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Miracle On The South Side

Aug. 03, 2009
Aug. 03, 2009

Table of Contents
Aug. 3, 2009

LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
BASEBALL
TOUR DE FRANCE
  • Alberto Contador won his second Tour, but on a thrilling final Saturday, Lance Armstrong held his own on Mont Ventoux and confirmed that, at 37, he's back in gear

RECRUITING
PRO FOOTBALL
OLYMPICS
Departments

Miracle On The South Side

On an afternoon when everything could've—maybe should've—gone wrong, everything went perfectly right. Here's why Mark Buehrle's masterpiece goes down as this season's coolest moment

By baseballstandards Chicago White Sox lefthander Mark Buehrle is not superstitious, buton the days he pitches at home, he always stops at the Shell station, the onewhere Kingery Highway meets Interstate 55 southwest of Chicago, and buys aRockstar energy drink. Last Thursday, Buehrle was pitching at U.S. CellularField against Tampa Bay, but on the way to the park that morning from his homein Lemont, Ill., he forgot about his ginseng fix and drove right past thestation. Only when he was 10 minutes from the stadium did he look down at thecup holder in his BMW and notice it was empty. "Oh s---," he muttered.He texted his wife, Jamie, "Forgot my drink. I'll definitely losetoday."

This is an article from the Aug. 3, 2009 issue

The beauty of aperfect game is that no one ever sees it coming. When White Sox centerfielderDewayne Wise showed up at the ballpark and did not find his name in thestarting lineup, he didn't even bother to stretch. When backup catcher RamonCastro showed up and did find his name in the starting lineup, he hurriedlywent over signs with Buehrle—fastball, cutter, change. "You know,"Buehrle said, "I throw a curveball, too." Castro, a May acquisitionfrom the Mets who was catching Buehrle for the first time, had no idea.

With the WhiteSox playing a day game after a night game and facing a doubleheader the nextafternoon in Detroit, they trotted out a lineup that looked more like a splitsquad at spring training. In addition to Castro, Gordon Beckham, who was in theminor leagues two months ago, was starting at third and regular third basemanJosh Fields was making only the seventh start of his career at first. Buehrle,meanwhile, was facing a batting order with four All-Stars in a ballpark that issurrendering more home runs per game this season than Colorado's Coors Field. Acontrol pitcher, Buehrle's command was so poor in his pregame bullpen sessionthat he told Castro, "Don't worry. It will get better."

It would become aperfect day, made more so by all its imperfect elements. Buehrle is a scruffy,doughy, sleepy-eyed, 38th-round draft pick who was cut twice in high school,was the No. 4 starter on his junior college team and rarely touches 90 mph.He's also one of the most underappreciated pitchers of his generation, acontemporary Catfish Hunter who won 122 games before his 30th birthday, yetgoes largely unrecognized away from Chicago's South Side. He no-hit the Rangerstwo years ago and would have had a perfect game if not for a fifth-inning walkto Sammy Sosa, whom he promptly picked off. The difference between a no-hitterand a perfect game, as Buehrle discovered, is tissue-thin but significant.Including the postseason, the majors have had 263 no-hitters but only 18perfect games. "Perfection is hard to reach," his pitching coach DonCooper says. "Think of all the ways you can get on base." A walk,error, hit batsman, wild pitch on a strikeout, even catcher's interference canturn something that comes along about as often as a naked-eye comet intosomething fairly common.

In the clubhouselast Thursday, A.J. Pierzynski, normally the starting catcher, asked Buehrle,"Why don't you throw a no-hitter?" Buehrle answered, "For what?I've already done that." Pierzynski replied, "Then why don't you throwa perfect game?"

