Career Calling

April 22, 2012

Sabbath, April 22, 2012

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature on work, life, and related topics.]

Perfect and Imperfect

Philip Humber is going to Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Yesterday, the 29 year old pitcher for the Chicago White Sox performed an amazing feat: He pitched a perfect game.  For non-baseball fans (and there are too many of you), a perfect game occurs when a pitcher faces and retires the minimum number of hitters, 27, allowing no runners to reach base.  Only 21 major league pitchers have thrown perfect games.

There is always luck involved in a perfect game.  The last pitch of the game was strike three to Brendan Ryan of the Seattle Mariners.  The ball got away from catcher A. J. Pierzynski.  Ryan could have reached first base if he ran hard.  Instead he turned to argue with the umpire while Pierzynski tossed the ball to first base. Humber’s teammates mobbed him in celebration.

I’m a Cubs fan, but not a Sox hater.  Time will tell how good a pitcher Humber will become.  Last year he had a great first half and a second half that was not good.  What I admire most about Humber is his ability to keep going in the face of adversity.  He was a high draft pick who was cut by several teams.  Then, in the words of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Joe Cowley, “But at the age of 28 Humber found something with the Sox.  He found confidence.”  If  Humber found confidence last year, this morning, he’s found fame and perfection. 

Again, for you sad people who don’t like baseball, let me put this story in perspective.  Baseball is one of the few games in which a player can achieve perfection.  A bowler can score 300, but that is not an uncommon feat, especially for professional bowlers.  A gymnast can score a perfect ten.  However, that score is based on rules that change frequently and fickle scoring of jingoistic judges.  A baseball pitcher has to face 27 hitters and keep them all off base.  Beyond not allowing any hits, he can’t walk or hit a batter.  A perfect game is also a team effort.  If a fielder makes an error, the perfect game is ruined.  Major league baseball began in 1876, and only 21 perfect games have been pitched.  If Humber never wins another game, his placed in the game’s history is set.

What about imperfection?   In today’s Sun-Times, Rick Telander gushes about Jim Abbott’s autobiography, Imperfect: An Improbable Life.  Abbott was born without a right hand.  That handicap didn’t stop him from becoming a star athlete who pitched in the major leagues and the Olympics.  Abbott threw a no-hitter (not quite a perfect game) when he was with the Yankees.  Like Humber, Abbott didn’t quit.  He overcame great obstacles and reached the top of his profession. 

Perfection is rare, so are people like Jim Abbott.  The sports pages have started to sound like a gossip sheet, documenting all sorts of personal and moral failings.  Stories like Humber’s perfect game and Abbott’s improbable career remind us why we watch great athletes: to be inspired.