Tenacious D: Mussina Proves That Nobody's Perfect

As far as sports fans go, I’m more cynical than most.

I’ve developed this cynicism from my varied experiences with sports. In both Little League baseball and youth soccer, my team made it to the championship game but never won. Growing up in Miami as a Dolphins fan, I watched the greatest quarterback of all time retire without a Super Bowl ring. And as a sportswriter for The Harvard Crimson, I’ve seen my fair share of important missed field goals on the gridiron and improbable basketball shots that have caused heartbreak on the hardcourt.

As a participant, spectator and reporter, disappointment in sports is nothing new. So when I went online Sunday night and saw that Mike Mussina was taking a perfect game into the seventh inning, I barely flinched. After all, what were the chances that he could actually pull it off? The jaded part of me told me it wasn’t worth the worry. So I didn’t.

Maybe in the halcyon days of my youth I would have bolted for the nearest television and watched Mussina with baited breath, secretly rooting for him to do the improbable in a room full of Red Sox fans. But that night, I had more important things to attend to—fantasy football rankings and AOL Instant Messenger.

I admit, though, that the wide-eyed sports fan in me kept mercilessly nagging at the cynic to check the progress of the game online. And slowly, as Mussina kept motoring his way to baseball immortality, my curiosity and idealism began to get the better of me. When I saw online that The Moose had survived the heart of the Boston lineup in the bottom of the eighth and was still perfect heading to the ninth, I couldn’t sit still. To be honest, I bolted to the nearest TV.

My feet took me to The Crimson, where I had seen some great sports moments like Hideo Nomo’s no-hitter earlier this season. Contrary to my cynical instincts, I was genuinely excited at the prospect of watching the conclusion to a perfect game.

I arrived in time to watch the Yankees capitalize on a Lou Merloni error in the top half of the ninth and finally score against a former teammate and the last person to pitch a perfect game, David Cone. With a one-run lead, Mussina took to the mound three outs away from the 15th perfect game in modern baseball history, the fourth in Yankee history, and the first in the 89-year history of Fenway Park.

The tension was palpable through the television screen in the conference room. ESPN’s cameras showed Mussina’s stoic determination, the crowd was on its feet in awe of the moment, and the Yankee dugout was quietly waiting to celebrate another historic triumph. It was shaping up to be the perfect ending to your typical baseball movie.

And true to cinematic drama, there was a quite an ending. Shea Hillenbrand nearly ended Mussina’s bid for perfection by leading off the ninth with a hard grounder to the right side. Seemingly out of nowhere, Yankee first baseman Clay Bellinger (who had scored the lone run in the game when he replaced Tino Martinez on the basepaths) lunged at the ball as it skipped into his awaiting mitt. He flipped the ball to Mussina for the first out in the ninth.

Next up was Merloni, who had botched a grounder mere minutes before that could have resulted in an inning-ending double play instead of an eventual Yankee run. Merloni couldn’t atone for his blunder and struck out, giving Mussina his 13th K of the game and putting him within an out of perfection.

Then trotted out a gimpy Carl Everett, the swaggering Red Sox outfielder who was pinch hitting as a final attempt to not only crack Mussina’s dominance, but also to salvage an otherwise disastrous and painful weekend for New England baseball fans.

And there it was—the movie’s climactic final scene. The pitcher facing the final batter. The hometown crowd cheering for the David against the dominant Goliath. The tension built as Mussina worked the count to one ball and two strikes. With one more strike, Mussina would list his name alongside some of the game’s greatest pitchers and the Yankees would mob him on the mound.

Apparently, fate has a more twisted sense of humor than Hollywood screenwriters. Everett made contact on Mussina’s next pitch—a high fastball—and dropped it in left center for the Red Sox’s first and only hit.

The crowd erupted and Mussina was left with only a bittersweet smile.

Boston ended up losing the game, with the next batter grounded out. Mussina, however, was far from happy with his one-hit shutout. Afterwards, the left-hander admitted to being very disappointed and mused that “it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Looking at the facts, one could only agree with Mussina’s assessment. An unlikely villain, Everett entered his ninth inning at-bat 1-for-9 lifetime against Mussina and had struck out seven of those nine times.

Also, Mussina had flirted with perfection twice before. In 1997 against the Indians, Mussina lost his perfect game with one out in the ninth when Sandy Alomar, Jr. hit a single.

Just one unlucky year later, Frank Catalanotto stroked a double to end Mussina’s perfection with two outs in the eighth.

So, given this disappointing turn of events, poor Mike Mussina concluded that he would never get to the perfect plateau that three of his pinstripe predecessors had reached.

Normally, I would agree that Mussina may have had his last and best shot at a perfect game, but for some reason I’m not thinking so cynically anymore.

I recently read that Blue Jays pitcher Dave Stieb also thought he was star-crossed when it came to outstanding pitching feats. In consecutive starts in 1988, Stieb lost no-hitters with two outs in the ninth.

The next year he was one out from a perfect game and surrendered a hit. Finally, though, Stieb no-hit the Indians in 1990 to remove any doubt that he was doomed to always come close but never fully succeed.

So maybe Mussina shouldn’t give up hope just yet. Nobody’s perfect, after all, and who knows if he’ll ever get another shot at greatness.

And apologies for sounding pedantic, but you first-years reading this should also take note. Some people expect perfect things from Harvard when they first arrive, only to be disappointed when things don’t go their way.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s to resist absolute cynicism and to allow yourself to be idealistic at least every once in a while.

And if things really don’t go your way and you never become an All-American athlete or get a Rhodes Scholarship or even if you get quadded in the spring, rest assured that you have a home with the Crimson Sports Board.

Believe me, if they let me write, anyone can do it.