The perfect game

Felix Hernandez became the third (!) MLB pitcher this season to throw a perfect game on Wednesday night, striking out five of the last six Tampa Bay hitters he faced in a very un-American League-like 1-0 victory. Hernandez, nicknamed "King Felix," thrust both arms skyward after the last out, and I'm betting that esoteric Rays skipper Joe Maddon cracked open one of the bottles in his renowned wine collection in Hernandez's honor - metaphorically, anyway.

But maybe not. I saw a perfect game once, when Keith Ramsey of the high-level Class A Kinston Indians beat the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the team I covered at the time, 6-0 on Sept. 7, 2004 at Coastal Federal Field. While I was silently rooting for history - the perfecto was the first for the Indians - Pelicans manager Randy Ingle most decidedly was not.

In the chair in front of Ingle's desk where I spent many a humid summer night, I ventured to ask the opposing skipper if any teeny tiny part of him was glad to see Ramsey get a groundout to shortstop to end his 27-up, 27-down outing.

I forget Ingle's exact response, but the look on his face spoke volumes.

A copy editor once asked me if baseball was my favorite sport. A little surprised, I replied no, and asked why. She said I wrote about it well, and with variety. I was flattered but also a little taken aback. Football had always been my favorite sport, and before a greed-driven bowl system made clear it would keep depriving college fans of a chance to crown a true national champion and money-driven offense-at-all-costs rules watered down the pro game I grew up adoring, that was true. And in some part of my soul, it still is. But the question got me to thinking.

There is much to love about baseball, and about writing about baseball. There is usually one defining moment that turns the tide in a baseball game, be it in the first inning or the ninth. Those heretics who consider baseball boring will tell you those moments are few and far between, but I believe that selective drama makes them all the more precious. If home runs or game-winning doubles were hit at the rate Don't-Breathe-Too-Hard-On-Him wide receivers catch deep balls or Who?-Me-Set-A-Screen two-guards launch 3-point attempts, their value would drastically decrease, and we'd all be poorer for it. Baseball makes you wait for the payoff pitch. You want to see something spectacular? You'll have to earn it. But oh, when you do ... 

Of course, I'm the girl who once had to make both a walk-off balk and a walk-off hit batsman sound exciting. I like to think I managed.

Covering 70-some home and occasional road games in minor league baseball was a highlight of my career, and possibly my life. I'm not going to say I was never bored, but I was handsomely rewarded for my hard-won patience. For every ultimately game-winning single in the fifth inning by the visitors, there was the champagne-drenched clubhouse celebration after the Pelicans - whose 2.51 team ERA led ALL of baseball in 2000 - clinched the Carolina League championship. For every rain delay or eight-run blowout, there was watching Adam LaRoche swing a bat and thinking this kid had something special, or turning around to interview another Kinston pitcher after a dominating performance and looking up, up, up until I finally got to the smiling face of 6-foot-7 CC Sabathia. 

For every extra-inning blown deadline in the press box, there were those conversations in Ingle's office, and for every trite, I know-I've-used-that-before lead, there was a bit of wry wisdom tossed my way by pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton, who crafted the Pelicans' impressive staffs, turning raw talent such as Jason Marquis and Adam Wainwright into refined material. Dal Canton - "DC" - was a former knuckleballer for the Pirates, Royals, Braves and White Sox whose biggest claim to fame may have been leading the AL with 16 wild pitches in 1974. He was a masterful teacher and an underappreciated comedian. He enjoyed a cold one or two after games, and I knew I'd been fully accepted into the clubhouse culture when I was offered one. His bobblehead is grinning lopsidedly at me as I type this.

DC died of esophageal cancer in 2008 at 66, and I sure hope heaven's baseball team has drafted a catcher who can block the ball by now.

I loved talking to DC. I loved walking around the warning track as the stadium lights were gradually extinguished. I loved the silent sprinklers raining glistening drops on the infield grass when I was the only person in the stands, having sneaked down for a quick post-interview seat. I loved spending season after season next to Ray, the venerable scoreboard operator who didn't miss a game for the Pelicans' first 13 seasons.

I loved spring training with colleague and columnist Terry Massey, whose sense of humor permeated everything he did and wrote. I loved how Janet Blackmon Morgan shot better pictures with her camera than I could ever create with my words. I loved, on game nights I didn't work, having a beer with Mike on the left-field berm. I loved imagining that post-game fireworks were his way, later on, of saying hi.

So maybe baseball is my favorite sport. And maybe a feat such as Hernandez's only confirms what those paying attention already know: It's a perfect game.

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