill o' beans, this name means one thing and one thing only: back-to-back no-hitters. Vander Meer did what nobody could do before him, and nobody has done since.

He threw a no-hitter, took a few nights off, grabbed the rawhide again, and did the exact same thing. Without question, Vander Meer's accomplishment remains one of the most remarkable and unique records in all of professional sports.

Ask a baseball historian to name a particular feat or record that they think will never be matched. Most times, they will point to Cy Young and his astronomical total of 511 victories. And yes, I am in complete agreement that this record will never be equaled, passed, or even sniffed by any pitcher ever again. But, with all due respect to Denton True and his otherworldly win total, the current climate of the game simply will not allow for this record to be chased down.

From 1890 to 1911, elite pitchers such as Cy Young routinely started more than 50 games a year. Racking up more than 30 W's (he did it five times) was not uncommon and earned you little more than a yawn during salary negotiations for the following season. Roy Halladay is considered to be a modern-day bulldog, refusing to come out of games until they are finished. And he has only pitched 316 times in his entire major league career. He coulda won 'em all and he'd still be about 200 victories short of Mr. Young.

The point being made is simple. 511 wins is an unbreakable record, but it is also literally unreachable. Vander Meer's mark is similarly everlasting, but not because the state of today's game dictates so. The opportunity for a double no-no will always be there for any pitcher with a ball and a glove; it is just very, very, verrrrry difficult to duplicate.

Sports trivia hounds remain well aware that not all records are held by the game's legends.

-Most consecutive free throws made?? 97 by the onetime Bad Boy, but mostly anonymous Micheal Williams.

-Only NHL goalie to record five straight shutouts?? Journeyman netminder Brian Boucher.

-Most passing yards in an NCAA game by a left handed quarterback?? None other than former Lions signal-caller Scott Mitchell with 631 for the Utah Utes in 1988.

Johnny Vander Meer also belongs on that list. His career win-loss mark reads 119 victories to 121 defeats. He was a part of one World Series champion, but he only contributed three October innings to the cause. By all accounts, his career as a whole was perfectly forgettable.

Except for those two days in June of '38. For those 18 innings, Vander Meer was bulletproof; you couldn't touch him.

Ubaldo Jimenez toed the slab on Saturday night and did something special. He threw a no-hitter. Thursday afternoon in Washington, he will have the opportunity to do it again.

Johnny Vander Meer has been alone at the top for 72 years.

It's about time he got some company...

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Terrific piece. As a Reds fan for over 40 years, I often wish I could have witnessed the Vander Meer games live. Still might be highlight of our woebegone franchise!! Great work.