Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pitch Perfect: What pitching the only perfect game in World Series history taught me.

This essay by Don Larsen, which appeared in Guideposts magazine, is a lovely look at another World Series

On October 8, 1956, I pitched the most famous game in baseball — a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series.

Twenty-seven batters up, twenty-seven down, the only perfect game in Series history.

What few people realize is, just my pitching that game was a miracle.

Five days earlier I had started Game 2 of the World Series and gotten pounded. My New York Yankees teammates had staked me to a 6-0 lead, and in less than two innings I squandered most of it. I thought Yankees manager Casey Stengel would never trust me with the ball again.

It was my turn to pitch, but I was so certain he’d go with someone else that I didn’t even prepare like I normally did. I could hardly believe it when I entered the clubhouse and saw a crisp, clean baseball sitting in a baseball shoe in my locker. That was Stengel’s way of letting me know I’d be pitching after all.

Right from the start, I knew this game was going to be special. That day I had the kind of control pitchers dream about, better than I’d ever had before. Catcher Yogi Berra would signal for a fastball low on the outside corner, and I’d put it right on the mark, like I was handing him the ball.

I still can’t explain it. It was just one of those days. I believe everyone is entitled to a good day, and the Man Upstairs decided this was mine.

For most of the game, I wasn’t even thinking of throwing a no-hitter. I was just trying to win. Sal Maglie, the Dodgers pitcher, was throwing almost as well as me. He didn’t allow a hit till the fourth inning, when Mickey Mantle clubbed a solo home run. We scored just once more.

Three times my no-hitter almost slipped away. In the second inning, Jackie Robinson hit a liner that ricocheted off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove directly to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out at first base.

In the fifth inning Gil Hodges lashed a ball to the left-centerfield gap. Mantle sprinted after the ball. I held my breath. He made a great backhanded catch. “Saved me again,” I thought. Three innings later Dodgers leftfielder Sandy Amoros drove a ball out of the park—just foul.

The first time I allowed myself to think about a no-hitter was the seventh inning, as I walked off the field after retiring the side. Mantle jogged past me. “Hey, Mick,” I said, turning to the scoreboard. “Wouldn’t it be something if I could do it?” Mantle didn’t say a word.

Mantle’s reaction wasn’t surprising. Ballplayers are superstitious, especially about no-hitters. Nobody wants to cast a jinx. I took my seat in the dugout. No one would sit near me. No one said a word. It made me so nervous I walked to the tunnel leading from the dugout to the clubhouse and had a smoke, hoping it would calm me. It didn’t.

By the ninth inning, the tension was almost too much. I got the Dodgers’ first batter, Carl Furillo, to fly out to left. The next batter, Roy Campanella, grounded out to second.

I took a deep breath. “One out to go.” Pinch hitter Dale Mitchell stepped to the plate. Mitchell, a good hitter, rarely struck out. Trying to gather myself, I turned and stared out at centerfield. “Oh Lord, get me through one more,” I prayed.

My first pitch to Mitchell was a fastball. Low. Ball one. I fired two strikes, then another ball. Mitchell fouled off the next pitch. With the count 2-2, Yogi signaled for another fastball. I threw it high in the strike zone. Mitchell took a half swing—and the ump called him out.

I remember thinking, “Thanks, Lord, you got me through it.” Then Yogi raced from behind the plate and jumped in my arms. My mind went blank after that.

At that point I didn’t realize I’d thrown a perfect game. In the clubhouse afterward, a reporter approached Stengel. “Is that the best game Larsen has pitched?” he asked. “So far,” Casey answered.

I never had that kind of magical game again. But those nine innings changed my life. It gave me my identity. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder, “Why me?” because in my career I lost more major league games than I won.

But over the years, this is what I’ve come to believe: If you try your hardest, if you never give up, if you live an honorable and humble life, sometimes the Lord lets you exceed your wildest dreams.   

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