In October we areclustered around televisions from the first pitch of the first inning, awaitinghistory. But on a lazy Thursday afternoon in July we are at work, at camp, atthe beach, and if there is history to be made, it will sneak up on you. JohnBuehrle, Mark's father, was driving from his home in St. Charles, Mo., toMark's 1,500-acre ranch 90 minutes away in Louisiana, Mo. In the off-seasonMark hunts deer on the ranch and rides four-wheelers with his wife, Jamie. Heproposed to her there, on a deer stand, both of them in camouflage.("Dad," John recalls his son telling him, "I love a girl incamo.") John was planning to watch the game on Mark's TV, then mow thegrass and set up some food plots with corn and soybeans for the deer. But whenhe flipped on the television, the DirecTV satellite dish couldn't find asignal. He called his wife, Pat, for the first update of the day.

Buehrle hadthrown 10 pitches in the first inning, eight for strikes, and no ball left theinfield. His longtime agent, Jeff Berry, who was watching at the CreativeArtists Agency office in Manhattan, said to himself, This could be aninteresting day.

Buehrle has asuite at U.S. Cellular Field that he shares with reliever Scott Linebrink sotheir kids can crawl around together during games. The Buehrles have twochildren, five-month-old Brooklyn and two-year-old Braden, but day gamesconflict with Braden's nap schedule, so Jamie brought only Brooklyn. SinceJamie did not need a romper room for her newborn, she moved down to the scouts'section behind home plate, next to Lisa Dergan Podsednik, wife of centerfielderScott Podsednik. Buehrle sent Jamie two texts early in the game to see whereshe had gone. He finally noticed Brooklyn in the same red dress she wore to theAll-Star Game parade, with MY DADDY'S AN ALL STAR printed on the front. Buehrleis only 30, but he is already thinking of retiring after his four-year, $56million contract expires in 2011 so he won't miss any more highlights ofBrooklyn and Braden growing up.

In the firstthree innings a couple of trends started to develop. Buehrle, who usuallythrows about 40 cutters a game, practically abandoned his best pitch. He wasrelying almost exclusively on changeups and curveballs, the pitch Castro didnot know he could throw. He was also managing the game as if he were Steve Nashleading a fast break. Buehrle is a famously quick worker, known to sometimesstart his windup before a catcher flashes the sign. "There are times I'vemissed pitches," Fields says. "I'll be scraping the dirt and all of asudden you hear the glove pop." The Rays allowed Buehrle to set the pace,and Castro allowed him to maintain it—catch the ball, fire it back, put downthe sign, rinse and repeat. Buehrle never shook him off, and the Rays rushedthrough their at bats like a team in a hurry to get out of town. "Buehrledominates you with tempo," Cooper says. "His rhythm and the rhythm ofthe game met. It was a perfect storm."

The drama ofno-hitters and perfect games builds gradually, a slow boil starting in thesixth inning. Fields, who had snapped a 1-for-20 slump with a grand slam in thesecond, jogged out to his position for the top of the sixth, already thinkingthe unthinkable. A former quarterback at Oklahoma State, Fields plotted how hewould tackle Buehrle in a celebratory dog pile while protecting Buehrle's leftarm.

With two outs inthe sixth Buehrle went to 3--0 on Tampa Bay shortstop Jason Bartlett, and hewas confronted with the dilemma that faces any pitcher in the midst of aperfect game. He could walk Bartlett and sacrifice the perfect game for theno-hitter, or he could attack him and gamble everything against a hittersitting on the fastball. Cooper has lectured Buehrle in the past to be cautiouswhen behind in counts, but Buehrle despises walks, so he threw two consecutivefastballs to Bartlett for strikes and induced a grounder to short on a 3-and-2count. As Buehrle walked to the dugout, he thought about texting Jamie againand telling her to have the neighbor wake Braden and bring him to the ballpark,but he was afraid of jinxing himself, so he held off.

Back in St.Charles, Pat Buehrle was being just as careful. John still could not get asignal at Mark's house, so he was regularly calling Pat, and she was answeringthe phone with the greeting, "Mark still has his you-know-what."

