On several occasions, I have listed my lifelong goals. Sometimes, it was for a class in school, and other times just for my own sake. When I scribbled them down, a few items were fun: Lose track of the number of Third Eye Blind concerts I’d attended. Some were simple, yet important: Be happy. Others were very specific: Attend the Midnight Sun baseball game played annually in Alaska on the Summer Solstice.
The goals have, naturally, changed from time to time. But there’s one that has never wavered: Witness a no-hitter live.
The no-hitter in baseball is an accomplishment that is unparalleled in sports. In basketball, it’s impossible to hold a team scoreless. In football, preventing your opponent from gaining any positive yardage is unrealistic. In other sports, there is not a comparable achievement. But, in baseball, dominating your opponent in such a way that, for nine innings, no one can hit and safely reach base? Now, that’s a feat. And it happens.
Whenever I attend a baseball game, I think of the game as two opportunities (each team has a shot, right?) to see a “no-no.” It’s like how, at the start of college football season, every fan has high hopes for their team. After all, to win a title, all their team needs to do is not lose 14 or so times. And a no-hitter? The pitcher just needs to not allow a hit, 27 times.
Of course, it’s not that easy. Which is why few people watch for them. I once asked a vendor at a sweaty Milwaukee game in July 2013 if he thought starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo had a chance to prevent any hits. He didn’t even dignify that with a reply, just a laugh. But the joke was on him! Gallardo finished just a half dozen allowed hits shy of a no-no before being pulled in the 6th inning.
The closest I’ve come to seeing one in person came on July 17, 2017 in the birthplace of all things memorable: Sevierville, Tennessee. The Tennessee Smokies, Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, hosted the Mobile BayBears. The game would’ve been purely pedestrian if it wasn’t for one wrinkle. On the mound for the Smokies was an MLB pitcher on an injury rehab assignment.
Kyle Hendricks, the 2016 National League ERA champion and World Series winner, came out on a mission against the inferior hitters. He did not look like he was recovering from injury as he systematically outsmarted and confounded hitters. Between each inning, he paced from the mound to the dugout without looking up from the dirt. After five innings, he’d faced the minimum number of batters: no walks, no hits, no errors. He was also done for the day.
Despite being in the midst of throwing a no-hitter and perfect game, Hendricks had bigger plans ahead and would soon be sent to Chicago to help the big club on their 2017 playoff run. So, the Smokies handed the ball to Duane Underwood, typically a starter.
Surprisingly, the magic continued. Underwood baffled the BayBears, striking out three through his first three innings. When the 9th rolled around, the Smokies were still holding onto a perfect game, leading 2-0.
Fans who understood the potentially perfect situation stood. And they cheered when Underwood struck out the first batter of the final frame. Two outs away. For me, I was two outs from a lifelong goal. Then, Tim Arakawa stepped to the plate. The mighty, mighty Tim Arakawa.
Arakawa batted .245 during the 2017 season. His most infuriating hit might have come at that moment.
Hedging my emotional bets, I had not yet started to believe that the perfect game would really happen. Pitchers take no-nos and perfectos deep into games all the time before they’re blown. But after Underwood got a strikeout to start the 9th, my confidence rose. The BayBears hadn’t struck the ball well all night. Might this actually happen?
Arakawa must have heard me confidently thinking. The lefty smacked a hard ground ball up the middle for a base hit. He’d safely reached base, fair and square.
Standing on the front row with my dad — we love minor league baseball and tour different ballparks — I leaned against dugout in despair, hugging the cement. Those not paying attention were certainly puzzled as to why I’d reacted in an exaggerated manner to a base hit in a minor league baseball game. Still, a bulk of a stadium gave a round of applause for what they’d witnessed: a shot at history.
The game wasn’t over, though. Underwood gave up a two-run homer a couple batters later, tying the game, before the Smokies put together a two-out rally for a walk-off victory. And that was entertaining. Walk-offs don’t happen too often, and it was fun to see. But it wasn’t a no-hitter.
Afterwards, I hung around to get a few autographs and talk to the players. I told Underwood that he’d pitched well; it was fun to watch. “I wish I’d got a couple more,” he said, shaking his head.
Baseball has recently seen its popularity fall, but there’s still something uniquely sensational about an evening spent at the ballpark. So each summer — whether on assignment or not — I check out various ballparks at various levels: college, minor league, major league. This summer won’t be any different.
If you need me, I’ll be searching for a no-no.