27 Short Thoughts About Philip Humber And Perfection

On the weirdness of perfection in its most recent, Humber-ian expression.
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This was the first perfect game ever thrown by a waterfall.

Screengrab via Midwest Sports Fans.

1. Philip Humber’s last tweet before his perfect game Sunday was written in early April. It read in its entirety “So thankful that He is RISEN!!!!” While it would be nice to assign him the power of foresight, as well as the habit of referring to himself in the third person, that probably isn’t what he meant.

2. The sentiment does apply to himself, though, as contradictory as that may be to his sensibilities. This offseason was the first in three that nobody waived Humber. He was the third pick in the 2004 Major League Baseball draft (right after Justin Verlander) but blew out his arm the next year. Tommy John surgery followed. Before coming to the White Sox in January of 2011 on a minor league contract, he spent a month and a day on the Oakland roster.

3. It was Humber’s 12th win at the Major League level. The last ten have been with the White Sox; the first two were with Kansas City.

4. One of the beauties of recordkeeping is that it usually does not have much regard for opponents. Philip Humber will be remembered for throwing a perfect game, not for throwing a perfect game against a AAAA team with an aging Hall of Famer.

5. Humber beat the Mariners with the most brutally economic display to come out of Chicago since—well, comparing baseball to Milton Friedman and his gang going down to Chile and inspiring Augusto Pinochet’s homicidal racket isn’t funny or apt, but it did spring to mind. Just say that Humber was very efficient. It took him 96 pitches in all, 20 to get through innings four, five and six. Seven of his nine strikeouts arrived courtesy of an extremely punishing sinker. Its movement was late and drastic, and in the mid- to high 80s in speed, must have been almost hallucinatory to Seattle’s hitters.

6. Only one strikeout came on a fastball: Chone Figgins in inning seven, clocked at 94 MPH by Fox Television’s radar.

7. There appear to be two moments when Humber believed that his perfection had been lost. After Jesus Montero made contact with the ball in the bottom of the fifth Humber dipped his neck and slumped his shoulders. His feet, I believe, leave the ground. This stooped stomp has always seemed to me to be a pitcher’s gesture of disappointment, a bodily wince. For an instant the ball does look like it could leave the park. Just an instant, just extrapolating from its immediate trajectory. It ended up a routine flyout to left. The other moment in question was Brendan Ryan’s checked-swing strikeout to end the game.

8. Brian Runge was the home plate umpire. He does not say Ryan’s swing went around too quickly. It’s clearly a measured decision. He does, however, seem to be signaling with more emphasis than one normally finds on a third strike call. He points twice quickly at Ryan. The second point seems to be in response to Ryan starting for first base as though he’d drawn a walk, a motion which itself seems to be a continuation of his questionable swing. But the two quick stabs seem like a schoolyard gesture or maybe something from a French mob in the 1890s. It does make you wonder if Runge got a little swept up in the moment.

9. The impartiality and fallibility of umpires, of any sporting official, really, are tragically humane. The former is assumed, desired; the latter is inevitable. They are the superego of games, points of stability and authority; and like any public works, utilities or mail delivery, they are usually only noticed when they fuck up. My four-year-old son first encounters "kill" as a threat-verb directed toward the umpire after the second strike in "Casey at the Bat." Why do they want to kill him? he asks, and I say it’s because the Mudville fans don’t think the pitch was a strike and they’re angry. To which he replies, shredding all illusions of order and authority and possibly all objective causality, What if it was a strike?

10. To say that the specter of a weeping Jim Joyce accepting the Tigers’ lineup card from Armando Gallaraga the day after blowing Gallaraga’s perfect game with two outs in the ninth was haunting Safeco Field hardly seems a stretch.

11. If Ryan had run instead of arguing when the ball got away he could have made things interesting. It’s tough to get on him about that, though.

12. Ryan told reporters after the game that it was ball four. Humber certainly seemed to think it was. You wonder if Humber would have crumpled so thoroughly to the ground after the out was recorded if Ryan had simply swung and missed, or if there wasn’t a little gravity of disbelief pulling him down.

13. As debatable as the call might be, it still lacks the breathtaking drama from the ninth inning of the last White Sox perfect game, all of two and a half years ago, by Mark Buehrle against the [Devil] Rays, when Dewayne Wise reached over the fence in left-center field, located the ball, bobbled it and secured it falling back to the ground. That was the 26th out of the game. It was such a staggering play given the circumstances that the spot against the fence in US Cellular Field is permanently marked “The Catch.”

14. From the perspective of a White Sox fan it’s difficult to compare the two perfect games, if only because Buehrle occupied such a privileged place in our hearts. When he pitched Buehrle typically acted like a 12-year-old, or better yet, like the only person who was in on the joke about what sports really are. He played with exuberance, pitched quickly, occasionally factored in miracles, won a lot. Buehrle had already thrown a no-hitter and was a crucial part of the 2005 World Series winners; he actually recorded a save in the 14 inning Game Three. On that July afternoon in 2009 the weight of what he was doing looked like it was creeping up on him and in the end, to watch someone normally so giddy over the state of things, so joyful yet knowing, be utterly overwhelmed by what’d he’d accomplished was sort of an apotheosis moment for a Sox fan.

