That Was Rare

I went to a baseball game and history broke out.

Yeah, OK, it wasn’t history in the sense that nothing like that had ever happened before, but it was still a rare event.

Let me start at the beginning. Around the middle of last month, I realized it was almost the middle of the baseball season, and I hadn’t been to a single game. Clearly this was a situation that couldn’t be permitted to continue. That was Saturday. Sunday, I got a ticket for an upcoming Giants/Padres game. Monday, Tony Gwynn died.

“Who?” I hear the irreligious among you say. Tony Gwynn was one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball. Not a homerun hitter, by any means, but his Padres could always count on him for a timely single: three-quarters (2,378 of 3,141) of his hits were singles. He spent his entire major league career with the Padres, and became the face of the franchise to an extent unmatched by any other player in any sport. OK, maybe there’s a case for Michael Jordan as the face of the Chicago Bulls, but in my opinion, Jordan’s association with the Washington and Charlotte teams drops him behind Gwynn, who followed his playing career with time as a coach for the Padres, and remained actively engaged with the team until his death.

Obviously, my ticket purchase killed him. OK, maybe not. Maybe it was the young boy sitting behind me, attending his first baseball game. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Padres were in Seattle that Monday, and the Mariners joined the Padres in paying tribute to Mr. Gwynn before the game–and then beat them 5-1. It’s been that kind of year for the Padres. The Giants also had a ceremony honoring him before the first game of their series with the Padres–and then lost 6-0. It’s been that kind of a month for the Giants.

That brings us to the Wednesday game, the one I attended. The Giants had one of the best starts to the season, before hitting a rough patch in June. Mind you, before the game on the twenty-fifth, they were 45-32, the third best record in baseball.

Pitching for the Giants: Tim Lincecum, who’s been extremely inconsistent for the past few years. When he’s been on, he’s been great. When he’s been off, well, let’s not go there.

I got there early, as I’m wont to do, and enjoyed the experience. A family of four was sitting behind me. From the conversation, it seemed that Mom was a Giants fan; the older boy, perhaps ten or eleven, was a Pablo Sandoval fan; the younger boy, maybe eight and attending his first game, was a rabid Lincecum fan; and Dad, the agnostic, didn’t care much for baseball, but was enjoying the opportunity to play hookey from work and hang out with the kids.

In the first inning, it was clear that Lincecum was on. He struck out the first two Padres and got the third on a ground ball to short. The second inning was almost as clean: a ground out, a walk, a strikeout, and another ground out. As the Giants left the field after the second inning, the younger boy behind me said “Dad, I’d love it if Lincecum threw a no-hitter.” Nosy sort that I am, I turned around and said “You know who else would love it if he threw a no-hitter? Lincecum.” Both the kid and his father agreed that made sense.

Halfway through the third inning, a couple showed up, taking the empty seats to my left. They were clearly fans, but definitely of the casual variety. They were more interested in their sandwiches than the game, and more interested in heckling the Padres’ left fielder, Carlos Quentin* than the game as a whole.

* No hits in three at-bats, and a pair of arguably misplayed fly balls early in the game. ‘Arguably,’ meaning the couple next to me thought they were misplayed; I didn’t.

After eight innings, Lincecum still hadn’t given up a hit–or any more walks–while racking up a pair of hits of his own. (For the record, pitchers are typically lousy hitters, and Lincecum is more than typical. This wasn’t his first multi-hit game–he had two last season–but a comparison to hen’s teeth isn’t completely out of line.

Top of the ninth. Giants take the field. Lincecum starts throwing his warmup pitches. The crowd is cheering thunderously. The late-arriving couple next to me leaves. Heresy, indeed. I would have organized their burning at the stake, but wasn’t about to abandon the game to do it.

It took 16 pitches for Lincecum to wrap up the game (strikeout, ground out to the pitcher, ground out to second base). A no-hitter.

No-hitters are far from the rarest accomplishments in baseball. There have been 243 since 1900; by comparison, there have been 21 perfect games and 15 unassisted triple plays in the same time span. It’s still an impressive accomplishment, requiring not only the pitcher but the entire team to be playing near the peak of their ability. Lincecum’s was notable because it was the second one of his career. Only 26 other pitchers have thrown multiple no-hitters. Even rarer: both of Lincecum’s no-hitters have come against the Padres. Only one other pitcher has thrown two no-hitters against the same team: Addie Joss no-hit Chicago in 1908 and again in 1910.

Joss’ feat is more impressive than Lincecum’s in one respect, however: the 1908 no-hitter was a perfect game. I suppose that means Lincecum still has something to work towards. He’s pitching against the Reds tonight. A perfect game today would certainly push him into the upper ranks of pitching celebrity. Still, history suggests the game we should really be watching is his next start against the Padres. That’s Sunday in San Diego. Stay tuned!