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The Perfect Game

July 09, 2012
July 09, 2012

Table of Contents
July 9, 2012

LEADING OFF
THE MAIL
EDITOR'S LETTER
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
Where Are They Now?
Departments

The Perfect Game

In his first big league outing, John Paciorek had three hits, two walks, four runs scored and three RBIs. He never played in the majors again

You know, we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, Well, there'll be other days. I didn't realize that that was the only day."

This is an article from the July 9, 2012 issue

—ARCHIBALD (MOONLIGHT) GRAHAM, in the 1989 film Field of Dreams

THE PERFECT major leaguer rises every day before 3 a.m., as moonlight comes in the windows of the one-story house he shares with his wife and the youngest of his eight children in San Gabriel, Calif. After a shower he crosses into the den and begins his morning ritual of reading, thinking and writing.

The room is lined with boxes and papers and has a television on which every night he watches major leaguers have imperfect careers filled with all the days that he never had in his. Notable too is what's missing. There are no framed photos of him in uniform. No baseballs or bats as mementos. Once a month he will get a card in the mail from someone who wants his autograph, and he always obliges, even though he's not entirely sure that what he did is all that remarkable.

But what John Paciorek accomplished as an 18-year-old on Sept. 29, 1963, was not just remarkable; it was also historic. In his first game in the major leagues, playing rightfield for the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros), Paciorek went to bat five times and reached base every time, on three hits and two walks, scored four runs and drove in three more. It was one of the finest first games by a ballplayer in major league history.

Then, like the ghostly form of Moonlight Graham, an outfielder who played a half inning in the field without an at bat for the 1905 New York Giants and whose fictionalized version haunts Field of Dreams, Paciorek simply vanished into the endless cornfield of forgotten ballplayers.

John Paciorek was marked for baseball success since he was a boy growing up just off Six Mile Road in Detroit, the oldest of eight children. When John was 13, a local bird dog named Lou DeNunzio gathered some of the area's best players, including John and future Tigers great Willie Horton, for a showcase at Tiger Stadium. Paciorek hit two doubles, one to rightfield and one to leftfield. He has never forgotten the sound—"like an explosion," he says—of his wooden bat meeting the ball in the almost empty ballpark, or the sense of power he felt when he did it.

When Paciorek entered St. Ladislaus High in Hamtramck, Mich., in the fall of 1958, he was a lock for the varsity as a freshman. He weighed only 119 pounds, so to get bigger and stronger he began eating anything he could get his increasingly massive hands on, sometimes as many as five sandwiches for lunch, and, despite his father's protestations that he not lift weights, began pumping anything heavy he could find. By his senior year he was 6'2" and 200 pounds—an all-state football player with scholarship offers from Alabama and Michigan, an all-state basketball player and, of course, a baseball star.

Education never held much allure for Paciorek; becoming a major league baseball player was all he wanted. "I thought I was as good as anybody I've ever seen, and I wanted to prove it," Paciorek recalls more than a half century later.

Paul Richards, the general manager of the expansion Colt .45s, then wrapping their first season, went to Michigan in 1962 to persuade Paciorek to sign with Houston. "None of us had ever been to a restaurant before," recalls Tom Paciorek, the next-oldest child and a future major leaguer himself. "They took us to this fancy restaurant in Detroit. We ate steaks, and when they asked John [if he] wanted anything else, he said, 'Yeah, I'll take another one of those steaks.'"

In September, Paciorek accepted Houston's offer of $45,000, an enormous amount of money for the son of a Plymouth factory worker. From that bonus, $15,000 went to help his family; at the insistence of his father the Colt .45s also included a scholarship fund to someday pay for John's college education. The 18-year-old Paciorek spent $2,000 on a powder-blue Malibu convertible, which he drove that fall, full of expectation, to the instructional league at Apache Junction, Ariz.

There, he roomed with Rusty Staub, who would go on to have a formidable 23-year career with Houston, the Expos, Tigers and Mets. Paciorek had an obsessive morning workout routine that he accompanied with claps and counting. This so annoyed Staub that one night when he arrived home around 9:15 to find Paciorek sound asleep, he grabbed a bat and began swinging it over the bed. The whooshing sound awoke Paciorek. "What the hell are you doing?" he cried.

