For Humber, success was fleeting but fitting

Right-hander's career never the same after perfect game in April 2012

April 21st, 2017

Philip Humber woke up in Seattle on a Saturday morning exactly five years ago with absolutely no idea whatsoever that he was about to have the most magical day of his life.
Humber's career up to that point had been, well, "strange" is a good word. He was a breathtaking prospect when he pitched at Rice. Most scouts thought Humber had the best breaking ball in the 2004 Draft to go along with a mid-90s fastball -- Baseball America said he had a case as the safest choice in that Draft. The Mets took him with the third pick, and he signed quickly. It all looked so promising. Humber blew out his arm 15 games into his professional career and had Tommy John surgery. Fifteen games. Such is baseball. And it's fair to say that he was never quite the same after that.
Still, Humber kept going. He was traded to Minnesota in the Johan Santana deal. He was signed by Kansas City. He was released after making one big league start and signed by Oakland in December 2010. One month later, same offseason, Humber was released again and this time signed by the White Sox.
Joe Blogs: The art of being perfect
In 2011, Humber had his one full Major League season, an up-and-down affair, but one where he was able to flash just a little bit of the promise that had marked his college career. The '12 campaign began, and for the first time in his professional career, Humber had a baseball home. His wife was expecting their first child. There was stability in his life. In Humber's first start, he pitched solidly, going 5 1/3 innings and allowing one run.
Then it was that Saturday morning, April 21, a plain old day game at Safeco Field between two teams that were likely going nowhere. A baseball season is filled with such days, repetitive days, 54 more outs to log into the record books. Any day.
This is the beauty of baseball, of course. Any day can be remarkable.
You know that buzz you feel when you find out there's a perfect game going? It might come from an alert on your phone. You might see it on Twitter or Facebook. A friend might text you. The perfect game … it gets the heart pumping. Part of it is the name: Perfect game. No other sport has a perfect game. A basketball player can be flawless from the field, a left tackle can grade out at 100 percent on his blocks, a quarterback can complete all of his passes, a goalie can stop more shots than any goalie ever before. But it still isn't a perfect game. That's a baseball thing, perfection -- 27 up and 27 down.
There have been 23 official perfect games in baseball history, though it's not entirely clear why baseball insists on counting the two perfect games of 1880. Lee Richmond of the Worcester Worcesters (yeah, that's the name -- though they were sometimes called the Worcester Ruby Legs) and John Montgomery Ward of the Providence Grays threw perfect games five days apart in June 1880. This would be a lot more impressive except walks were eight balls then, pitchers were not allowed to throw the ball from above the waist and hitters were actually known to ask for high or low pitches specifically. It was a different game.
Since 1900, there have been 21, and they have been splattered through the years. There were two during the Deadball Era -- Cy Young's in 1904 and Addie Joss' in '08. In '22, a rookie from Texas named Charlie Robertson threw a perfect game in Detroit.
It would be another 34 years until the next perfect game, Don Larsen's masterpiece in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series against Brooklyn.
The perfect-game rhythm has been irregular ever since. There were three in a four-year period in the 1960s -- Hall of Famers Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax and Catfish Hunter -- and a 13-year wait until Len Barker threw the next one. There were three in the '80s, four in the '90s and two in the 2000s.
And then, probably beginning with Mark Buehrle's on July 23, 2009, the perfect game blew up. There were six perfect games from 2009-12, featuring great pitchers (Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay), very good pitchers (Matt Cain and Buehrle) and a couple of quirky outsiders. One of those outsiders was Oakland's Dallas Braden, who at that moment was best known for telling off for running over the pitcher's mound. Braden threw his perfect game on Mother's Day 2010, just three weeks after the A-Rod exchange.
The other outsider was Humber. He might have noticed early on that Saturday that his slider was breaking hard. Humber got two easy groundouts and then a soft lineout by in the first inning. In the second, he got three swinging strikeouts. And in the third, Humber got two infield popups and a strikeout -- three innings and he had not yet let the ball out of the infield.
"I wouldn't say I was aware of anything special early in the game," Humber told reporters. "I was just trying to be aggressive and get first-pitch strikes."
In the fourth inning, hit probably the hardest-hit ball of the day, a line drive to deep right field. It forced Alex Rios to jump just a little at the end, though he would say, "I had it all the way."
And then it was cruise time -- Humber threw just 20 pitches from the fourth to sixth innings. The Mariners were swinging free, trying to be aggressive, and after six innings, Humber knew exactly where he stood. He tried hard to stay loose. If there was one thing that haunted Humber, it was his tendency to overthink things. As the perfect-game buzz began to take over, Humber insisted on talking to his teammates in the dugout; he did not want them staying away for any superstitious reasons.
"When guys were getting hits and scoring runs, I was telling them, 'Great job!'" Humber said after the game. "I don't like to be isolated like that."
Humber had a seven-pitch battle in the seventh before striking out Chone Figgins. He threw five pitches and whiffed to end the inning.
And then came the ninth. Humber's catcher A.J. Pierzynski would say he never felt more nervous, not even when he played in the World Series. Humber felt the nerves too. He fell behind the leadoff batter , 3-0, but then threw three consecutive strikes, the last one swinging for out No. 1.
Then Humber got to hit a routine fly to right.
"His slider that day," Jaso would say years later, "was ridiculous."

