Sitting out on our deck on the next-to-last full day of spring, with the temperature a balmy 72 degrees and the sky filled with puffy clouds, our Yorkie on my lap, the thought occurred to me that this was about as perfect a day as one could hope for.
Of course, perfection is a matter of perception. I was thinking first and foremost of the weather. In northern Wisconsin, it is said we have nine months of winter and three months of bad snowmobiling (or three months of road construction, take your pick). It’s really not that bad; we generally get our first dusting of snow by mid-October and our final blast in mid-April, although we’ve been known to have snow in May–and one old-timer I knew up here swore he once saw snow flurries at his place up near Minong on the 4th of July. So, our typical winter lasts some six months, exceeding the official season by three.
But I was also thinking about baseball. As you may know if you’re a regular reader, I am a rather huge fan of the Grand Old Game, and a loyal follower of the Milwaukee Brewers in particular. Today, they are in San Diego and struggling to avoid a three-game sweep in the final game of what will be a losing road trip to Texas and California. By the time they get home to Milwaukee tonight, they could be out of first place in the National League’s Central Division, depending on the outcome of their game against the Padres and how the second-place Cubs do against the White Sox tonight in Chicago. The Brewers entered the day with a half-game lead despite their road woes, primarily because the Cubs have also been struggling.
Baseball’s legions of fans know that perfection in this game is rarely achieved by the individual player and never as a team. For the player, a “perfect game” is usually defined as a pitcher allowing no base runners over a complete nine innings. No hits, no walks, no hit batters, and especially no errors committed by the pitcher himself and the eight teammates backing him up in the field. It’s so rare a feat that it has happened only 23 times in the 144-year history of Major League Baseball, most recently in 2012, when Seattle’s Felix Hernandez tossed the third perfecto of the season. Earlier this season, the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff came close, when he allowed only one base-runner in eight innings against the Phillies: light-hitting backup catcher Andrew Knapp, who hit a home run. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said later that had Woodruff gone through eight innings with the perfect game intact, he certainly would’ve allowed Woodruff to take the mound in the ninth to go for history. As it was, the Brewers had a sizable lead and so Counsell relied on the bullpen to complete the game.
Perfection for a hitter has never been as clearly defined, but many big leaguers have days at the plate where they get a base hit every time up, and what’s more, don’t commit an error in the field, so putting that kind of game together could be said to be a work of perfection. But what if all his hits are singles? Is not a home run the ultimate base hit, and if it is, is a hitter going 4-for-4 with all singles not as “perfect” as a guy who slams four home runs? (The four-homer game is more rare than the pitcher’s perfect game; it has been achieved only eighteen times in MLB history, most recently by Arizona’s J.D. Martinez in 2017.)
Dreaming of perfection.
Every baseball pitcher probably dreams of throwing a perfect game (or, if he’s not a pitcher, hitting four home runs in four trips to the plate). My own athletic dreams were more team-oriented. I played basketball, where the perfect individual game cannot be so easily defined. It has certainly happened that a player has made every shot he’s attempted in a game, from the field and the free-throw line, but nobody ever says that’s a perfect game; maybe he or she had a perfect game in terms of shooting, but there were likely other areas of the game where the player fell short of perfection, such as committing a turnover or allowing the opposing player he’s guarding to score. If I were to score thirty points with 10 for 10 from the field and 10 for 10 from the line, but the guy I’m defending scores even one basket, I haven’t played perfectly in every facet of the game.
I’ve written previously of my high school basketball career at little Potosi High in southwest Wisconsin back in the mid-seventies. Like the vast majority of high school athletes, I never played on a championship team, not even a conference titlist. Entering my senior season, we thought we were certainly good enough to win the nine-team Blackhawk League and even contend for the state championship in our division, which at that time had nearly 200 teams. We achieved neither goal. In the league, a mid-season four-game losing streak doomed us to finishing three games behind champion West Grant; in the playoffs, we blew a sizable lead and lost to Belmont in the regional semifinal, falling four victories shy of getting to the Final Four in Madison. We would’ve had to win that game and five more, against increasingly tougher competition, to get the state title. A daunting task, to be sure, but Marathon High School did it that year. Somebody does it every year. Today, there are five divisions of competition in Wisconsin high school hoops, and 128 teams enter the Division 5 playoffs every season at the end of February, including my alma mater. One of those teams is going to hoist the gold trophy at the Kohl Center in Madison on the third Saturday of March. The other 127 will fall short.