"As long as you keep working out in the morning and clapping when I'm sleeping, I'm going to do this," said Staub. "Get the hell out of the bedroom!" cried Paciorek.

If Staub found his roommate's idiosyncracies annoying, he nonetheless marveled at his talent. "You can never understand how good an athlete he was," says Staub. "He had it all, everything."

Paciorek agreed, which made it all the more devastating when, due to a surplus of bonus babies on Houston's major league roster, he was sent to Modesto of the Class C California League the following spring so he could get playing time. "I always had that cocky feeling that I belonged in the big leagues," he says. "Like I was supposed to be there, like it was part of my life."

Paciorek put even more energy into his already maniacal workouts. "I wasn't going to be satisfied until I was the best I could be," he says. He did handstands with neck rolls so he could make his neck as strong as Mickey Mantle's. He wore a metal vest and ankle weights when he ran. And he made a game of trying to beat the third baseman to the dugout from his position in rightfield. "Gotcha," he'd say as he sped past. "They'd tell me not to do that anymore because I was embarrassing them," he says.

That summer Paciorek injured his right shoulder while throwing. Unable to work out, he took to stretching by hanging from the dugout roof. He did chin-ups to keep in shape. Soon his back began to hurt as well, and when the minor league season ended in September, Paciorek went to Houston to have it checked out. The doctors told him his back pain was from a pinched sciatic nerve caused by an abnormality he'd had since birth. They said the condition would benefit from rest—something that was not in the game plan of a future major leaguer.

While Paciorek was recuperating in Houston, though, a member of the Colt .45s' front office approached him and asked if he could play the next day in the team's season finale, an afternoon game at Colt Park against the Mets. Paciorek, who had not been part of the September call-up of minor leaguers but was highly regarded in the organization, had begun to feel better and quickly accepted. On Sept. 27 Houston had sent out an all-rookie lineup to give fans a glimpse of what it hoped were brighter days ahead. Two days later Paciorek was one of eight rookies to take the field against the Mets, including future All-Stars Staub and Jimmy Wynn and a second baseman destined for Cooperstown named Joe Morgan.

Although it was 82° that day and Paciorek hadn't played in weeks, he vowed to himself that he would play as if he felt perfect. In the top of the second he made what he remembers as two running catches in right centerfield. He came to the plate for the first time in the bottom of that inning, drawing a walk in front of a two-run triple that put Houston ahead 2--0.

In the bottom of the fourth Paciorek came up with the bases loaded and the Mets leading 4--2. He singled between third base and shortstop to tie the game. He later scored on a sacrifice fly.

In the fifth Paciorek singled to left again to drive in another run and increase Houston's lead to 8--4. He scored two batters later. He walked and scored again in the sixth, and when he came to bat in the eighth, the crowd of 3,899 gave him a standing ovation. He singled to left one more time, capping his perfect day: 3 for 3, two walks, three RBIs, four runs scored and two putouts in a 13--4 Colts win.

Later that day Paciorek was watching people talk about him on television. Everybody agreed: Forget Staub. Forget Wynn. Forget Morgan. Paciorek was Houston's star of the future. While he watched, though, he wasn't so sure. His back was beginning to ache again. He thought, I don't know if I'll make it.

Paciorek returned to spring training with the Colt .45s in 1964 and a spot on the major league roster. But persistent back pain landed him in the minors, where he hit .135 in 49 games, until he couldn't bear the pain any longer and underwent spinal fusion surgery. He spent a year in a back brace, missing the rest of the '64 season and all of '65. To fill his days, he put his scholarship money to work and began to take physical education classes at the University of Houston. It was there that he met Linda Cupp, who would become his first wife.

In 1966 Paciorek again attempted to play his way out of the minors and again struggled, batting .193 with six home runs. Now it wasn't just his back that bothered him. There was a recurrence of his shoulder strain, followed by hamstring injuries and, worst of all, the fear that he wasn't as good as he thought.

"I relied just on reflexes," he says. "See ball, hit ball. I didn't have the right idea about how to apply things scientifically. I realized I couldn't rely on strength anymore."

