On Saturday night, September 10, 2005, the Vancouver Canadians played the Spokane Indians in Game 3 of the Northwest League championship series, tied 1-1. That’s Single-A ball, near the bottom of the pro-baseball heap, but it was quite an evening.
What happened was, as we strolled into the stands I was feeling irritated at Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen. He recently wrote a book called Skinny Dip, quite good although it doesn’t achieve the manic perfection of the earlier Sick Puppy. Anyhow, Hiaasen’s books usually feature a really nasty villain (who comes to a satisfyingly bad end) with a set of revolting habits to highlight his villainy, and one of the Skinny Dip bad guy’s quirks was liking George Thorogood.
Well, I like George “I Drink Alone” Thorogood too, and as we were strolling into the stands his cover of Who Do You Love? was playing, which is a really fine piece of music, although the Ronnie Hawkins/The Band version from The Last Waltz is canonical.
The stadium was partially sunlit and filling up and people were drinking beer and happy and George was singing “I’m just 23, I don’t mind dyin’”, and George is himself a baseball aficionado and one-time semipro player, and I was thinking of the wonderful sun- and dust-drenched opening “Church of Baseball” scene from Bull Durham, and the last big chords faded just as we got to our seats, and well anyhow, Carl owes George an apology.
Then, the game. The crowd wasn’t that big, but the evening turned out to be brighter and less chilly than we thought it would, a very pretty sunset behind Queen Elizabeth Park.
In the first inning, the visitors went down one-two-three and the Canadians banged out four quick runs, spraying nasty line drives every which way. Then the visiting pitcher settled down and there were a few quiet innings, except by halfway through the fourth, the silence was building among the real fans because Vancouver pitcher Mike Madsen was throwing a perfect game. And it wasn’t a near thing either, he was totally murdering the Spokane batters, they were way behind his fastball and ahead of his change, even the occasional grounder or pop-fly was spiritless, the fielders not having to give it much.
I’ve seen a Triple-A no-hitter and caught one myself in industrial-league fast-pitch softball, and if there’s anything in sports that’s higher-tension, I don’t know what it is. By the fifth inning, the party animals in the crowd were still partying, but the people who know the game were ignoring their beer and the pretty girls and focusing on every pitch.
Then with two out in the fifth, this tall dude named John Mayberry, Jr. (I checked and yes, his father is that John Mayberry) hit this total bullshit twisty blooper that went three inches past the lunging shortstop’s glove and fell three feet behind second base. We, the devotees of the Church of Baseball, howled as one in sorrow, then relaxed and remembered our beers and so on.
Three innings later, top of the eighth, Mayberry was still the only one who’d got to first base, and when he came up again, Madsen plunked him neat as neat, right between the numbers, on the first pitch. The umpire was out of his crouch in an eyeblink, blocking the way to the mound, but no need, Mayberry didn’t even hesitate, didn’t look sideways, no facial expression, just ambled down to first. Hey, is that pure baseball poetry or what? The kid asked me why I was laughing, but I couldn’t really explain.
Madsen got a fly-out from the next batter but then walked two and the coach pulled him, the crowd gave him a standing O, of course. After that it was just a ball game.