As the White Soxgot ready for the seventh inning and Beckham went to retrieve his glove,Buehrle tried to catch the rookie's attention. Buehrle had noticed in the sixththat whenever Beckham threw the ball from third base back to the mound, he wasaverting his eyes and trying to hold back a smile. "Question of theday," Buehrle said. "Think I'm going to do it?" Beckham pretendednot to hear.

Meanwhile, Wisehad left the bench and gone down to the batting cage under the stadium to takea few cuts, unaware of what was developing outside. With one out in the seventhWise heard over the radio "19 up, 19 down," but he was sure theannouncer was mistaken. A frequent late-game defensive replacement, he checkedthe scoreboard for himself. "I'd better go get loose," he said,hustling to the weight room. When the Rays' Evan Longoria flied out to end theseventh, Cooper turned to manager Ozzie Guillen and said, "Now it's real.Game on." Castro ran to the dugout and told pitcher Jose Contreras, "Hehasn't missed a spot all day. I think he's going to do it." Contrerasreplied, "Shut the f--- up." Castro's legs were starting to shake.Jamie's stomach was starting to churn. But the usually expressive Guillen wasnot getting emotional. He ordered reliever Tony Peña to be ready to face thesecond hitter in the eighth, Ben Zobrist, prompting some eye rolling in thebullpen.

Buehrle gotZobrist to foul out, at which point the satellite dish on the ranch in Missourifinally found a signal, and John was able to watch his son. Next up was PatBurrell, who hit a ball so hard down the third-base line that it nearly struckumpire Laz Diaz. It took Diaz a moment to compose himself, but he ruled theball foul, by about six inches. "I had a heart attack in 2000 and had apacemaker installed," John says. "I'm glad I did that because I don'tknow if my heart could have made it through this game."

After Burrelllined out to third, White Sox announcer Ken (Hawk) Harrelson pleaded withviewers on CSN to "Call your sons! Call your daughters! Call your friends!Call your neighbors!" Harrelson wrote in his score book,"Perfect!!!" When Buehrle went to his clubhouse locker for a breather,Pierzynski pulled up the seat next to him, shaking his head. "Onemore!" Pierzynski said. "One more!" To break the tension,Pierzynski caught Buehrle's warmup pitches before the ninth inning and firedthe first one back over his head.

Wise had workedup a decent sweat in the weight room by the time Guillen told him that he wasgoing to play centerfield in the ninth; the starter, Podsednik, would shift toleft. As Wise ran out to center, White Sox reliever D.J. Carrasco askedLinebrink in the bullpen, "How would you like to be DeWayne Wise right now?He's probably hoping the ball isn't hit to him." In fact Wise was thinkingexactly the opposite. "I was hoping I could make a diving catch in theninth," Wise says.

Wise has bouncedaround the major leagues for seven seasons, and when his batting average dippedunder .200 this summer, he became a convenient target for disappointed WhiteSox fans. After the club demoted centerfielder Brian Anderson to Triple ACharlotte this month and kept Wise on the roster, Guillen received e-mailsclaiming the move was racially motivated because Wise is African-American andAnderson is white.

Since high schoolWise has always played a shallow centerfield, and he crept a few steps closerbecause he could not bear the thought of Buehrle losing a perfect game on ablooper. The first batter of the ninth was Gabe Kapler, one of the few Rays whohad made decent contact that day. On the 105th pitch of the game he hit a highdrive deep to left centerfield. In the bullpen Linebrink bowed his head. In thedugout Guillen said, "Home run," and prepared to summon Peña. In thestands Lisa Podsednik asked Jamie, "Oh, my God, is that Scott?" Wisedid not look at the ball. He turned and ran to the point where he thought itwould land, to the mural on the eight-foot wall of Billy Pierce, the White Soxpitcher who had a perfect game ruined with two outs in the ninth 51 yearsago.

