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Baseball: The Perfect Game

Last season Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper posted an astonishing stat line: four plate appearances, zero at-bats, four walks, four runs, one RBI. Before Harper last year, no one had posted that stat line since 1914. Remarkably, Harper achieved that stat line by taking twenty consecutive pitches. He did not once swing the bat in the game.[1]

That a batter could achieve a kind of “perfect game” without once swinging the bat is for baseball not anomalous. Baseball has a counterpart in the pitcher’s perfect game—also known as a “game in which nothing happens”: no runs, no hits, no walks, no hit-by-pitches, no errors.

The comparisons between Harper’s “perfect game” and a pitcher’s do break down when you actually watch what a pitcher does to achieve a perfect game—he has to throw lots of pitches in or near the strike zone which are yet sufficiently fast, nasty, or deceptive to befuddle twenty-seven consecutive batters—and when you see the spectacular defensive plays made to preserve the perfect game (in nearly all perfect games there is at least one such play). And that’s to say nothing of the nerves of steel the pitcher and defensive players behind him need to finish the perfect game—can you imagine being the third baseman who, twenty-five outs into a perfect game, has to charge a softly-hit ground ball, bare-hand it cleanly, and make a strong, accurate throw to first base on the full run? But at the end of the game the box score throws an invisibility cloak over those efforts—the pitches, the defensive plays, the steely nerves. The box score records only that nothing happened. Perfection.

That the baseball community, a group notably obsessed both with history and statistics, calls these kinds of outlier games perfect is but a small example of a broader phenomenon. A good many of our predecessors, philosophizing under the influence of Plato, bequeathed to us a common idea of perfection as something defined negatively. Perfection is a state of no-sin, no-flaw, no-error. Sir Thomas More’s perfect society utopia is literally a no-place. We often describe the most marvelous friends of ours, the ones that have been most perfected in love, with slanders like self-less—as if the absence of the self rather than the presence of patience, kindness, and generosity were the point.

Against all that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews testifies:

Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him . . .

Platonist perfection may account for Jesus of Nazareth’s being “without sin.” It cannot account for his “prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears,” nor for his “learning obedience by the things he suffered.” The faithful Priest who has entered into Heaven itself, who has taken the part of Israel’s prodigals and the “other sheep not of Israel’s fold,” gained admission to the heavenly of heavenlies precisely by means of tears and blood and marks—marks the Resurrection did not erase.

As baseball season commences, then, we may regard a Perfect Game a little differently, along lines set forth in Jesus’ most famous story. In the game over which the angels in the heavens rejoice, the prodigal son makes it home by a hook slide that avoids his elder brother’s tag, and leaves dirt on his trousers and a strawberry on his elbow. And the Father receives him with open arms, blessing the dirt and the strawberry.

[1] I am indebted to Russ Ramsey for this story. I had missed the news of Harper’s once-in-a-century game, but he reported it at Hutchmoot 2015.

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