As close as can be

The other day, I found a penny in the parking lot where I had parked my car. As I’ve written before, I instinctively pick these pennies up, partly for good luck and partly because I’m curious to see what year the penny was minted in. In this case, it was 1982, the year I graduated from grammar school and got into a fight after a high school football game. I hoped that something more interesting than that happened in 1982, and so I googled the year and found a few things that would be worth spending some time revisiting. Here’s the most interesting one, in my view:

It was Tuesday, September 28, 1982. The final week of the regular season in baseball was underway. The Milwaukee Brewers of Gorman Thomas and Robin Yount were on their way to their only American League pennant, but the Toronto Blue Jays were on other end of the AL East, and the American League in general. In their sixth year of existence, the Blue Jays had yet to escape the cellar in their division. Their expansion counterparts in the AL West, the Seattle Mariners, had at least made it into the middle of the pack in their division.

The bottom feeders of the AL West, the Minnesota Twins, had come to Toronto for a four-game series, with a doubleheader starting things off. One wonders why anyone would come to see not one, but two meaningless games between teams that were collectively 50 games out of first place. And just over 11,000 people (about a quarter of Exhibition Stadium’s capacity) had turned out to see the games. But they were probably glad they did.

In the first game of the twin-bill, Jim Clancy of the Blue Jays went up against Frank Viola for the Twins. Both pitchers would win games in the World Series one day, but that must have seemed like a long way away to these two pitchers. Not much happened until the bottom of the fourth, when Viola gave up a pair of solo home runs. So the home crowd had something to cheer about, at least.

But as Clancy went 1-2-3 against the Twins in the fifth, and in the sixth, and again in the seventh, those in attendance became aware that none of the Twins had reached base yet. Clancy was working on not just a shutout, and not just a no-hitter, but a perfect game. Provided that no one in the park that day was over 60 years old, there had only been five perfect games that any of the fans  could have witnessed, and it’s doubtful that any of them would have done so.

I’ve been going to ballgames all my life, and I’ve never seen anything close to a no-hitter in person. I have to imagine that most fans are the same way, too. Whenever a pitcher takes one into the third or fourth inning, the fans start to get excited at the prospect of witnessing history being made. But it rarely works out that way, and that’s why it’s so historic to begin with. Give professional batters 27 attempts at a pitcher–any pitcher–and they’re likely to break through at least once.

The Jays provided Clancy with another solo homer in the bottom of the seventh, and there were only six outs to go to make history. Clancy again retired the side in order, and now had only three outs left to get. And there were some very excited fans in among all of the empty seats in Toronto.

The irony of a near perfect game is that the final three outs belong to the weakest hitters in the lineup, theoretically.The seventh and eighth innings have the better hitters coming up, and the bottom of the order is all that remains in the ninth. It’s a bit different in the American League, because of the designated hitter, but none of the Twins’ last hitters was within shouting distance of  .300, either.

Randy Bush stepped in to start the ninth. A video of his result appears below:

It’s clear from the footage that Bush blooped one into just the right spot. With just another fraction of an inch reached out by the Blue Jays’ second baseman, Damaso Garcia, the out could have been recorded and the perfect game preserved. But it was not to be. Clancy gave up a walk, but otherwise got out of the inning unscathed, and took the victory in a 1-0 shutout with a (just barely) one-hitter.

The fans still had another game to sit through, if they wanted to, but the run at perfection that Jim Clancy made in Game one was probably what they told their friends about afterward. It was an impressive performance, to be sure, and one that makes us realize just what the mantra “baseball is a game of inches” is all about.

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