'Almost Perfect' tells tales of close calls on memorable pursuits
By Paul Hagen
The pitcher had retired the first 26 batters he faced. Then, one out away, the umpire made a mistake, helping deprive him of his perfect game.
This is the story of Tigers right-hander Armando Galarraga on June 2, 2010. But it's also the story of Phillies lefty George "Hooks" Wiltsie in 1908. And it's the common thread that unites "Almost Perfect: The Heartbreaking Pursuit of Pitching's Holy Grail."
There have been 21 perfect games in the modern era of Major League Baseball. These have been well-documented. Just off stage, though, are the 16 pitches who retired at least 26 consecutive hitters but didn't finish the perfecto. Sixteen largely forgotten or overlooked moments in history.
At least, they were largely overlooked before Joe Cox, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), decided to tell their stories.
Some, to be sure, are part of the standard baseball canon. How Harvey Haddix of the Pirates remarkably set down the first 36 Milwaukee Braves he faced on May 26, 1959, before losing his perfect game, no-hitter, shutout and the game itself in the 13th inning. How Boston's Ernie Shore came in to relieve Babe Ruth in 1917 after the Bambino was ejected for arguing with the home-plate umpire after walking the Washington Senators' leadoff hitter. The runner was thrown out trying to steal and Shore finished the game without allowing another runner to reach base.
Galarraga falls into that category, both because his near miss happened so recently and because of the grace and class both he and umpire Jim Joyce displayed in the aftermath of what could have been an ugly situation.
Wiltsie, on the other hand, is little remembered today. On the day in question, with two outs in the ninth, he appeared to strike out George McQuillan, who ended his career with a .117 batting average. But umpire Cy Rigler called the pitch a ball. Wiltsie hit McQuillan with his next pitch and his bid was ended. The pitcher would later say that the umpire admitted to him that he missed the call.
This book could have ended up being a dry, factual play-by-play recap except that Cox skillfully provides plenty of perspective. Each chapter is a self-contained story essentially divided into three sections: a prologue which sketches the background for what is about to occur, a detailed examination of the details of what happened on the fateful day and a postscript that traces what followed.
The early chapters, for example, paint a vivid picture of baseball in its early days when it wasn't unheard of for an infielder to hook a runner by the belt as he passed to keep him from taking an extra base. There's also insight into the most recent pitchers who experienced that specific heartache.
On June 20, 2015, Max Scherzer of the Nationals came within one out of a perfect game against the Pirates. But how many baseball fans remember that, three years earlier, Scherzer's younger brother, Alex, committed suicide? As disappointing as having to "settle" for a no-hitter after hitting pinch-hitter Jose Tabata with a pitch may have been, of course it was nothing compared to losing a sibling who had been a source of inspiration when he struggled at times earlier in his career.
The game accounts raise interesting what-ifs. For example, on April 20, 1990, Mariners right-hander Brian Holman had to bat in the eighth because manager Jim Lefebvre made a double switch that eliminated the designated hitter. Holman ended up having to run the bases after reaching on an error.
Some members of this unique fraternity went on to great careers. Pedro Martinez was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015. Others faced misfortune. Tommy Bridges died an alcoholic. Several, including Galarraga, had their career cut short by injuries.
Each tale is unique, each has the common bond of a pitcher who came ever so close to achieving one of the rarest feats in his profession. Each pitcher has gone through a quintessentially baseball experience. It reminds us that baseball, at heart, remains a game of failure.
Or, as Cox writes: "Heartbreak in baseball often begins with the idea of perfection."
Paul Hagen is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.