In baseball, it’s possible for a pitcher to achieve perfection. A perfect game is one in which no batters are allowed to reach base, either via error, walk, or basehit. Every single batter is retired: twenty seven up and twenty seven down. Perfect games are very rare at the major league level, with only twenty since major league baseball began its record-keeping. And yet, there have been, improbably, three so far this season. (Bear with me on this: a relevance to Mormon literature may yet emerge.)
The first took place on May 9, pitched by Oakland A’s lefthander, Dallas Braden. When scouts talk about young pitchers, they differentiate between ‘stuff’ and ‘command.’ ‘Stuff’ refers to raw talent–how fast can this young man throw the ball, with what kind of diabolical movement. ‘Command’ refers to control. A pitcher with good stuff and poor command may be able to throw the ball 98 miles per hour, but with little idea where it’s going, for example. Dallas Braden epitomizes a pitcher with mediocre stuff but superior command. His fastball tops out at 85 mph, but it goes exactly where he wants it to go, and he changes speeds admirably. He’s otherwise known as a fun-loving and admirable young man–still trying to solidify his position as a big leaguer, but a guy who’s known for running out on the field during rain delays and sliding on his belly on the wet grass. May 9 was Mother’s Day, and it turns out Braden’s own mother passed away when he was a senior in high school. He dedicates all his games to her, offering a little prayer at game’s end.
The second took place on May 29, pitched by Roy Halladay of the Philadephia Phillies, against the Florida Marlins. Dallas Braden is a marginal major leaguer who transcended his own limitations–Halladay is one of the game’s great stars, a superb pitcher with astounding stuff and command. The Marlins were helpless against him. No inspiring family angle, no smiles from fans that the angels of the game had smiled on an estimable young man. Just a thorough professional at the top of his craft.
The third perfect game, last night’s, was the most heart-breaking. Detroit Tigers right hander Armando Galarraga got the first twenty six batters out, and faced Cleveland Indians pinch-hitter Jason Donald. Donald grounded to first, and Miguel Cabrera, the first baseman, fielded it cleanly and tossed it to Galarraga, covering first (as is standard on grounders to the first baseman’s right). Galarraga touched first, and his perfect game was complete. But first base umpire Kevin Joyce blew the call, called Donald safe. After the game, Joyce saw a video replay, and was inconsolable. He apologized to the Tigers and to Galarraga, and went on national television to apologize again.
Now, a perfect game does not really represent perfection. Presumably every time a hitter hits the ball, it represents some kind of failure on the pitcher’s fault, even if his defensive teammates field the ball cleanly and get the guy out. A perfect game represents a sort of qualified, artificial, mortal perfection. Within the parameters of a game, within its rules structure and history, a few pitchers in history achieve something we call perfection.
For me, the most daunting, incomprehensible, terrifying and as far as I can imagine, impossible demand of our God is captured in this scripture “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” I can sort of imagine a God who is perfect. What i can’t get my head around is the idea of me achieving anything close to it. I can’t even comprehend the limited perfection devised by baseball. I’m a writer, and everything I write is flawed beyond imagining. I re-read that play or that story or that scene even, and I’m astounded by the woodenness of the prose, the falseness of the dialogue, how forced the conflict seems and how unrealistic the characters.
Recently, I was asked to turn a short play I’d written into a short story. Time was short; the editor of a journal I sometimes write for was desperate; my deadline was very close. So I spent an evening working on it. I didn’t even give it my full attention–part of my mind was, I think, engaged in watching a baseball game on the internet. I met the deadline, the editor was grateful, the piece was published. But then I re-read it recently, and it’s not good. It’s not good at all. I wasn’t striving for perfection with that piece, I was going for cheap laughs, on deadline. The story has one line, and one line only, that has some truth to it. One moment when I wrote undistracted.
So, that’s the thing with perfection. It’s not achievable, not really. But the second we stop reaching for it, we lose something essential about ourselves. We’ve been given a certain amount of stuff–we keep working for command. And sometimes, through no fault of our own, umpires blow the call. But we better not try to phone it in, not once, not ever, or watch out. Line drives whistling past our heads, walks and doubles and home runs. There have only been twenty perfect games in history, and perhaps only twenty perfect examples of great writing. The fourth act of A Doll House. The last act of The Eumenides. Sometimes a Roy Halladay pitches a Hamlet, and sometimes it’s a Dallas Braden cranking out To Kill a Mockingbird. And our Father in Heaven is perfect. We’re his kids. Stuff and command are in our gene pool.