And then came the toughest at-bat of the night, a seven-pitch battle with . The last pitch is still very much in dispute five years later. The count was 3-2 and Pierzynski insisted on calling for the outside slider. It was Humber's best pitch all game and Pierzynski figured that even if Ryan laid off the pitch, Humber still had a shot at the no-hitter.
"I'm not going to lie, I was being a little bit selfish," Pierzynski said. "No matter what, I still wanted the no-hitter. If he walked him, he walked him."
Humber's pitch didn't come close to the strike zone, it was a foot outside, so far outside that Pierzynski couldn't catch it and the ball rolled to the backstop. Ryan thought he checked his swing and began to jog to first. But home-plate umpire Brian Runge pointed at Ryan and made the out sign. He decided that Ryan had swung. Those two argued while Pierzynski chased down the ball and threw to first to complete the perfecto.
And people in Seattle cheered wildly. That's what a perfect game does. It turns everyone into fans of the same team.
Did Ryan swing? Replays are tricky -- the answer is probably in the eye of the beholder. I've asked two different people, one said there is absolutely no question that he did swing, the other said there's absolutely no question that he did not. Anyway, in the moment it was a swing, and the White Sox piled on top of Humber.
Humber's whole life would change, at least for a little while. He read his own personal Top 10 list on "The Late Show with David Letterman" ("If I were you, I'd retire now," Letterman told him. "Straight to Cooperstown, my friend."). Humber received dozens and dozens of congratulatory letters and messages. He donated stuff to the the Baseball Hall of Fame. His first son, John Gregory, was born 10 days later. And when Humber looked at the list of Hall of Famers -- at that time, he was the 21st to throw a perfect game -- he shook his head.
"I don't know what 'Philip Humber' is doing on this list," he said.
The end came much more quickly than Philip Humber could ever have imagined that day, while he was being mobbed by teammates. This is the hard part of baseball. No matter how wonderful or perfect today might have been, there's another game tomorrow. In his next start, he gave up nine runs. Two starts later, Humber made it only into the third inning and gave up eight runs. By August, he was out of the rotation.
By November, the White Sox waived him.
Humber went to Houston the next year and made seven starts, but it was no good. The Astros let him go, too.
"The ball's just not coming out of my hand like I want it to right now," Humber said. "And on top of that, it just seems like every mistake I make is getting hitting hard."
Humber picked up with Oakland for a year, went to Korea for a while, tried to make it happen again with San Diego, but he never made it back up to the big leagues. He quietly retired in May of last year.
"It's been interesting," Humber told reporters in Oakland when he was trying to come back. "If you'd drawn it up like this … it's not what I would have dreamed up. But I wouldn't change it."
Of course, you can't change things -- not in baseball, not in life. In the end, Philip Humber's career didn't turn out exactly like he or so many planned. But for one day, he was perfect. And really, how many people can say that?