Once in a great while, that team, or one of the winners in the four higher divisions, will finish its season undefeated. The last Wisconsin boys basketball team to have a perfect season was Appleton Xavier (28-0) in 2017. That Marathon team that won Potosi’s division in 1975 did it, finishing 25-0, and what’s more they did it again the next year. They won a third straight title in ’77, although that year’s team suffered two defeats along the way. Still, that’s quite a run, three consecutive state titles with a combined record of 74-2. Not too many high school players would mind leaving that kind of legacy.
An even higher degree of perfection was achieved by another Wisconsin high school team in a different sport in more recent times. Kimberly High School, located over near Green Bay, built a powerhouse football program that produced five consecutive undefeated seasons. The Papermakers started their unprecedented streak in 2013, going 14-0 to win the Division 2 title. They moved up to Division 1 (division placement is based on enrollment, not competitive equity, which is a major controversy in the state) for the rest of their run, and when they defeated Sun Prairie in the 2017 title game, Kimberly had a winning streak of five straight titles and 70 consecutive victories, all under one head coach, Steve Jones. It was the longest winning streak in Wisconsin history. As impressive as it was, the Papermakers’ run ranked only 13th in U.S. high school history; the record is held by De La Salle of Concord, Cal., which won an incredible 151 in a row from 1992-2004. Kimberly’s streak ended in the opening game of the 2018 season with a loss to Fond du Lac, 31-28. The visiting Cardinals kicked a field goal on the final play of regulation to win it. The Papermakers recovered from that loss, winning their next 12 games before losing to Muskego in the Division 1 title game, 24-21.
I can only imagine what it would be like to compete all four years of high school and never lose a game, yet that’s what two whole classes of Kimberly kids, the graduating classes of 2017 and ’18, achieved. Certainly they weren’t absolutely perfect; they gave up some points, committed some penalties, threw an interception or lost a fumble every now and then. But where it counted, on the scoreboard, they achieved perfection for five straight years.
In some individual sports, perfection can be achieved, at least for a period of time. Previously, I’ve written about a pair of wrestlers who came as close to athletic perfection as it may be possible to get: Going to the Mat.
Dreaming the dream.
One time I had a dream about re-living my high school basketball years, only this time I avoided the knee injury that cost me most of my junior year. In the dream, I stay healthy, have a great season and get our team to Madison, where we lose in the title game in overtime. (I think; dreams can be a little fuzzy on the details.) The next year, though, we run the table, finishing 26-0, and what’s more, nobody comes within ten points of us all season long. It’s truly a dominant year, capped in glory with a blowout win (over Marathon) in the state title game. Hey, it was my dream, so it can be interpreted pretty much any way I want, right? In thinking about that dream later–and perhaps fleshing it out a bit, I’ll admit–I followed the dream’s climax along a logical path: I’m named all-state, get a scholarship to play for the Badgers, and things go ever upward from there.
But of course I can’t go back in time and make all that happen. Even if I could, I wouldn’t; undoubtedly that would’ve changed my life significantly, and who’s to say it would’ve been better than how it has actually turned out? In that alternate timeline, I could be walking across the street in Madison, on the way to the first practice of my freshman season with the Badgers, and get hit by a car.
No baseball team’s ever been perfect, but a few have gotten close.
Back to baseball, and the dreams of its fans. All of us would love to see a player from our team throw a perfect game, or hit four homers, but what we’d really love to see is another form of, shall we say, near-perfection: our team goes wire-to-wire, winning its season opener to move into first place right away and never yielding the top spot, finishing up a monster year by winning the World Series. That is truly rare; it’s been done only five times, by the 1927 Yankees, 1955 Dodgers, 1984 Tigers, 1990 Reds and 2005 White Sox.
Arguments can be made that of the five wire-to-wire teams mentioned above, the achievements of the 1984 Tigers, 1990 Reds and 2005 White Sox are more impressive than those of their two predecessors. Firstly, the ’27 Yankees and ’55 Dodgers played shorter seasons. MLB teams played a 154-game schedule prior to the early 1960s, when it expanded to 162 games. An extra eight games means eight more chances to lose, therefore increasing your chances, albeit slightly, of going through a cold stretch just when your chief pursuer gets hot. Also, those extra eight games mean eight more chances for key players to get injured. Another big reason the more modern teams deserve a little more credit is the addition of regularly-scheduled playoffs to post-season competition. Prior to 1969, league champions went automatically to the World Series. Everybody in the American League and the National League played the same number of games, and whoever was in first place when the dust settled was the champ. If there was a tie, there would be a playoff: a one-game winner-take-all showdown in the American League, a best-of-three series in the National. Such playoffs were rare.