15. I actually had tickets for that game. It was the day after my 32nd birthday. My wife and I had left our son, then a little under two, with a babysitter and spent the night at a hotel in downtown Chicago. We saw The Hurt Locker at the AMC multiplex east of Michigan Avenue and did a lot of walking around. The weather was cool, the quiet of not having a toddler nearby was a little opiating. There was an ambient serenity that I didn’t want to snap by jumping on the Red Line and sitting for hours in the communal murk of the ballpark. My brother took the tickets instead. My wife and I went home and embraced our son, who was surly and combative for having been ditched, however temporarily. I left my wife alone with him because she’s better at absorbing his tensions and switched on the Sox game. It was the eighth inning; Hawk Harrelson had entered a state of acute apoplexy. I turned the set off, not wanting to infect what had happened so far unseen with my viewing presence. I turned it back on right after Wise’s catch, in time for the last out and the dogpile. I can’t say I’d trade the aggregate peace of getting away for the redeemed tension of witnessing the game, though I think that’s more particular to my situation. My brother still glows when he talks about being there.

16. Humber’s kind of a rangy guy, box-jawed and maybe a little withdrawn with his grin, which you can chalk up to his being from Texas or from having failed thus far to meet expectations. He isn’t completely stoic, but he isn’t Buehrle either.

17. It hasn’t been hard to root for him in his season-plus with the Sox. He’s the latest product in what Christina Karl called the team’s "cottage industry… of giving second chances to other teams' tarnished top prospects." See Danks, John; Floyd, Gavin; if you want to track back a bit Esteban Loiza took a minor league contract in 2003 and turned it into 21 wins, a second place Cy Young finish.

18. Humber pitched so well in Spring Training 2011 that he allowed Ozzie Guillen to contort himself into a six-man rotation. He finished with a 9-9 record but that belies the fact that he was arguably the best starter the Sox had in the first half of last season. In May and June he went 5-1; his ERA was 2.80. He threw seven no-hit innings in Yankee Stadium.

19. In the absence of expectation the reaction to positive results sometimes feels like gratitude. There is a weird sensation that Humber has been doing the Sox a favor by winning. The arrangement of the minor league deal, the non-guaranteed contract, it all has an air of transience, of just passing through so, okay, thanks for helping out before you get to where you’re really headed. His wins come without our—the fans—having invested any hope or emotional capital. It, he, is surplus, and we owe him absolutely nothing. These bouts of transference onto professional athletes are totally perplexing, and it is impossible to see how they could ever stop happening.

20. Almost as soon as Humber began his postgame interview with Fox’s broadcasters, Alexei Ramirez dumped a cooler of Gatorade on him. It didn’t appear to faze him much. His expression drenched is no different than it was before. He says that God is good, he gives thanks, he says hi to his wife in Texas, he admits there were moments of doubt. In short, he’s equally composed and humble and maybe more articulate than what you usually get in the far-off gaze of the headset interview.

21. The symbolic importance of this game to the White Sox cannot be understated. The outlook before the season began was bleak. There are a number of indications, especially on the hitting-the-ball side of things, that it still could be a nuclear winter of a summer. Several regulars appear to be using their bats to, as Joel Robinson said, swat at imaginary elves, and as a development this is hardly surprising or even new. Though there have been hints as to what might come, Robin Ventura remains as unknown a quantity as a manager as he was when he was hired. Buehrle, our talisman, is now in Florida. When the season opened it was hard to find much to be hopeful about. At worst this is a signal moment to rest the remainder of the season on; at best, it’s a spark.

22. Whatever the case, its in-between state, as a win and an image of unalloyed joy, is good enough.

23. A perfect game is a singular individual accomplishment in team sports. Nothing else is as statistically complete or symmetrical. It’s hard to think of a cognate. A quarterback can complete 27 out of 27 passes, a basketball player can make 27 of 27 shots, but both of those sound like freak acts of abject domination, arbitrary in their numbers. Even if one of the passes or shots was a game-winner, you still don’t picture the dogpile being as intense as it is after a perfect game. It’s the only diagrammed narrative in team sports that can actually be followed. And so while it doesn’t represent dominance necessarily, a perfect game does represent a work of schematic beauty that is almost like a law of physics in its immutability.

24. Humber has been contacted by the Baseball Hall of Fame, which will display his uniform or hat or one of the balls used during the game. He will appear on the David Letterman show, as Mark Buehrle did before him. He has been congratulated by Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel but not, as of yet, by President Obama, who is a Sox fan. This is possibly because he is a registered Republican, Humber told the Chicago Tribune; jokingly, we’re assured.

25. Humber now owns the unofficial title of worst pitcher to do the best thing ever, though there’s plenty of time to remedy that and it isn’t like Len Barker was any great shakes.

26. His next scheduled start is Thursday, April 26, at home against the Red Sox.

27. The image of Humber looking at the hand operated scoreboard in the Safeco Field outfield after the game might be titled "Admires His Handiwork" or some such other valedictory words. What it really looks like, though, is something more basic: "Beginning to Grasp the Fact" or "Seeing the Plain Record." Humber’s angled away from the camera so his face can’t be seen. It seems like he’s smiling or squinting. He has his hands on his hips and his feet are spread; it’s a stance for beholding, without question. The line of zeros on the Seattle side, 12 of them, though only 10 are visible in the shot, rolls on to a conclusion that is miraculous in its simplicity, or maybe simple in its miraculousness. It's a great and beautiful void.


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