The back pain became so debilitating that Paciorek couldn't react to breaking pitches, so he tried switch-hitting. It didn't work. In 1967 he batted only .104 with one home run in 32 games, and Houston, which had become the Astros, released him. He returned to the University of Houston to continue his studies. His brother Tom was by then a star baseball and football player for the Cougars and would go on to have an 18-year career in the major leagues, as an outfielder and first baseman for the Dodgers, Braves, Mariners, White Sox, Mets and Rangers. (Another brother, Jim, played 48 games for the Brewers in 1987.)

It was while watching Tom play that a scout from the Indians recognized John and offered him one more chance. In 1968 John hit a career-high 20 home runs at two Class A stops to earn his first promotion to Double A. But he got hurt again, this time dislocating two fingers fielding a ball in the outfield. In 1969, he tore his Achilles tendon warming up, and after just 29 games he was released. He finished his minor league career with 44 home runs and a .209 average in 360 games. He was not remorseful. "I was relieved," he says.

That fall Paciorek, by then 24, was back at school in Houston, the can't-miss kid who missed and who realized he wasn't a kid anymore. "I assumed it was over, but I wasn't completely sure," he says of his baseball career. "I was staying in pretty good shape, and my back was solid. I would have wanted to play, but at that point I was realizing that I'd better have something to fall back on. I wasn't upset, because I was enjoying school for the first time in my life."

That Thanksgiving Paciorek headed toward the religious center on campus with his Catholic missal. All the doors were closed except the one with the sign that read, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE ORG. He entered the room and found "such a comforting feeling," he says. He picked up a copy of Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. "Everything I was reading in there reminded me of something I had felt all of my life and I could never express," he says. "When I read in that book, 'Your sins are not forgiven until they are destroyed,' I thought, Wow, that makes sense. I was reading things that made so much practical sense, and that made an impression on me."

Within a year Paciorek had joined the Christian Science church. He eventually graduated from Houston—"Student of the decade," he jokes—with a degree in phys ed. A few years later he was working as a phys ed instructor at a Jewish community center when his wife told him about an ad in the Christian Science Monitor for a PE teacher at a private day school in Southern California. Paciorek applied to Clairbourn School in San Gabriel, got the job and moved his family there in 1976.

For the next decade John and Linda lived in the caretaker's cottage on the campus. They raised five children, all of whom attended Clairbourn. Linda died of breast cancer in 1987, and two years later John married Karen Purdy, whom he had met when she brought her two children to Clairbourn. Together they had a daughter, Kimmy.

Two of Paciorek's sons, Pete and Mack, played professional baseball, and though neither made the majors, it was while watching Pete in Dodgers camp in 1998 that John discovered his next passion. Appalled by what he considered the improper instruction being given to Pete and his teammates, John began writing about what he considered the correct ways to play the game, with an emphasis on simple mechanics. The result was a series of essays he has since had published in a book called The Principle of Baseballand All There Is to Know About Hitting.

Where once he had shunned education, Paciorek now consumed it. He bought 24 hours' worth of books on tape about Albert Einstein and went through them. Twice. He began studying Greek philosophers and found that their teachings applied to baseball. That spurred him to write another book, this one unpublished, called Plato and Socrates: Baseball's Wisest Fans. He suddenly had a voracious appetite for knowledge, but the manner in which he applied it was familiar. "The endeavor I think about more than anything," he says, "is baseball."

In his den, with the world still dark outside, Paciorek's mind is stimulated anew every morning. After musing over Baker Eddy's Science and Health, he turns to writing, sometimes about baseball and sometimes not. He makes notes and then sits quietly for a while. "I try to get myself in the right frame of mind to cope with what the world has to offer," he says. By 7:30 a.m. he is off to school.

The spacious Clairbourn athletic facilities include a baseball field where, one day in late May, Coach P is acting as pitcher in a game with two dozen fourth-graders. The instruction he offers is as gentle as the pitches he lobs toward the plate. Afterward he heads to an office tacked wall-to-wall with family photos, baseball cards of his brother Tom and, above a filing cabinet, a picture of himself in his Colt .45s uniform that his eldest son recently gave him.

