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An Ode to the No-Hitter

The Yankees’ Corey Kluber celebrates after pitching a no-hitter against the Rangers in May.Photograph by Ronald Martinez / Getty

Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while on LSD for the Pirates in 1970. Jim Abbott pitched one for the Yankees in 1993, with his mitt tucked under the stump of his missing right arm while he threw with his left. Bob Feller of the Indians pitched one on Opening Day in 1940; Don Larsen of the Yankees pitched one against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series, and the catcher, Yogi Berra, did what catchers do when a no-hitter is finally complete and logged into the record books: he raced toward the mound and leapt into the pitcher’s outstretched arms. The no-hitter is normally a rarity: there were only three hundred and five of them in the major leagues from 1876 to 2020. In 2021, however, the no-hitter is suddenly commonplace. In a typical season, there are two or three no-hitters; this year there have been six, and the hundred-and-sixty-two-game season is only two-fifths finished.

When Corey Kluber of the Yankees pitched a no-hitter against the Rangers on Wednesday, May 19th, the response was elation laced with alarm. Spencer Turnbull of the Tigers had pitched a no-hitter against the Mariners the night before. Joe Musgrove of the Padres had pitched a no-hitter against those same Rangers back in April. Together, the six no-hitters were seen as an augury of baseball’s future, a product of the qualities—repetition and efficiency of execution—that are making it hard for the sport to draw new fans or keep longtime fans interested. There’s truth to that, but it’s not right to malign the no-no. The no-hitter is where baseball’s preoccupation with statistics meets its love of lore, and it represents a path back from the data-driven extremes of the present.

Like the home run—which can’t be fielded because the ball leaves the playing field—the no-hitter is defined by what doesn’t happen. It’s a game with no singles, no doubles in the gap, no triple caroming in the corner, no home run hooking inside the foul pole and caught by a kid with a glove in the stands who holds the ball aloft as the ultimate souvenir. Nine innings pass, twenty-seven outs are made, and no player on one team reaches base on a hit. A player can reach on a walk, or if he’s hit with a pitch, or if a fielder makes an error on a ball hit to him, and it’s still a no-hitter. A game in which none of those things happens—when nobody on one team reaches base at all—is called a perfect game.

It’s fair to see the six no-hitters this season as the culmination of trends that are spoiling the sport. Pitchers who study the weaknesses of hitters with huge data sets and reams of video; pitchers swapped out by the manager after an inning or two in order to confound the hitters; pitchers throwing a hundred and one miles per hour, their arms fortified by surgery; fielders acutely aware of where each player usually hits the ball (tabulated across thousands of at-bats); hitters urged to swing with a high “launch angle” by coaches informed by statisticians who deem singles, bunts, and stolen bases less run-productive than homers—together, these trends have given pitchers a dominance over hitters such as they haven’t had since 1968, when Detroit’s Denny McLain won thirty-one games and St. Louis’s Bob Gibson allowed just 1.12 runs per nine innings. The league then lowered the pitchers’ mound to reduce pitchers’ advantage.

Paradoxically, a short-term solution has compounded the problem: a “de-juiced” ball, which was introduced this year to decrease the number of home runs and keep the ball in play, has brought echoes of the “dead-ball era” of a century ago. The trends are grim: a league batting average of .236—an average that used to be a ticket to the minor leagues. Teams making seventeen of their twenty-seven outs through strikeouts: swing and a miss, check swing, caught looking. Games ending 1–0, 2–0, 6–0. Game after game in which it takes a long time for not much to happen.

An era with a weekly no-hitter would represent baseball’s full transition from a national pastime to the pursuit of specialists, like contract bridge. And yet, for the time being, each individual no-hitter is still exciting. An uneventful game turns suspenseful as one team, and generally one pitcher, passes the fifth inning, the sixth, the seventh without allowing a hit. Will somebody break it up with a clean single? Will some fielder blow it—misplaying a ball that is judged a hit rather than an error by a fickle official scorer? Will an umpire blow it, as happened in 2010, when Armando Galarraga of the Tigers retired the first twenty-six Indians and then the umpire, Jim Joyce, confoundingly called a batter safe at first in the top of the ninth, although he was clearly out—and soon apologized to Galarraga and all of baseball?

The suspense of a no-hitter is compounded by the feeling, if you’re following the game, that you’re being drawn into history—what might be history if the guy on the mound can keep it up. You’re about to witness a rare event—maybe. You couldn’t have guessed that it would be a no-hit night: plenty of no-hitters have been thrown by unheralded pitchers, yet the Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Pedro Martinez never threw one. Now it’s happening, and you are in the middle of it.

That has been my experience. During the game that Kluber was pitching, I was driving from Washington, D.C., to New York, along with my wife and our twin sons, so I listened to the Yankees-Rangers radio broadcast straight through—something I rarely do. The Yankees’ eighty-two-year-old broadcaster, John Sterling, coolly observed after four innings that the Rangers were hitless and expertly turned up the drama from there. We reached Brooklyn in the eighth and went up to our apartment, where our youngest son was watching a Warriors-Lakers N.B.A. “play-in” game—and so Kluber’s no-no (no hits, nine strikeouts, one walk) was set against the spectacle of Steph Curry and LeBron James making shots from great distances.

What were the odds that the rare game I’d listened to straight through would be a no-hitter? About as extreme as the odds involved in the no-hitter my sons and I saw in person. On a rainy Friday in June, 2012, we trekked out to Citi Field for a youth-league field trip: Mets versus Cardinals, several hundred kids and parents seated in the upper deck. I hadn’t been to a Mets game since 1974, when I was a kid myself. Johan Santana, who was coming off shoulder surgery, took a no-hitter into the eighth. The Mets had never had a no-hitter in their fifty-year history—more than eight thousand games—and the ushers, sensing the occasion, absorbed in the game themselves, seemed not to notice as the four of us descended to field level and stood near the thousand-dollar seats behind home plate as history was made. That no-hitter was a big night for Santana in more than one way: throwing a hundred and thirty-four pitches, far more than usual, to complete the game, he likely strained his throwing arm; he struggled through the rest of the season and two failed comeback attempts in the seasons that followed.

One Sunday in 1990, I wandered into a no-hitter so strange that I had to check my memory on the Internet three decades later. I’d gone to Central Park to see David Byrne play a free concert at Summerstage, but it was cancelled when a thunderstorm came. I sought shelter at J. G. Melon, on Seventy-fourth and Third—a place I’d never been. There, on a WPIX broadcast from Chicago flickering on a TV in the corner, Andy Hawkins, pitching for the Yankees against the White Sox, allowed no hits through eight innings but lost, 4–0, due to three errors and four walks; because Chicago, as the home team with the lead, didn’t bat in the ninth, he wasn’t credited with a no-hitter, even though he’d pitched the full game.

Most people who follow baseball have stories like those; we mark our history with the game from one no-hitter to the next. And, as we do so, we mark a broader history. On one level, two no-hitters in two nights during a week in May made the no-hit game seem no big deal; on another, Kluber’s no-hitter was the first Yankees no-hitter since one by David Cone—a perfect game—in 1999. In the time between, John Sterling did play-by-play for more than thirty-two hundred Yankees games; Bush beat Gore; the September 11th attacks were followed by the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest war; Greta Thunberg was born, came of age, and trolled Donald Trump; Tom Brady quarterbacked at Michigan, was picked by the Patriots in Round Six of the N.F.L. draft, and had the first twenty-one years of his epochal career.


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