The Problem with Perfection

FOR ONE MAGICAL APRIL AFTERNOON, PHILIP HUMBER WAS FLAWLESS. BUT THAT RANDOM SMILE FROM THE PITCHING GODS CAME WITH A HEAVY BURDEN: THE PRESSURE TO LIVE UP TO A STANDARD NO ONE CAN MEET
December 31, 2012

Strange, how the mind can wander when you're alone on that mound, even with 22,472 screaming fans on their feet, the ballpark rocking like an old furnace about to explode. Ninth inning, history within reach, and he has a million thoughts in his head. He's thinking about how much he wishes his wife were here, sitting in the stands under this perfect bluebird sky. He's thinking about his grandfather, who died suddenly just days earlier: Papaw never liked baseball, but maybe he is somewhere watching. He's thinking about what will happen if this all ends the way he knows it will—is he supposed to fall to his knees in the grass? Cry? Stand there like a statue? Over the past 108 years, 18 others had wondered the same thing. What had they done at the moment they made history?

Strange, this calm that Philip Humber feels settling over him. All the struggles, all those long summers in the minors—they've all led to this moment. He has been a hot prospect and a bust, a starter and a reliever, a Tommy John reclamation project and a journeyman. But at age 29, his baseball story, the one he always imagined, is finally about to begin. This pitcher today, the one with the magical fastball and the unhittable slider and the unflappable cool? This is the pitcher he was always supposed to be.

Humber knows that this perfect day in April will be a great blessing. There will be a phone call from the President, an appearance on Letterman, a signed jersey from his hero Nolan Ryan, a tweet from Tim Tebow, an avalanche of interviews, enough memories to last a lifetime. He will become a hero on the South Side of Chicago and a member of pitching's most exclusive club. He will be immortalized in Cooperstown.

What he doesn't know is that this blessing will also be a curse.

The magic of the perfect game is that we never see it coming. But if there would ever be a day when one feels possible, even likely, it's April 21, 2012. We're in a new golden age of pitching, and on this Saturday five of the game's current greats—Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay, Jered Weaver and Stephen Strasburg—are taking the mound in different cities, a slate to make a pitching connoisseur hyperventilate. Then there is the White Sox--Mariners game: Chicago's Philip Humber versus Seattle's Blake Beavan, 1:08 Pacific time at Safeco Field. Of the day's 16 pitching matchups, it's the 13th most interesting. Maybe.

"Does Humber know he's pitching today?" a voice booms.

It is noon in Seattle, and White Sox bench coach Mark Parent has just walked by the starter in a hallway off the visitors' clubhouse at Safeco. Humber is tossing around a medicine ball and sweating through his shirt; he has already completed a morning workout in the weight room. Most pitchers sit like monks at their lockers on the days they start, headphones on, faces sober as headstones. But not Humber, who arrives at the ballpark four hours before the first pitch to get in a workout. This has been true going back to his days as a star at Carthage (Texas) High, where none of his teammates ever wanted to play catch with him because he lasered the ball 90 mph during pregame warmups.

The righthander's bullpen warmup doesn't go well—his breaking balls either tumble into the dirt or hang like laundry. As he takes the mound in the bottom of the first inning, he's thinking about something pitching coach Don Cooper said in a pitchers' meeting a day earlier: The Mariners' lineup is young and aggressive. Even the great Ichiro, never the most patient hitter, seems more anxious to swing than usual now that he is hitting third in the order. Humber tests out Cooper's theory right away. After the Mariners' first two hitters ground out, he gets ahead of Ichiro and, on a 1--2 count, gets him to line out weakly to shortstop. He needs only 12 pitches to get through the inning.

O.K., slider's working today, Humber thinks. Still, he doesn't feel particularly sharp. In the dugout between innings, he says to his catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, "That was real sloppy."

After Humber strikes out the side in the second, Pierzynski jogs by him as they head back to the dugout, taps the pitcher with his glove and says, "Keep throwing it sloppy."

They are Hall of Famers and journeymen, unforgettable alltime greats and middling talents who would otherwise be long forgotten, linked by a singular achievement. Cy Young, at age 68, said of his 1904 perfect game, "Of all the 879 games I pitched in the big leagues, that one stands out clearest in my mind." Don Larsen always said that there wasn't a day that he didn't think about the gem he threw in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, the most famous perfect game in history.

