Pitching a perfect game isn’t baseball’s rarest feat. It’s more common than an unassisted triple play.
Yet the luck and precision involved in retiring every batter of a game, as River Cats pitcher Phil Humber knows, define baseball’s most revered fraternity.
It’s unlikely Lee Richmond, a left-hander who pitched underhand, knew what he was starting in 1880 when he tossed the first perfect game. The game’s modern era was still 20 years away when he performed the feat for the Worcester (Mass.) Ruby Legs. But 132 years later, Humber knew exactly what he had done on April 21, 2012.
At the start of the 2012 season, Humber, now 31, was 11-10 in 28 career major-league starts and had never pitched a complete game. But in his 30th career start, Humber needed just 96 pitches – he struck out nine and reached a three-ball count only three times – to record the 21st perfect game of the modern era as the Chicago White Sox beat the Seattle Mariners 4-0. Ten days later, Humber’s wife, Kristan, delivered the couple’s son, John.
“It’s obviously something I will never forget,” Humber said last week of his perfect game. “But it’s a one-time deal. Sometimes people will look at my stats and say, ‘Well, that guy hasn’t had that great of a career.’ Or they say, ‘Things haven’t gone that well for him.’
“My career has been up and down, and if you play long enough, you are going to have a lot of ups and downs. There are very few Derek Jeters or Mariano Riveras who just come up, set the world on fire and stay that way forever.”
Humber’s perfect game was the first of three in 2012, and there hasn’t been one since. A perfect game has occurred about once every 18,000 games since 1900, and there has been a gap of more than 20 years between some of them.
“I’m really surprised sometimes when people will recognize me without my uniform on,” Humber said. “It doesn’t happen all the time. But I’ve probably had 60,000 people tell me they were at the game. But there were only about 20,000 in attendance that day. But it did happen to be a Fox game on a Saturday, so a lot of people actually saw it.”
Humber, who was drafted third overall by the New York Mets in 2004, played for nine minor-league and five major-league teams before signing with the A’s in November. He was assigned to the River Cats this year following the worst season of his career. He began 2013 as Houston’s No. 3 starter but was dropped from the rotation in May, finishing 0-8 with a 7.90 ERA for the Astros and 2-4 with a 4.68 ERA for Oklahoma City of the Pacific Coast League.
“It depends on the day how I feel,” Humber said. “But last year was kind of the turning point for me. What happened in Houston was terrible. I had a great opportunity there. I was prepared. I worked as hard as I could, but it just didn’t work out.
“Well, I finally felt it was rock bottom. I went from doing well in 2011 (9-9, 3.75 ERA in 163 innings) to throwing a perfect game in 2012 and then in 2013 I found myself back in the minor leagues. You don’t know if you’re ever going to get back.”
River Cats manager Steve Scarsone understands Humber’s plight. Scarsone, a former infielder, played 11 seasons in the minors and parts of seven seasons in the majors.
“(Humber) had a little chunk of time in the big leagues and a perfect game in the big leagues, and he’s a guy who has proven himself,” Scarsone said. “Now he’s back in Triple A, and it’s time to redefine himself as a pitcher.
“His first month was a struggle trying to figure out who he was and where his future was going to take him. It’s a big soul-searching time. You work toward the goal and you get there and for whatever reason – performance, numbers, situational – you’re now back in Triple A, and it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Humber has started one game for the River Cats, but he’s now a reliever with an appearance only every few days.
“I think a lot of times from the outside looking in, you look at a guy’s ERA and you say, ‘He was in the big leagues, and now he’s in Triple A,’ ” said Humber. “It’s got to be so rough.’
“But really, it’s just life like everyone else. You have good days and bad days. Sometimes, you get a promotion; sometimes they invite you to leave. That’s just how life is for most people. Sometimes people separate sports because they’re just watching highlight shows.”
Humber isn’t the only surprising pitcher in the perfect-game fraternity. But the list mostly includes names like Cy Young, Sandy Koufax and Don Larsen.
“Obviously, I am not in the same class as Sandy Koufax or even a guy like Dennis Martinez,” Humber said. “There are a lot of people who may not know what a great career he had.
“But even he’s not in the same category as Koufax. But if you look at a no-hitter or a perfect game or four home runs in a game, it’s just a statistic.
“I’m sure you could pull out any statistic, and there’s going to be a hodgepodge of guys. This guy was a journeyman. This guy was a Hall of Famer. This guy was a whatever. I’m sure there are a lot of guys who have done a lot of amazing feats. But they didn’t have the consistent career everyone would like to have. Very few people actually do.”
Humber’s perspective echoes the advice shared by his manager.
“I use a story with these guys,” Scarsone said. “I say, ‘Listen, I lived it. I know what you are dealing with. I know what it felt like. You think, I am going to be in the big leagues forever, and then I find out, I am not. So, now what do you do?’
“That’s my biggest question. Whether it’s a bad at-bat or going 0 for 4 or giving up a game-winning home run or a grand slam or whatever the negative things are that can happen out there, what are you going to do next? What are you going to do about it?”
Humber ponders those questions. Early in his minor-league career, several of his teams’ rosters included players in their mid-30s. This season, he checks rosters when visiting a new city and sees he’s among the oldest players in Triple A.
“There are one of two ways to look at this,” Humber said. “Am I too old to be doing this? Maybe. But I don’t feel old. I am actually getting better. I am just thankful that I have been able to play this long.
“This is my 10th year playing pro baseball. I had Tommy John surgery in 2005. When I get asked how long it took me to get back to where I was, I say, ‘Oh, about 10 years.’ My velocity is better. I am strong. If you appreciate where you are, it’s better than thinking what could have been or what should be.”