Wise hit thefence as the ball hit his mitt, but because the collision was so violent, Wisedidn't feel the ball enter his glove. He could only see it, a snow cone quicklyspilling out of its wrapper. He fell and the ball fell, but in a motionreminiscent of the Giants' David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII, he stuck out hisleft hand and snagged it. Beckham put both arms over his head and leaped"like we won the World Series." It was the best play ever in a perfectgame, trumping the ninth-inning diving catch that rookie Rangers centerfielderRusty Greer made on July 28, 1994, against the Angels, snaring a sinking linerhit by Rex Hudler and preserving Kenny Rogers's perfecto.

Buehrle, whostarted the game throwing fastballs in the mid-80s, was at 90 in the ninth.Having gotten 26 consecutive outs and needing one more, Castro crouched behindhome plate. You could make out his jersey number, separated by the strap on theback of his chest protector—27. When the last out was made, on a grounder toshortstop Alexei Ramirez, Buehrle placed both hands on his head. Fields rushedin for the tackle but, like a quarterback, pulled up. Cooper cried, as didHarrelson, as did Bob Dunahue, Buehrle's coach at Francis Howell North High,who was watching at the T.G.I. Friday's in St. Charles. Jamie came down to thefield, and since she was shaking, Guillen offered to hold Brooklyn. The Raysstood at the edge of their dugout and applauded.

Forget the energydrink. Buehrle was the Rockstar. The President called, the commissioner wrote aletter, Letterman requested an interview. Buehrle's father asked him on thephone, "Do you realize what you just did?" "No, Dad," Buehrlesaid. "I don't."

On the 40-minuteflight to Detroit that night he tried to figure it out. Buehrle sat on theplane with Jim Thome and Paul Konerko, and they calculated the percentage ofmajor league games that have been perfect. According to baseball-reference.com,779,118 starts had been made, which meant all but .0023% had at least thesmallest of blemishes. Put another way, there's been a perfect game thrown oncein every 43, 284 opportunities.

Not many sportsallow for perfection. A football team could win 56--0, and the coaches wouldstill pore over videotape finding flaws. Tennis players don't win every point,boxers don't land every punch, golfers don't birdie every hole. As Buehrle satin the dugout at Comerica Park on Saturday, deconstructing his unforgettableafternoon and debating whether he still wants to retire in two years—"MaybeI won't," he said with a smile—Tigers manager Jim Leyland walked over andput a hand on his left shoulder. Leyland seemed to be searching for a word, asynonym for perfect. "Beautiful," he finally said. "Justbeautiful."

1 Inning of WorkOne Play That'll Live Forever
Wise had entered the game as a defensive replacement only moments beforeKapler's drive sent him to the wall in left center, where his leaping grab (andbare-fisted save) to preserve Buehrle's gem made for the most dramatic catch inany perfect game.

32 Minutes ofWork that Defied Belief
Buehrle has always been one of the quickest workers in baseball, sometimesbeginning his windup even before the catcher flashes his sign. His perfect gamewas no different, requiring barely more than a half hour of time spent on themound, before a much longer celebration began.

16 UnblemishedGames in the Modern Era
How rare was Buehrle's masterpiece? Since 1900, which is recognized as thebeginning of the modern era, there have been four fewer perfect games than U.S.presidents, the most recent of whom put in a congratulatory call to the WhiteSox lefthander shortly after the game was over.

Now on SI.com
Joe Posnanski on the most underappreciated pitcher of his era atSI.com/bonus

"Mark's rhythm and the rhythm of the gamemet," says Cooper. "It was a perfect storm."
PHOTOPhotograph by JIM PRISCHING/APLUCKY 27 Castro, who had never before caught Buehrle, made all the right calls on a day when the Rays went 27 up, 27 down.THREE PHOTOSJERRY LAI/US PRESSWIRETWO PHOTOSPHIL VELASQUEZ/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/APPHOTOJIM PRISCHING/APPHOTOSCOTT BOEHM/GETTY IMAGESPHOTORON VESELY/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES