Sunday May 30th, 2010

One night earlier this month, as I was walking on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx as the game inside Yankee Stadium was winding down, I noticed a police van parked at the curb, officers milling about, and a palpable buzz among a small crowd. Only then did I see the cause of the mild commotion: two of only 13 men still walking this earth who threw a perfect game in the big leagues. David Wells, a bear of a man, costumed appropriately all in black, including a camp shirt that could make do for propelling a sailing vessel, and David Cone, ever youthful and catlike, dressed nattily in coat and open-collared shirt, mixed easily among the fans -- though they be legends among them.

This was shortly after Oakland lefthander Dallas Braden had joined them in the Perfect Game Club, so I asked Cone if he had called the latest club member. "No, not yet," Cone said.

Wells and Cone had spent the game regaling fans with stories and humor in the Bank of America suite at Yankee Stadium. Wells, the cutup that he is, entertained them by showing off his tattoos, even if it took rolling up his pant legs. Being World Series champions as Yankees, as were Wells and Cone, is enough to have stamped your passport to popularity, if not the land of Never Have to Buy Another Meal. Author of a Perfect Game, however, is a ticket to immortality.

Last night, watching Roy Halladay join the Royal Order of Perfection, I thought about Wells and Cone, standing shoulder to shoulder on a Bronx street corner, the halo effect of their perfect games forever in place. The simple connection, of course, is that Halladay is one of them, the owner of his own rare halo -- now the 20th pitcher to throw a perfect game, and the 14th still among us.

But I remembered a more powerful and personal connection between Wells and Halladay, something that made me think there was a little bit of Wells with Halladay Saturday night in Florida. That Halladay might throw a perfect game ranks far below the shock factor index than one by Braden. Halladay is the presumptive best pitcher in baseball, who brings an attacking style to the mound that brings perfection into play -- not only because he is so difficult to hit, but also because the man abhors bases on balls.

One day in spring training, long after his teammates had gone for the day and Halladay still was dressed in his workout gear, I sat with Halladay at a picnic bench behind the Phillies' training complex. It was then that I learned that Wells had been something of a mentor to Halladay.

"Wells?" I blurted back, only partially succeeding in stifling a laugh. The gout-ridden Wells was known to be the least dedicated pitcher when it came to fitness. He infamously bragged before Game 5 of the World Series that fitness was overrated -- and then he had to come out of Game 5 after one inning, unable to touch his toes because of a back ailment.

Halladay, of course, might be the fittest pitcher in baseball, a guy who keeps to such a maniacal training regimen that the Blue Jays had to give him his own swipe card at the Rogers Centre; he would show up before staff and custodial crews. I had assumed Halladay's mentor was former Jays teammate Roger Clemens, who also was known for his devotion to fitness. Not so, he told me, when I asked who helped shape him as a pitcher.

"He's a guy that was tough for me to approach when I was younger, just because of who he was," Halladay said of Clemens. "You look back on those things and wish you took more chances. I think Pat Hentgen was pretty instrumental in that. He's a very easy guy to approach and often approached me before I went up to him. And I started to pick up part of that."

And then he gave a nod to Wells.

"David Wells was another guy who was really good at those types of things," Halladay said. "But until you actually start doing it and applying it, you miss a lot of what they're telling you."

Wells?

Even Halladay had to laugh.

"He talked a lot to me about his confidence -- and his confidence didn't come from working out obviously," Halladay said with a chuckle. "It came from the belief he had in himself and just going out and doing it."

In 2000, when Halladay was 23 years old, he posted the worst ERA in the history of baseball by anybody who threw at least 60 innings: 10.64. In that same season, he watched Wells led the league with 20 wins and a walk rate of just 1.2 bases on balls every nine innings. Wells accomplished what would become one of Halladay's annual goals: he finished with fewer walks than games started. He also led the league in complete games for a second straight year.

"David Wells, I remember watching him numerous times," Halladay said. "He wouldn't walk a guy all game. He'd just go after guys. That's the way he did it."

And that is how Halladay operates, and never better than how he did it Saturday night. No runs, no hits, no errors, no walks, no baserunners, no concession.

Using fastballs, curveballs, changeups and cutters, Halladay took the same approach he always does: full speed ahead. His cutter, his signature pitch, was particularly filthy. He threw 24 of his 29 cutters for strikes, at low-90s velocities that mimicked his four- and two-seam fastballs -- until they would dart away from the barrel of a bat. He has the kind of late movement that made Greg Maddux such a magician, only at higher speeds.

"For me it's never about finishing games," he told me in Florida. "It's about going as long as I can and not worrying about, 'Is it the seventh inning yet?' and 'Do I have a chance to win it?' You just take the ball and go. I think as a starter that's extremely important: that you're not worried about the innings, the quality starts, the wins or the losses. It's just, go out and do your job."

If you were born in 1981, you might think these Perfect Game things are fairly common. In 29 years almost as many men have thrown perfect games (11) as have managed the Yankees (12). It's not as easy as it looks, kids.

It's strange to think that in 100 years starting with 1880 there were nine perfect games, and in the 29 years since then there have been 11. There are more games, of course, because of several rounds of expansion, and thus more opportunities for perfection.

But how do you explain this: two perfect games in 20 days? Three perfect games in 10 months? Weird.

What is not so odd is that Halladay has joined the club. Let's face it; he's the perfect choice to be perfect. You are watching a master craftsman at the top of his game, a man who has worked exceedingly hard to keep his body at a physical peak.

Baseball is a game so richly bound in subtleties and nuances that when most players finally gain the wisdom and experience to start to figure it out, they have lost the physical tools to fully exploit such knowledge. Not Halladay. At 33, he has managed to obtain that perfect nexus of mental and physical peaks.

I asked him how often he believes he can throw a darting, speeding baseball and have it wind up exactly where he intends.

"I always believe I can," he said. "It doesn't always end up there. [But] I feel like every time I make a pitch I can get it where I need to get it."

For one night, he was perfect. It was, in its own way, given this great sense of belief in himself and the confidence to attack hitters, an homage to Wells, his former teammate. Ten years later -- 10 years after the kid with no confidence and a 10.64 ERA thought he was pitching himself right out of baseball - the lessons Halladay learned from Wells were never more apparent, never better displayed.

It is a night that will live forever for him, a night people will ask about someday years from now on Broad Street, Yonge Street and any street between. Only 19 others know such glory. Welcome to the club.

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