He is still trim, though his workouts are mostly limited to 45 minutes a day of stretching. Even his once vaunted appetite is gone. It takes him more than an hour to eat a salad at a nearby restaurant while he traces his journey from superstar athlete and devout Catholic in Michigan to doting grandfather and Christian Scientist in Southern California.

Paciorek leaves the restaurant and drives five minutes for one of his frequent visits to San Marino High School, where Mack is the baseball coach. Next fall Jack, one of John's 11 grandchildren, will be a kindergartner at Clairbourn, and John will be there to teach him, just as he has been for all eight of his own kids and stepchildren.

Then it's back to the house on Hidden Pine Drive. It is his wife's childhood home, which they bought in 2004 from her parents. John thinks they might get twice what they paid for it, but he is in no hurry to leave. Kimmy will be a senior in the fall at nearby La Salle High, and John and Karen, an administrator at Clairbourn, can walk to work if they want.

He is 67, with a tan and an air of contentment. Where once he felt he belonged in the majors, he now believes that missing out on the long career that his younger brother enjoyed was "a blessing beyond compare," he says. "If I'd kept playing, I never would have gotten married or had kids. If I didn't have a bad back, I might have gone to Vietnam. I might [have died there]. If I'd become a good player and gotten a lot of money, I probably would not have been wise with it. Because of everything that happened, I was forced to go searching for better things, higher things, which I found in a spiritual inclination."

Karen agrees. "He's never said to me, 'Goshdarnit, I wish I had that,'" she says. "He's grateful for the experience."

There are those who saw Paciorek play, though, who still have a hard time believing that his career began and ended with that one game at age 18. "Whenever we talk about top prospects who had the tools and the strengths but didn't enjoy the success we had envisioned, John's name is always mentioned," says Tal Smith, who spent more than 30 years in Houston's front office and was player personnel director during Paciorek's tenure.

That tenure, though, was one for the books. Since 1876, some 18,000 men have played major league baseball, and 979 of them played a single game. Among the one-and-done set, Paciorek holds the record for times on base, runs scored and hits without making an out, and he shares the marks for batting average (1.000), on-base percentage (1.000) and RBIs (three).

He is proud of what he did but considers it in some ways a fluke. If not for his bad back and the fact that he played in the last game of the season, he believes he would have played again. "I can understand why somebody thought it was an enormous thing if he didn't put it into perspective," he says. "I was so fortunate to have this opportunity to play and then to take advantage of it."

He has become a part of baseball history in a way that thousands of players with far lengthier careers, including his brother, never did. Several years ago one of his nieces was in a college lecture hall when the professor asked the class an extra credit question: Who is the only player in history to play one game in the majors and go 3 for 3? When she answered correctly, the stunned professor said, "How the heck did you know that?"

Paciorek has never seen film of his one game, and he saw the box score only because someone sent it to him. He doesn't even remember the specifics of any of his at bats.

But at night, after he has watched a few innings of baseball and marveled at the hustle of teenage phenom Bryce Harper ("He reminds me of me") or questioned the batting stance of Albert Pujols ("He has trouble with the low pitch because he starts out so high"), Paciorek sometimes dreams of the only day he ever had. Only now he is not hitting singles; he is hitting home runs. He doesn't have long to rest, though. Morning for John Paciorek will come in the moonlight and with it the chance for another perfect day.

RELEASED BY THE INDIANS, PACIOREK WAS BACK AT SCHOOL IN HOUSTON BY THE FALL OF 1969, A CAN'T-MISS KID WHO MISSED AND REALIZED HE WASN'T A KID ANYMORE.
PACIOREK HAS NEVER SEEN FILM OF HIS GAME, AND HE SAW A BOX SCORE ONLY BECAUSE SOMEONE SENT IT TO HIM. HE DOESN'T EVEN REMEMBER SPECIFIC AT BATS.
PHOTOPhotograph by NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.HITTING HIS STRIDE Now a 67-year-old grandfather in California, the onetime Houston Colt .45 chooses to dwell on the good things that have happened because of the brevity of his baseball career.PHOTOPETER READ MILLER[See caption above]