27 Men Out (Michael Coffey)

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 [LibraryThing / WorldCat].

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.

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