But in 1969, when each league expanded from 10 teams to 12, the leagues were divided into two divisions of six teams each, with the division winners meeting in a best-of-five playoff for the league pennant. The ’27 Yankees and ’55 Dodgers, besides playing eight fewer regular-season games, never had to worry about a playoff. Modern teams know that they could rip through the regular season but then still get beat in the playoffs, so that increases the pressure. And in 1995, with realignment following further expansion, the playoff field increased. Since then, there have been three divisions in each league, and now two runner-up teams are allowed in per league, based on record. And, the League Championship Series is now best-of-seven (a change instituted in the mid-1980s). The ’84 Tigers and ’90 Reds had to win an LCS to get to the World Series, which they did, but the ’05 White Sox had the toughest path of all: those Sox went 99-63 in the regular season, winning the American League’s Central Division by six games over Cleveland. In the divisional round of the playoffs, a best-of-five set, the White Sox beat Boston in three straight games, and in the LCS they ousted the Los Angeles Angels 4-1. Then they swept Houston in four straight to win the World Series. Their overall record was 110-64 for a .632 winning percentage, which defenders of the ’27 Yankees point out that, while impressive, is not even close to the .722 mark (114-44 overall) of that storied team. But modern fans can then say, with some justification, that if those Yanks had been forced to go through not just one but two more teams, winning an additional seven games, just to get to the World Series, it might’ve been a different story for them. What if Babe Ruth had gotten hurt in one of those early-round games? Even with everybody healthy, the Yanks wouldn’t have been a lock to win. The second-place Philadelphia Athletics might’ve given them a run for their money; those A’s went 91-63 and gave the Yanks a tough go along the way, winning 8 of 22 games against their rivals. Indeed, the core of that ’27 A’s team would win three straight pennants and two World Series from 1929-31. But of course, these things can never be definitely decided because the teams will never actually play each other. How would the ’05 White Sox fare against those ’27 Yankees? We’ll never know, but that doesn’t stop hard-core baseball fans from arguing about it. Indeed, that’s one of the best parts of being a baseball fan: there’s always something to debate about. Could the ’05 White Sox beat the ’27 Yankees in a best-of-seven series? Was Ted Williams really a better hitter than Pete Rose? Is Barry Bonds truly a greater slugger than Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth? On and on it goes.
(A quick word about comparing baseball eras: While fans love to debate team vs team, era vs era, there’s no question that baseball is far more popular today than it was back in the good old days, measured by game attendance. Those 1927 Yankees drew just under 1.2 million fans, an average of only 15,117 per game. Only two Major League teams, out of 16, cracked the million mark in attendance, the other being the Cubs. In 2018, the average MLB game attracted 28,830 fans; in 1927, it was 8,032. Even accounting for the increase in population over the next 91 years, modern-day fans click the turnstiles at a rate far more significant than their great-grandparents did.)
A wire-to-wire season would be great, no doubt about it, but most fans would be satisfied with “just” winning the World Series. Fifty years ago this summer, fans of the New York Mets had that thrill, and it was especially exciting because the Mets, in the first seven years of their existence, had been one of the game’s worst teams. But in 1969, they put it all together, with a great mix of young stars, steady veterans and a savvy manager. And like every team, they needed some luck to get there. They avoided major injuries to their top players, and their chief rivals in the NL East, the Chicago Cubs, ran out of gas in September. The Mets swept Atlanta in the first-ever League Championship Series, and then took down the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, winning four straight after losing the opener.
Most baseball fans, like us Brewers backers, experience more than our share of frustration. The Brewers have never won the World Series; in fact, in their first 49 seasons, they made it that far only once, losing the 1982 Series to the hated St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. They came close last year, losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games in the NL Championship Series. This year, we came out of spring training expecting big things, World Series things, from our heroes. So far, they haven’t played as well, as consistently, as we would all like. Entering today’s game, they had a 40-33 record. If not for an eight-game winning streak a few weeks ago, they would be under .500, a sure sign of sports mediocrity. And today, trying to avoid their first sweep at the hands of the Padres in 12 years, they are trailing in the late innings as this is written.
Well, as the caption says, the Padres came through when they had to. The Brewers got the tying and lead runs on base in the 9th, but couldn’t score. Their record dropped to 40-34, and we’ll see what the Cubs do tonight. When the Brewers take the field tomorrow night at Miller Park against Cincinnati to open a four-game series, they could be a half-game out of first. Or maybe still a half-game ahead. Either way, there will still be a lot of baseball to be played this season, 88 games in fact, and last year they needed an extra game to decide the division title. To match last year’s 96 regular-season wins, the Brewers will have to go 56-32, which is a .636 clip. They’re certainly capable of it, but you have to prove it on the field.
We’ll see what happens. They won’t be perfect–no baseball team ever is, even the legendary wire-to-wire teams of yore–but they could still wind up as champions. That’s the thing about us baseball fans: we always have hope.