On May 15, 1981,Len Barker threw what was then the 10th perfect game in major league history. There were only 7,290 people in attendance at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium that night. Spring evenings on the lake can be damp and cold–game time temperature was 49 degrees. The Indians had actually started the season well and were in first place with a 15-8 record going into the game. No one knew (but perhaps we suspected) that they would finish the season in 6th place (out of 7) with a record of .505. After all, they had finished in 6th place the previous three seasons. Barker was generally a .500 pitcher–not great, not terrible. There was no reason to expect anything special at the ballpark that night, so why go down and freeze your tookus off for nothing?
Although the number of people who claim to have been at the stadium that night has increased exponentially over the years, I will admit I wasn’t there. I was a kid watching the game at home with my older brother, M. Neither of our parents were into baseball (or any sport, for that matter), but somehow M. contracted Indian Fever and passed it to me. (Warning, that song will make your ears bleed and your brain ache. It was a song that was played locally in the late 70s/early 80s and was revived in 2007.)
My brother and I played baseball all day with the kids who lived behind us and then watch the Indians on the old UHF station (You’re watching WUAB TV, Channel 43, serving Lorain and Cleveland). We were there that night, eyes glued to the television, watching our guys take on the Blue Jays. I knew Barker was pitching a great game and said as much. M. said, “He has a perfect game going.” “What’s that?” I asked. I had no idea. The most recent perfect game was Catfish Hunter in 1968. I knew what a shutout was. I knew was a no-hitter was, but the concept of a perfect game was a revelation.
“That means the pitcher doesn’t give up any runs, any hits, any walks–nothing. Nobody gets on base,” M. said.
“Wow” was about all I could say.
One of my favorite players at the time was Mike Hargrove, aka The Human Rain Delay. Before each pitch, he would lean the bat against the inside of his leg and go through a ritual of adjusting his batting gloves, his helmet, his pants, touch his shoulders, touch his nose. Every time. He drew walks all the time. Hargrove was the first player to make me see strategy in the game, to witness how you could throw another player off his rhythm while maintaining yours. The fact that Barker was plowing through the Toronto lineup without even giving up a walk was astonishing to me. Out of the 103 pitches Barker threw that night, only 19 were balls.
As the game went on, we grew more and more excited. I honestly don’t remember if the announcers talked about it or not. All I remember is watching pitch after pitch hit its mark. The Indians committed 87 errors as a team during the 1981 season–6th out of 14 American League teams. They didn’t commit any that night. By the 9th inning, M. and I were beside ourselves with anticipation. Could he do it? Could they do it? The first batter of the inning (Rick Bosetti, if you’re interested) popped out to Toby Harrah at third. We cheered. Danny Ainge struck out (the 11th of the night). Finally, the 27th batter, Ernie Whitt, came in as a pinch hitter. For some reason, a pinch hitter seemed to bode ill. He was fresh and eager. And then Whitt connected, a pop up that seemed to linger in the air above short center forever. Rick Manning ran to meet it, waving his arms to show it was his to catch. The arm waving worried me. What if he missed it? What if he was so excited that he bobbled the ball? He didn’t.
It took 100 years of major league baseball to get 10 perfect games. We’ve had 10 more in the ensuing 30 years. You could talk all day about the systemic changes that have made pitchers so dominant. And you could talk maybe half a day about why a generally middling pitcher managed a perfect game–the umpire had a generous strike zone, the Blue Jays were five-year-old expansion team playing .350 ball. That doesn’t negate the fact that Barker pitched a hell of a game. For one night, everything fell into place for him and his team backed him up admirably–no mistakes, no missteps. It was a beautiful introduction to perfection.