In search of perfection

written by correspondent Ken Pike

“You can’t be afraid to make errors! You can’t be afraid to be naked before the crowd, because no one can ever master the game of baseball, or conquer it. You can only challenge it.”

– Lou Brock, Left Fielder, St Louis Cardinals, 1977


I find baseball a truly unique and in many ways perplexing sport because of something that you will never actually find in baseball…perfection. Ok, don’t worry I haven’t been on mind altering substances, and I will explain.

Let’s start with a contrast: football (yet again). If you consider a football player and what would constitute a ‘perfect’ season, perhaps winning the Champions league, domestic league and cup, and maybe, every other year, a major international competition. Maybe throw in being PFA player of the year as well as the league’s top scorer.

The list of teams that have had unbeaten seasons is longer than you would think and includes Arsenal (ghhhhwah pfft – I spit their name), Juventus, AC Milan, Galataseray (who still finished second! Should have tried scoring goals as well as keeping clean sheets) , Benfica, Porto, SC Internacional, Rosenborg and bizarrely Preston North End (a very long time ago). Individually, and within living memory (for most of us) Gilberto Silva was on the World Cup winning Brazil ‘02 squad before going off to join Arsenal and have an unbeaten domestic season. The Champions League went to Real Madrid that year though, and Arsenal crashed out at the second group stage so maybe he had a way to go, but still a good shot at it.

Where am I going with this analogy? Well, I know you might be able to get the perfect one off event like a hit or pitch, and even extend that over several innings or a game or two, but what would constitute a perfect season in baseball? There’s no way in god’s green earth that you could have an undefeated season like Arsenal, ghhhhwah pfft. The Mariners and Cubs who jointly own the record with 116 games still lost 46 games in the season, nearly 30% of their games. Pretty pathetic really when trying to reach perfection (har-di-har). As for winning every competition, if baseball comes to the Olympics, I don’t think MLB players would realistically give a hoot.

On the individual level, it gets even harder. 20 pitchers have now managed perfect games (well done Matt Cain for the most recent entry) and that would certainly be the pinnacle of a career and a direct express first class ticket to a Cy Young award and the hall of fame, but perfect season? There is always more to strive for. Cy Young’s own perfect game was part of a hitless streak of 24 or 25⅓ straight innings—depending on whether or not partial innings at either end of the streak are included. It was also part of a streak of 45 straight innings in which Young did not give up a run, which was then a record. No matter how remarkable that is, he still lost 16 games that year and remained as far from perfection as anyone.

A pitcher throwing a perfect game, EVERY game of a 162 game regular season and potentially 11 wins needed in post season games, would frankly be the result of either impressive advances in doping technology or extraterrestrial/divine intervention (delete according to own theistic beliefs). As for batters, Ted Williams managed 16 base reaching plate appearances in a row while Di Maggio managed a 56 game long hitting streak. Records, yes, but also a million miles from a perfect season. Hitting a homer with every at bat while never making a single fielding mistake all year and scooping up every single play that is within his area? Maybe one day a muscular Jedi will pick up a Louisville and a glove and sign for the Alderaan Athletics, but I doubt it will be in my life time.

The problem being one of baseball’s most specific and unique principles: statistics. The sport is utterly ruled and filled by them. I am not talking English Southern Division Single A here, as those records are of dubious statistical value at best, and hardly indicative of anything over a 12 game season. Combine this wealth of metrics by which to measure success with the sheer length of the season, and you have a situation where attaining true perfection is impossible.

So how does that translate to the English leagues? They are infinitely shorter seasons so it should be much easier to go the whole way never giving up a hit. However, we also play alongside amateur team mates with huge variations in the quality of your backup from game to game, and none of us train on a daily basis (no you don’t, don’t even start fibbing about it.) so personal consistency is quite unlikely in itself at the level needed to get multiple perfect games or 1.000 batting averages.

