Perfection, broadly speaking, is an ethereal concept. It is an ideal toward which many strive yet largely is impossible to achieve. This is particularly true in sports. It’s common to refer to athletes as perfectionists — they would not have achieved their level without the core character traits that define perfectionism — yet how many opportunities are there to achieve perfection across professional sports? A perfect 10 in gymnastics. A triple bagel in tennis. A perfect game in baseball.
There have been 23 perfect games in the history of MLB. 23 out of over 230,000 total games played. That’s not much better odds than being struck by lightning. Yet on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in the Bronx, the most improbable perfect game played out in front of a capacity crowd of almost 50,000, the majority of whom were likely at the ballpark not in anticipation of a historic feat but instead to celebrate Beanie Baby Day.
May 17: Yankees 4, Twins 0 (box score)
Record: 28-9, .757 (up 3.5)
As far as candidates to throw perfect games go, a struggling pitcher just three days away from his 35th birthday would likely find himself toward the bottom of the list. Throw on top the fact that, by his own admission, said pitcher was “half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath, and a raging, skull-rattling hangover,” I imagine the possibility of a perfect game was the last thing on David Wells’ mind as he took to the mound shortly after 1:30pm local time.
The first inning kicked off on a benign enough note, with Wells inducing three quick outs via soft contact — a Matt Lawton flyball, Brent Gates pop fly, and Paul Molitor weak grounder — a trend which would characterize the outing and no doubt played a factor in his going the distance. It was more of the same the following frame, with a Marty Cordova groundout and Alex Ochoa foul pop fly sandwiched around a Ron Coomer strikeout swinging. Requiring just 22 pitches to complete this initial pair of innings, Wells was positioned nicely to give his team some much-needed length given their heavy reliance on the bullpen in recent contests.
The third inning is where we got our first glimpse of the pinpoint execution needed for any bid at perfection. First he struck out Jon Shave looking on a trademark lollypop curveball at the top of the zone. Then came a backwards K against Javier Valentin on a perfectly-executed fastball high and tight. Finally, a filthy front door changeup that Pat Meares swung over the top of. With four strikeouts through three and each of the fastball, curveball, changeup, and cutter on top form, already some excitement rippled through the crowd that they could be in for something special.
Even a pitcher in possession of his most dominant stuff and command needs a little bit of luck to retire 27 in a row, and for Wells that came in the form of old school Tim McClelland, well known for his liberal interpretation of the width of the strike zone. Time after time, Wells dotted his fastball a few inches off the plate armside, and each time McClelland pointed toward the Yankees dugout. No inning illustrated this better than the fifth, with Wells ringing up Cordova and Coomer having stolen at least one called strike against each.
The Yankees could count themselves lucky that Wells chose that afternoon of all days to launch his assault on the record books. As if the stress of the historic moment unfolding itself wasn’t enough, Wells’ efforts were indispensable toward the Yankees simply picking up a victory. The offense wasn’t exactly humming along, mustering only two runs through six innings off Minnesota starter LaTroy Hawkins. Bernie Williams opened the scoring in the second, leading off with a double before scampering home on a wild pitch to Jorge Posada. New York’s center fielder was also responsible for doubling their advantage in the fourth with a booming two-out solo shot to right.
The offense finally gave their starter some breathing room in the seventh. Williams doubled with one out and scored on a Darryl Strawberry triple to deep left. Chad Curtis followed with a line drive single to plate Strawberry and make it 4-0 Yankees, but at this point in the contest all anyone cared about was whether Wells would pull off the improbable.
It’s practically dogma that every perfect game must have a web gem defensive play that keeps the bid intact. The closest this game came to producing one of those highlights was with one out in the eighth, when Ochoa scorched a grounder right at Chuck Knoblauch. The second baseman got a glove on it, kept the ball in front of him, and fired to first to bring Wells within four outs of perfection. The only other close calls were of Wells’ own making, running the count full to Valentin in the third and Gates and Molitor in the seventh.
The crowd had reached a fever pitch by the time Wells sauntered out to the mound for the ninth inning. Joe Torre, Mel Stottlemyre, and Don Zimmer did their best to appear stoic in the dugout while David Cone did his best to not be seen. On the seventh pitch of the inning, leadoff batter Shave blooped a flyball to short right that initially appeared like it might dunk in based on the frantic backtracking by Knoblauch, but Paul O’Neill settled under it for the easy catch. Wells tallied his 11th and final strikeout on a nasty curveball in the dirt to Valentin, who mercifully did not run down to first as Posada scrambled around home plate for the ball. O’Neill was called into service again to convert the final out of perfection, drifting further and further toward the right field foul line before the Meares flyball settled harmlessly into his glove. He pumped his fist in triumph, emulating Wells’ own celebration as he turned to embrace the mob of his teammates sprinting out from the dugout to share this moment of eternity with their pitcher.