When Humber took the mound at Safeco Field, 18 pitchers in the modern era had thrown perfect games. Only one had fewer wins before their perfectos than Humber, who was 11--10 with a 4.06 ERA in 55 career games on the morning of April 21: Charlie Robertson, the 26-year-old White Sox righthander who was perfect against the Tigers in 1922, in just his fourth career start. Still, Humber wasn't exactly a nobody: A decade ago while at Rice, he was one of the NCAA's most dominant pitchers, and the Mets took him—over Weaver—with the third pick in the 2004 draft. "When I got drafted I thought, O.K., I'll go play 10 years in the big leagues, then shut it down and hang out at my ranch," he recalls. "I never thought about the minor leagues—the struggles, that never crossed my mind."

By the time he got his first major league win, with the Royals in 2010, Humber had undergone Tommy John surgery ('05); turned in a disastrous start for the Mets near the end of the their historic September '07 collapse; and been traded to Minnesota in the deal that brought Johan Santana to New York ('08). After the '09 season—he spent it mostly in the minors, had an 8.00 ERA in an eight-game call-up with Minnesota and then was granted free agency—Humber began to wonder if he had a future in the game. "If he had something else to fall back on, I think he could have walked away," says his father, Greg. "But baseball is all he's ever known."

For Humber, 2012 would be a pivotal year. He was coming off his first promising season: The White Sox had picked him up off waivers from the A's in January '11, and he went 9--9 with a 3.75 ERA and his best strikeout-to-walk ratio that year. Humber also knew he would be eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2012 season, so millions of dollars could be riding on his performance. That was no small concern. His wife, Kristan, was pregnant, and Humber would soon have a family to support. "Every player thinks about that," he says. "You're trying to get to that point where you can make money for your family. There's pressure because you're thinking in those terms."

The biggest problem with Humber wasn't his talent. It was, according to those close to him, the unrealistic expectations he set for himself. "He's a perfectionist," says Robert Ellis, a former major league pitcher who lived in Carthage and started mentoring Humber when he was 10. "You never wanted to tell him too much because he'd run with everything."

For much of his career, Humber was so tightly wound and wracked with doubts that he "felt like a folding chair on the mound." But here, on the mound in Seattle, his mind is as clear as the cloudless sky. Humber is on the attack: The Mariners hitters aren't taking good swings, and he decides there's no reason to let up on his slider. In the fourth inning, facing Dustin Ackley, Seattle's talented young second baseman, Humber throws a 1--1 curveball that he knows he's left too high. Ackley rips it to right, and Humber thinks he's given up his first hit of the game. He turns his head ... and sees rightfielder Alex Rios, positioned perfectly, take five steps back and to his right and make the catch.

It's the hardest-hit ball Humber will allow all afternoon.

At the Humbers' downtown Chicago apartment, Kristan, nine months pregnant, is sitting on a love seat in the living room. Philip's mother, Janet, is lying on the couch. The game is on TV, and as Philip walks off the mound after a 1-2-3 fifth inning, Kristan sees him shake his head. She knows what her husband, the perfectionist, is thinking: I'm not even at my best, and I'm still getting these guys out.

Humber looks at the scoreboard: He's thrown just 51 pitches through five innings. Have a chance to pitch deep into this one, he thinks, even though in his 29 previous big league starts he'd never pitched past the eighth inning. Most of the country has been watching the Red Sox--Yankees game on Fox, but when Humber is still perfect through six, the network goes to a split screen with the game in Seattle. Humber knows the seventh will be his toughest inning of the game: top of the order, third time through, and the hitters will be sitting back on his breaking pitches now. Seattle's leadoff hitter, Chone Figgins, does exactly that to start the inning, so Humber blows a fastball by him—at 94 mph, his hardest of the day—to strike him out.

After an easy 11-pitch eighth inning, Humber takes the mound for the ninth and begins to feel the weight of the moment. His first two pitches to the first batter, Michael Saunders, are fastballs that get away, high. The count goes to 3 and 0, Humber's first three-ball count of the day, and he exhales and says to himself, Do what you know how to do. The pitch is a fastball over the inside corner—his most difficult one of the day, he'll say later—which Saunders takes. Two pitches later he strikes out the centerfielder, who flails at a slider for the first out.

