Thursday, May 5, 2011


[Fair and Unbalanced contributor sasqi and her husband Paul are on a two-month road-trip stopping at several major- and minor-league ballparks. Here is another in their great series of reports.]

Sunday will be Mother's Day, 2011.  On Mother's Day 2010, we were in Los Angeles with Farnaz's mom and her whole family at a cousin's house for talk, the usual huge feast of Persian food, the lovefest that is the Fatemi clan.  At some point in the afternoon I retreated to a bedroom to check on the A's; we were missing our usual weekend series, this one against Tampa Bay. Dallas Braden was pitching. It was the sixth inning, no score. In fact, Tampa Bay didn't have a hit.

In fact, Tampa Bay wouldn't get a hit that day. Nor a walk. The A's didn't commit an error. No one reached base. A PERFECT GAME.  The game we missed. For mom.

The closest I've gotten to a no-hitter was that Boston fanatic Curt Schilling's eight-and-one-third innings at Oakland--a day P and I almost didn't go to the ballpark. In the 7th inning, even though the A's were losing, the atmosphere was electric because everyone had started figuring out what was happening. Schilling didn't make the no-no, but he did beat the A's and Joe Blanton 1-0 in a beautiful pitcher's duel.  That day is still one of my answers to "What's your most memorable baseball moment"--partly because when you are watching 25 outs without a hit, and the game still isn't done, you realize how difficult it is to sustain that kind of performance through 27.

That was the closest either of us has come to a no-hitter. Before last night. Place: Cellular Field, south side of Chicago. Temperature:  41 degrees at game time, 38 by the third inning. After walking back to the hotel around 5, with the wind blowing off Lake Michigan into my face, I started remembering the football games I would sit through with my dad sixty years ago at Wrigley Field: snow on the sidelines, hot chocolate in thermoses, gloves on my hands, bundled in a parka. F and I had to go out to buy warmer coats when we hit Chicago, but they weren't warm enough where it mattered:  on the face, the ears, the hands.

But we had tickets, we were on this odyssey, we went.  Francisco Liriano for the Twins, Edwin Jackson for the White Sox. Both teams were expected to be at the top of their division, both teams were fighting to stay out of last place. Liriano sported a 9+ ERA, and a 1-4 record; his control was so erratic that he'd walked almost as many hitters as he'd struck out, almost one per inning. Jackson wasn't much better:  he boasted a 5+ ERA with a 2-3 record.  The inept vs the more inept, some scribes were suggesting: maybe not so much a game to determine which team was best in the midwest as a night when the least bad would triumph.

We sat in section 537, up higher than some planes but with a great view of the action, just to the left of home plate. There were a lot of extra seats around us, but four Sox fans in front (the men with 2005 World Series Champion jackets), a family to the right, and to the left two women who were in town from Minnesota cheering on the visitors. It was a fast game. Jackson was in trouble in the first, when Minnesota had two on, and again in the second; then he settled down, giving up just a home run and a double through eight innings before Thornton came in to mop up the top of the ninth.

We were at Cellular Field on Sunday for a day game against Baltimore -- a game which was all promise for a slumping team like the Sox, weather starting to hover in the mid to upper 60s, crowds in lots of different parts of the park, Gavin Floyd on the mound. We found cheap seats on StubHub so we're sitting 30 rows from the field not far up the first base line, in a packed section. There are lots of families at the game, but there are also plenty of Sunday afternoon dates. More than any park I've seen, except for AT&T, there are lesbians out and about.There is a straight couple on a date behind us and a man is answering astute questions his girlfriend keeps asking, like: why did that runner just get to advance? (He explains the difference between a fake to first and a balk.) Next to me, a grandson is keeping score with an Orioles cap on, and he, too, is still learning things about the game from his grandfather.  A couple behind us talks about public schools, where one of them teaches, most of the game.

I am part of a crowd that loves baseball, in a beautiful ball park (rebuilt as New Comiskey, now U.S. Cellular Field, in 1991) with steel girded rafters floating above the upper level seats, a design that puts one in mind of the Elevated Rail Loop in downtown Chicago. These days I guess it is visitors like us who get the most joy out of the novelty of a thoughtfully designed ball park. As a long time fan of the A's, a team that starts each season busking about a newly energized offense, or about our dream-pitching-team, and then quickly betrays us with poor management and eerily quiet bats, I recognize the hungry looks in the stands when the Sox surge back in the 8th inning during that day game, and the sullen faces when they can't get closer than a 6-4 loss. Fans leave early from Oakland Coliseum all the time, but this crowd was booing.

