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27 Men Out: Baseball's Perfect Games by…

27 Men Out: Baseball's Perfect Games

by Michael Coffey

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Spring training games started yesterday so it's time to start dreaming of spring, sunshine, and fresh-mowed grass. While I'm not one of those devotees that flock to Arizona or Florida for spring training every February and March, I am enough of a fan to enjoy a good baseball story, book or movie when one shows up. My latest find was a collection of perfect games by Michael Coffey called 27 Men Out.

Perfect games are rare in baseball. Far less common than even no-hitters. A pitcher can walk someone in a no-hitter. He can even lose. (Hey, it's happened!) But a perfect game is, by definition, a complete nine inning game in which a pitcher doesn't let a single runner on base. Twenty-seven batters up; twenty-seven down. Hence, the title. There have only been fifteen perfect games under modern rules (since 1901). That's about one every 10,000 games. That's rare.

Coffey recounts each game vividly. It almost feels like you're reading a sportswriter recap the contests in the morning paper. And he adds background to the players you don't know. I knew nothing about Addie Joss, who threw the second perfect game, but Coffey made me a fan. Sandy Koufax was before my time, too, but now I understand what the fuss was about a generation before me. The author also covers what baseball experienced between the perfect games. Each chapter starts that way. Sometimes its a bother; other times its a treat. Roberto Clemente was never involved in a perfect game, but he changed baseball and had an enormous impact on Latin America. I really enjoyed reading about Clemente in the lead-up to Dennis Martinez's perfect game.

Knowing the outcome of each contest is a bit of a drawback. You don't have the same suspense as someone who watched or listened to the game when it happened. If it's in the book, the pitcher won. No one reached base. Duh! But each game was different in some way. It might have been a great pitcher throwing all the right stuff or a lousy pitcher who kind of got lucky -- in a huge way. Coffey's descriptions keep it lively, and it's enjoyable to read how the players in each chapter go through the same cycle: 1) the enjoyment of a good outing, 2) the realization that it's a really good game, and finally 3) the awe of knowing that one specific person on one specific day achieved perfection.

One such realization came after Cy Young's perfecto -- the first of the era -- when his first baseman remarked to Young that "nobody came down to see me today." It reminded me of the scene in the Kevin Costner film For Love of the Game when Billy Chapel (Costner's character) stared at an eighth inning scoreboard full of zeroes and quietly asked his catcher: "Been anyone on base?"

As the chapters in the book rolled toward the modern era and each game played out, I found myself knowing more of the names and more of the stories from my childhood. Coffey even mentioned a memorable but non-perfect game that I watched from center field, first row (the best game ever: Game 5 of the 1995 division series in Seattle). He also mentioned poor Alfredo Griffin. Perfect games are extremely rare, but Griffin ended up in not one, not two, but THREE perfect games; on the losing team each time. :(

On May 18, 2004, while Coffey's book was going to press, 40-year-old Randy Johnson threw baseball's fifteenth perfect game for Arizona. His game wasn't included in my copy of the book, but a newer edition of the book includes him.

Find more of my reviews at Mostly NF
  benjfrank | Jan 23, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743446062, Hardcover)

The first in-depth look at baseball's nirvana -- a lyrical history of pitching perfection.

There have been only fourteen perfect games pitched in the modern era of baseball; the great Cy Young fittingly hurled the first, in 1904, and David Cone pitched the most recent, in 1999. In between, some great pitchers -- Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning, and Don Larsen in the World Series -- performed the feat, as did some mediocre ones, like Len Barker and the little-known Charlie Robertson. Fourteen in 150,000 games: The odds are staggering.

When it does happen, however, the whole baseball world marvels at the combination of luck and skill, and the pitcher himself gains a kind of baseball immortality. Five years ago, Michael Coffey witnessed such an event at Yankee Stadium, and the experience prompted this expansive look at the history of these unsurpassable pitching performances. He brings his skills as a popular historian and poet to an appraisal of both the games themselves and of the wider sport of baseball and the lives of the players in it. The careers of each of the fourteen perfect-game pitchers are assessed, not only as to their on-the-field performances but with a regard for their struggles to persevere in an extremely competitive sport in which, more often than not, the men and women who run the game from the owners' boxes are their most formidable adversaries. Along the way, Michael Coffey brings us right into the ballparks with a play-by-play account of how these games unfolded, and relates a host of fascinating stories, such as Sandy Koufax's controversial holdout with Don Drysdale and its chilling effect on baseball's owners, Mike Witt's victimization by the baseball commissioner, and Dennis Martinez's long struggle up from an impoverished Nicaraguan childhood.

Combining history, baseball, and a sweeping look at the changing face of labor relations, 27 Men Out is a new benchmark in sports history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:52 -0400)

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