After pinch hitter John Jaso flies to right for the second out, the Mariners send up Brendan Ryan to bat for their number 9 hitter. Humber knows that he has the advantage with Ryan coming in cold off the bench. But the count again goes full, and with everyone in the park standing, a thought enters Humber's mind. A year earlier he watched Verlander's no-hitter in Toronto, and he remembers how the Tigers ace finished off the Blue Jays with one of the nastiest sliders he'd ever seen. Humber decides he's going to mimic that pitch now—but when he lets it go he thinks, I just walked him.

The ball shoots down and away, into the dirt, but Ryan is fooled. He tries to check his swing, but plate umpire Brian Runge signals a strikeout as the ball bounces away from Pierzynski. As Ryan turns to argue with Runge, Humber screams to his catcher, "Throw the ball! Throw the ball!" Pierzynski retrieves the ball, guns it to first baseman Paul Konerko, and Humber is suddenly a baseball immortal. "If Ryan goes there [instead of arguing]," Humber says, now, "I think he makes it."

The rest is a blur. Looking back, Humber remembers fellow White Sox starter Jake Peavy leaping onto his back, then the rest of the team following on the dog pile. He remembers the ovation from the road crowd as he walked off the field. He remembers sneaking into a storage closet in the clubhouse to call Kristan, who in those final nervous moments could feel the baby kicking. The first words out of his mouth: "Did I just send you into labor?"

Humber also remembers a quiet moment later in the locker room, when he thought, O.K., I'm here. I'm going to be good from now on.

Two months later the Giants' Matt Cain took the mound on a cool night in San Francisco and dazzled the Astros, striking out 14 in one of the most dominating perfect games ever thrown. "It felt like the World Series," Cain said. "But it almost felt a little bit louder, a bit crazier than that. I've never had that much excitement in every pitch, every strike, every swing."

Two months after that, on another sunny afternoon in Seattle, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez was also perfect, in a 1--0 win over the Rays. It was the first time in major league history that three perfectos had been tossed in a single season.

From 1900 to 1980, there were seven perfect games—on average, you were fortunate to see one every 11 years. Of the 14 perfect games since, five have come in the last three seasons. There are many explanations for the spate of perfect games and no-hitters: hitters are striking out more than ever, or maybe pitchers are flourishing in an era of steroid testing. Whatever the reason, there are those who say that the mystique of the perfect game is fading. In May 2010, unheralded A's lefthander Dallas Braden, a sub-.500 pitcher with a career ERA higher than 4.00—threw one. And now Humber. The perfecto has become a symbol of the randomness in the game.

For perennial Cy Young Award candidates such as Cain and Hernandez, a perfect game was a logical résumé entry, one more accomplishment to cross off the Great Pitcher's bucket list. For Humber, it was ... what? A fluke? A preview of things to come? Humber heard all this talk. "After the game it was like, I've got to prove that the perfect game was not a fluke—I almost felt like I had to prove that I deserved to be on that list," he says. "I was thankful for it, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that everyone knew that this wasn't a joke. I'm really good enough to do this."

The days and weeks after the game were a whirlwind. He appeared on Letterman, reading a Top 10 List. (No. 9 Thought That Went Through Philip Humber's Mind During His Perfect Game: "Thank goodness for my catcher, A.J. Pierzanky ... Piernoftski ... Pierzonski ... whatever.") He was in a hotel room in San Francisco when he was awakened by his chirping cellphone—it was a call from President Obama. The interviews became exhausting. "It was very intense for me in a short period of time—and I wasn't prepared for that." As he says, "It's just strange when your Wikipedia page goes from two paragraphs to three pages."

Every time Humber took the mound, he tried to be the pitcher he was in Seattle—but competence seemed unattainable, much less perfection. In his next start, he allowed nine runs in five innings. Two outings later he was bombed for eight runs in 2 1/3 innings. Every time he fell short of the new standard he set for himself, he pushed himself harder. He began spending more time than ever in the video room. He played with every imaginable grip for his pitches. He threw extra bullpen sessions. He ran more, lifted more. He asked teammates how they dealt with their struggles. He couldn't understand why he couldn't recapture the magic. "I just feel lost," Humber said to Cooper at one point. "I don't know what I'm doing out there."