Meanwhile, Liriano was pitching like . . . well, like Liriano for the first time this season. Six walks--Juan Pierre walked three times during the game and was the only Sox player to reach second when he stole. But three double plays. Two days before we had watched the Sox lose to Baltimore: bottom of the ninth, behind by two, the 2, 3, and 4 batters in their lineup took called third strikes.  Yes, they were that bad. Still, this was something else.

I generally cheer for the White Sox because they are one of Paul's hometown teams. But last night I started rooting for Liriano as he closed out the 6th inning. I didn't say anything to Paul, and I sang along with the "Go-go-go Sox, Chicago is Proud of You" song that popped up on the scoreboard in the middle of the eighth. But it was after those quick six innings that I started thinking:  "Hey--we trooped out here in this deep freeze, sat in the upper deck and have been more faithful to the Sox than most of the really demoralized fans around us. About now it would be pretty amazing if Liriano could keep on."

Cellular Park is beautiful. But there are rules. If you sit up in the 500 level seats, they don't allow you to move downstairs even to the concession stands. We tried to walk around the park and were told we couldn't pass through an area of children's arcades if we weren't with a child. "So we have to buy one to come through?" Paul said. The usher didn't laugh.

Given the year he was having, holding a club hitless was new for Liriano. So was holding a club scoreless. We watched as the zeroes mounted, inning after inning. By the seventh inning stretch, a few of the local cheers were shifting from the Sox to the Twins. For the two of us, each out was an added pleasure. The Sox fans sitting below us were more and more frustrated, yelling back at their anemic team.  By the bottom of the ninth a group of young fans in the next section over who had been calling "Good Eye!" each time a Sox hitter took a ball rather than swinging instead started screaming excitedly with each strike.

When did the Minnesota infielders start thinking about the no-no? By inning eight, their haunches were tight on every pitch, their movements more stiff and insistent than usual but still well choreographed, lowering into position as Liriano assumed the same stance, pitch after pitch, facing his catcher, shifting on the mound, moving from windup to release. The infielders were ready to throw themselves on a ball rather than be the sucker who gave up the first hit.

But when did they give themselves a glimpse of the bigger picture, allow themselves to think that no-hitters put players' names in record books, of the way they would always be able to say they were there, a part of this, witness and participant to the instant when a no-hitter changes a W to a N-N? It must be dangerous, letting thoughts like that in, because it undermines the way a ballplayer needs to just focus on the baseball, the geometry, the pitch, the ball off the bat. How to get the runner out. Still, we all know that everything changes for all the players, not just the pitcher:  after a no-hitter, the pitcher talks about how everyone avoids him in the dugout, how the players are hyper aware of what they're part of. The leap into the air Tolbert made after he caught the last out--a liner that could have gone into left field for a single--made it clear how much it was on HIS mind with every stride he took towards that ball.

I don't know what it would be like to be a hometown fan getting no-hit. I know during that sunny afternoon game against Boston that it took me a little longer to root only for Schilling, despite knowing what I was witnessing; Paul says he never did.  At the end of the White Sox half of the eighth, they had a man on first, and then the third baseman, Beckham, ground into a double play. A young Sox fan two rows ahead of me who had been a good fan all night--vocal, rooting, not too drunk--couldn't take it anymore. He stood up as Beckham took off for first, and when Beckham couldn't beat the throw he flipped him off. Maybe that's just something I hope I'll never see in Oakland. But I couldn't help but wonder, did this young man just feel the possibility of a no-hitter was below the last rung of the team's dignity? Probably.

Sitting next to us were two women who were in town for a Critical Care Nursing conference when they found out the Twins were playing Chicago. They told me their husbands were jealous that they got to go to the game. After the win I turned to them, laughed, and said "There is going to be some serious jealousy now." One said her husband called her, "just to make sure I knew what was going on." She rolled her eyes.

In the end, it was history. Liriano's first complete game, his first no-hitter, the first no-hitter of the 2011 season. 123 pitches. Two hours and fifteen achingly cold and exciting minutes, and we were on the el and subway heading back to our hotel room. Chicago had other pleasures for both of us, from taxidermy to paintings, family gatherings to a view of the Chicago River from our room. Liriano might have topped them all, one baseball visitor unknowingly sharing his day of glory with two fans.

[Lovechilde:  If I may, I was 10 years old and at Shea Stadium on April 22, 1970, when Tom Seaver tied what was then a record of 19 strikeouts in a game and set a record for striking out the last 10 in a row.  I can still see Al Ferrara's whiff to end the game.  Still my greatest baseball memory.]

[Related posts: Men Left On; WhataburgerThe Open Star]


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