Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Not So Perfect Pitch(ing)

Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing. ~Warren Spahn

This has been a good week for pitching. First, Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers pitches a no-hitter, which is pretty darn good. But, the Twins' Johan Santana might have done him one better. In a day when complete games are a rarity and most pitchers are out at 100 pitches, Santana managed to get a complete game shutout by throwing only 92 pitches. Obviously, his opponent, the Mets, who have been struggling of late, were swinging at anything, but it also means he was giving them tempting pitches to try to hit. And, except for four instances, his stuff was good enough that they didn't succeed.

Now, all of you who have ever looked at this blog (all 2 or 3 of you) know that I'm a sucker for reminiscing, particularly about sports. So both of you might figure that I'm about to relate some extraordinary pitching performance from back in the day.

Nope.

I'm going to tell you about the most miserable pitching performance to ever lead to a positive conclusion that may ever have occurred in the history of the game. Well, that may be a bit strong, but you can make up your own mind.

'Twas a-way back in the mid 1970's when a co-worker whom I shall call Jim (because that was his name) asked me if I was interested in a free ticket to an upcoming doubleheader between the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers. It was a great seat, behind the home dugout, right on the action. Not only that, but we'd get to meet some players during a signing session. The only disadvantage was that I would be sitting on the opposite end of a group of Little Leaguers that he was taking to the game. Oh well, a free seat is a free seat. As it turned out, the kids were actually interested in baseball, so aside from having to track down a couple of them in the upper deck between games, we had a good time.

That's right. I said, "between games." In those bygone days, teams had scheduled doubleheaders where one admission got you 18 innings, a full day of baseball. Today, of course, the players don't want to play doubleheaders, and the owners can't bring themselves to part with one games ticket receipts (never mind that they more than made up for it with the concession sales).

At any rate, off we went. As soon as we got to the game, we began to realize this was going to be a strange day. To begin with, the player signing session was off because the players were in a team meeting. It turned out that the Indians had fired manager Frank Robinson that morning, and the players were having Jeff Torborg introduced as their new manager. Now firing managers was something the Indians did regularly, but somehow this one had caught most of us off-guard.

As it turned out, a couple of players took the time to come out and give the kids some time, so it wasn't all bad.

Then, during the first game, I saw the weirdest ejection I had ever seen. The Detroit first base coach was jogging out to his position and quietly said something to the first base umpire. Without breaking stride, the coach turned around and jogged back to the dugout. After a few moments, the stadium announcer told us he had been ejected for arguing balls and strikes!

It was a very quiet argument, to say the least. The guy didn't even complain about being tossed.

I don't remember much else about the first game, but I remember a good bit about the second one. Jim Bibby was pitching for Cleveland. Bibby, brother of UCLA and NBA basketball star Henry Bibby, was six-plus feet of fireballing inconsistency. When he was on, he was tough to hit. When he wasn't, he usually left early.

Bibby was not exactly picture-perfect that afternoon. In fact, I'm not sure if he retired the side in order more than once in the game. At least twice, the Tigers loaded the bases, only to come away empty. The Tigers couldn't buy a hit with men in scoring position. If they did miraculously hit one out of the infield, more than likely the runner would be thrown out trying to take an extra base. The Indians infield, meanwhile, was doing it's best Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance imitation, turning one double play after another.

Mr. Bibby, meanwhile, was flinging the ball all over the place. Probably the main reason the Tigers were having trouble hitting Bibby is that they were scared to dig in and swing. How wild was Jim Bibby that day? We hadn't kept score, so we listened to the game announcer (while we looked for a couple of the Little Leaguers) running down the game stats. How about nine-count 'em-nine walks?

And, how many runs did the Tigers score? None-no need to count 'em-none.

Bibby had pitched a complete game shutout while allowing nine walks and a good handful of hits.

Now, a no-hitter is a work of art, and a 92-pitch shutdown is a nifty accomplishment, but a nine-walk shutout?

That's a bloody miracle.

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