Kristan had given birth to John Gregory Humber 10 days after the perfect game, and as the summer wore on, Humber brought his mound troubles home with him. "I was doing as much as I could with the baby, but at the same time I just wasn't mentally there," he says. One night he came home and Kristan said, "You're not yourself. This is hurting our family."

His slider was the key to his perfect game, so Humber kept coming back to the pitch, throwing it more than ever. The pitch is hard on the arm though, and Humber suspects his overuse of it led to an injury: In June he went on the disabled list with a strained right elbow. In his 10 starts after the perfect game and before he landed on the DL, Humber was 2--4 with a 7.47 ERA. After he returned to the rotation in July, he was no better: a 6.53 ERA in four starts, including a disastrous three-inning outing against Detroit in which he allowed two home runs to Miguel Cabrera. ("He can personally thank me for the Triple Crown," Humber says.) In early August he was banished to the bullpen. Rock bottom came on Sept. 4, when he entered in the fifth inning of a game against the Twins and gave up seven hits and eight runs while getting just one out.

The crowd at U.S. Cellular Field booed him off the field. Four months after throwing a perfect game, Humber was more lost on the mound than he'd ever been. With the White Sox locked in a race with the Tigers for the American League Central title, he appeared in only one more game, throwing a meaningless inning of relief. He finished the year with a 6.44 ERA—the highest of any pitcher in baseball with at least 100 innings. After the last game of the season, he toured the White Sox clubhouse and said his goodbyes. Humber figured his days in Chicago were over, and he was right. On Nov. 28 the White Sox placed him on waivers. A pitcher with a perfect game on his résumé was available to any team that wanted him.

Is this the end? The beginning? Philip Humber doesn't know what will come next in his baseball story. This he knows: He's done chasing perfection. He's done trying to be the pitcher with the magical fastball and the unhittable slider. He knows he's a 30-year-old pitcher with a fading heater and a curveball that doesn't bite like it once did, and he accepts that. He also thinks that he's a wiser pitcher who can still win games for a major league team. "Next time I throw a perfect game," he likes to joke, "I'll know how to handle it better."

On a chilly day in November, the Humbers were having a conversation in their kitchen in Tyler, Texas, about where Philip might find his next job. "It would be a dream if it were the Astros," Kristan said. That would be a kind of homecoming—Houston is where Humber dominated at Rice, and the city is just 200 miles from Tyler and from Carthage, the town where Humber grew up.

The next day, Humber's agent called with the news that the Astros had picked him up on waivers. When general manager Jeff Luhnow called and told Humber the team believed he could be a rock in its rotation, Humber said, "I think you're getting a good combination of a guy who has the skills to be a quality major league pitcher, and a guy who is really hungry to prove that."

He still has the jersey, the hat, the lineup card, the glove and a bunch of baseballs from that day in April—everything is in a box, shoved underneath a bed in the guest room. The perfect game is behind him. "There are very few guys in our game that are just dominant, and those are the guys that are making millions and millions of dollars," Humber says. "Most guys are like me—they have a lot of ability but haven't figured out how to exactly put it together consistently. I'm still searching for that. But I'm also one of the lucky ones. Even if I never find that place, I know I've made a mark. I know that perfect game is always going to be there."

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"O.K., I'm here," Humber thought to himself in a quiet clubhouse moment after pitching his masterpiece. "I'm going to be good from now on."

Every time he took the mound, he tried to be the pitcher he was in Seattle—but competence seemed unattainable, much less perfection.

Arms Race

What was the best pitching performance of the year? Barstool debate is one way to decide—or you can use Game Score, a metric invented by Bill James. It starts with a base 50, then adds or subtracts points for, among other things, innings, strikeouts and runs. (The top possible score for a nine-inning game is 114.) Here are the 10 best outings of 2012.

PHOTODARREN CARROLLPERFECT CHILD The arrival of his son, John, 10 days after his gem heightened the pressure Humber felt to pitch well and provide for his family.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)