Throwing or batting a dozen perfect games, is certainly more doable than the 162 MLB games required, but in the real world, just as unlikely, unless some superstar takes early retirement and decide that a spell in Hertfordshire is just the ticket. Over 12 games with the ensuing 348 outs required (admittedly less if mercy rules come into effect), even an NBL pitcher from the Falcons, Nationals, or Mets dropping down to single A is going to get someone along the way who gets a hit, even if it is through pure dumb luck or poor fielding from the defence. Even I have hit off NBL pitchers in the Hunlock series and while being ok on the batting front, I ain’t all that. I imagine that hitting 1.000 is more likely over 12 games but it would still need someone to be playing at very much the wrong level of the game. Getting home runs for each of those hits is flat impossible. Even roid-freaks in home run derby’s with pitchers throwing perfect balls for them don’t hit over the fence every time let alone 60 or so times in a row.

So where is this going? Well, one of my Raptors team mates was dissecting his own performance after our (glorious) win against the Eagles. For once it wasn’t me, and the advice I gave that person was simple: “You may not have been perfect in every part of your game, but you did your own job perfectly.”

The pitcher did his job, the catcher did his, the fielders did theirs, the contact hitters got on base and the power hitters got the big slams, and that’s how you win games. Dropping one or two balls here or there or getting struck out a couple times is utterly irrelevant in the grand scheme of a game if you do what you are needed to do. In various positions you face a varying number of throws, hits or catches to field or dish out getting all of them is an issue of percentages. Percentages none of us doing this sport for free are ever going to be able to keep at 100 (or 0 depending on the target end of the metric). So what do we count as perfect here in blighty-baseball?

Being someone who kicks themselves more than I should for much of the time, and in light of my recent article about starting to enjoy myself again, it is quite clear I can’t be perfect at every part of the game. Well, duh, no great revelation there Ken, thanks, but the fact is I am dreaming if I want to be perfect in even one part of the game. You could be the best the team has at one particular thing, even a league leader, and finding a fault or shortcoming somewhere will still be very easy.

One could say that winning a game means you did what you needed to do, and that is perfection. Let’s face it, if you have that kind of easy going attitude then there is a very good chance that you lack the competitiveness to become good enough to achieve it. Sweeping generalisation alert, but if you are good and claim that you are THAT relaxed about it, I don’t believe you. Sorry. Every competitive person I ever met constantly wanted to improve their own performance in whatever they were aiming themselves at irrespective of win or loss. I bet Cy Young, Ty Cob, Babe Ruth and all the others were never truly 100% happy with their performances. Even after their careers were over, and despite ego’s the size of small countries (large countries in some cases) I bet each and every one of them wished they had done at least one thing better or at least differently. Cy Young even said he should have become a doctor instead of playing baseball, though without having heard the tone it was spoken in, I safely assume it was a joke.

You could say that enjoying yourself and doing the best you can is perfection, but frankly, you’d be the kind of tree hugging fairy that enjoys sports like synchronised swimming and campaigns for school sports not to be scored so kids don’t get downbeat by losing, and I would really rather go and stand on the other side of the room from you now.

Conclusion? I think that deep down, that’s what people actually love about baseball, whether playing or watching. I have not met a person in Herts yet who didn’t want to win, and who didn’t want to be better than they are, irrespective of how good they actually are, and even watching stars at work I hear people talking about so-and-so-won-but-you-see-that-drop-by-whotsitsface? I have seen our best NLB pitchers cursing themselves beneath their breaths for a bad throw and monster hitters dump their helmets and bats in anger after strikeouts. It’s the striving for constant improvement that is one of the biggest draws of the sport. Its always trying to find that marginal edge. You can go home really happy after a game in which you won and did well, but you will always be thinking, hmm, I hope I can do that again next week and just maybe even a little better.

If Tim Keefe (WHO?!?!?!…he played in 1880) has the single season ERA record of 0.857 while Ed Walsh has a career ERA of 1.82 and while Tip O’Neil (1887 this time) has a single season batting average record of .485 and Ty Cob’s career record is 0.366, we got a way to go before someone gets 0.00 or 1.000 respectively.

Doesn’t mean we will ever stop trying.

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