I spend a lot of time, admittedly too much time, writing about everything that’s wrong with baseball. I get crankier and more cynical the more my knees hurt. But yesterday was a reminder of one of the things that makes baseball special. No other sport can stop for a day to focus on one spot like on Sunday when Drew Rasmussen took a perfect game into the ninth. Any no-hitter, but especially a perfect game, or a chance at a four homer day, or someone approaching a milestone like 3,000 hits or 500 homers, can pause time for just a little, as the entire sport focuses on one on game, one inning, one at-bat.
That’s one of the unique aspects of baseball, because we have these benchmarks that mean something to everyone. Throwing for six TDs or scoring five goals in a game, we marvel at them but the mere mention of them doesn’t have an aura or weight to them. They don’t echo. And unlike other sports, we know when these chances will come up. We knew when Rasmussen would take the hill again for the 8th and 9th. Where someone looking to score a fifth goal could happen at any time, or someone going for 60 or 70 in the NBA doesn’t really have an end. They could score 62 or 71 and that’s sort of the excitement, but there isn’t a definite line to cross to history. They might not get the ball on the next possession. We don’t know. We know in baseball.
The perfect game though, that lives on its own plane. It’s one player, and it feels as if he’s on an island. We know teammates are afraid to speak to him, and no one can really understand what he faces in the middle of it. He becomes isolated and exalted. He lives in a bubble. Though there are 10 players in each lineup (DH now), and yet the whole day bends to the will of just one of them. It goes at his pace, and everything is reacting to him. And in the pursuit of a perfect game, it’s all under his control.
But there’s something more to the pursuit of a perfect game, where it feels as though one pitcher is also bending a higher force under his brilliance. No sport has more feeling of something unquantifiable to it, that there are spirits at work or that it’s a game that simply can’t be solved (though it feels like Jacob deGrom gets closer with every start). It’s a sport where success is defined as three out of 10 is great. Or you can do everything right, and simply because the ball will land where there is no fielder standing. The batter didn’t plan to hit that Texas leaguer, or in that direction, and yet the left fielder will get nowhere near it. Or an umpire has the near impossible job of deciding on whether a sphere hurled at 95 MPH passed through an imaginary window some three to five feet in front of him. He’s not going to get all of those right, and any one mistake can flip an AB in favor of the hitter at any pitch. A grounder can hit the lip of dirt and grass, or one of the bases. Pitches that don’t move as intended get thumped. A well-timed gust of wind can pivot a whole game. As good as these guys are, there is so much out of their control.
And to rise above all that, to keep all of that under your whims for even six or seven innings is fascinating. Thanks to modern technology, we can all tune in. MLB Network breaks in to cover the last two or three innings. Sometimes ESPN does. In a sport whose charm is that it’s just kind of there every day, and results just slowly pile up until they mean anything, and there are thousands of games and innings and happenings that all blend together, watching all the lights rotate and focus on one spot even for 10 minutes is exhilarating. Baseball is usually just background, a soundtrack, and yet every so often something forces its way to the front.
And we tune in to watch one player control a game that by its very existence is meant to not be controlled. Every pitch contacted finds a fielder, which is the plan but is never completely, 100 percent enforceable. Every call goes the pitcher’s way, or he’s so good that it’s not even up in the air whether they should or not. Whatever mistakes are made are swung through or lightly tapped, simply because it moved in an unplanned way that fooled all. It’s the rare time when it feels like we watch everything fall into place, randomly, and especially all the things we can’t see or hear but we feel.
There’s also the Sisyphian aspect of it. Many have gotten to the 7th, or 8th, or 9th as Rasmussen did. We know, for just about every pitcher, this is as close as they’ll ever get. We know the Verlanders or deGroms or Scherzers of the world can take one to the house any time they ascent to the rubber. But they’re rare. Things will only fall in place like this, for so long, for a pitcher like Rasmussen, once. He may go on to have a great career, but Sunday is almost certainly as close as he’ll get to perfection. It’s uncatchable. It’s like trying to net gas.
Baseball is special, because every so often, even for only a game, it can feel like someone solved it. There is nothing like that anywhere else. Score five goals? You probably missed a shot along the way or had a couple saved. Score 74 points? You almost certainly clanked the rim at least once or twice. But a perfect game, it’s so hallowed because everything went right, especially all the things that feel like they’re specifically designed to go wrong, no matter how minuscule.
And when someone like Rasmussen gets close enough to see the summit, even if he doesn’t get there, it’s poetic. Maybe even more so. He got close enough to feel it, to know how hard and unlikely it is and what it might have felt like, and had it snatched away on the first pitch of the ninth. He’ll almost certainly never get a look again. He tumbles back down the hill to the rest of them, and that knowledge will slowly fade over time.
Baseball…it’s not meant to be solved.