Saturday, July 11, 2009

No Hitter

It is 730 on a beautiful summer evening, clear and a little cold with a steady wind whipping off the Pacific. Tie for my first baseball walk of the season. I do not need the exercise, but I had found my pocket radio earlier today, turns out it was hiding under the unmatched socks in my clean clothes hamper.

Jon Miller’s Giants play-by-play has always been the perfect accompaniment for a twilight walk through the hills of San Francisco. I tuck the radio into my coat pocket and start west to the top of Alamo Square Park and its classic view of the painted lady Victorians across the street that are framed by the downtown buildings in the distance.

It is the top of the second inning and Jonathan Sanchez is on the mound for the Giants. He had come into the season as the fifth starter, but has since been demoted to the bullpen after a disappointing two and a half months. He is now back in the rotation filling in for an injured Randy Johnson. Miller announces his crisp 1-2-3 top of the second inning.

Looking across to the green of another hilltop park, I decide I want to watch the sunset from there, so I head north, down into the dodgy blocks of Western Addition and then uphill to posh Laurel Heights to Alta Plaza Park, a peak atop the ridgeline that looks down upon the Golden Gate, the Marina, and the Bay. The low sunlight is painting fiery colors on the city skyline to the east and colors the fog rolling in south of Twin Peaks a deep mauve.

The wind is strongest on these hilltops, but with a sweater and a jacket and the body heat from my uphill walk, I am warm enough to sit on a bench with a view to the water. It helps that the Giants are now up 4-0, and Sanchez is off to his strongest start of the year, he has retired his first 12 twelve batters. It is the bottom of the fifth and Dave Flemming has relieved Miller for a couple of innings of the broadcast. Sanchez is throwing more pitches now, and Flemming notices that he has lost his release point, He is not hitting his targets as he battles with Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres’ one feared slugger. Gonzalez chases a ball in the dirt for strike three, and Sanchez retires the next two Padres.

Sanchez has a perfect game through 5 innings. I get the hunch that as long as Sanchez keeps retiring batters I might as well start walking in the direction of the stadium. I can always turn for home when the Padres get a hit. It’s a little bit silly as it sounds like Sanchez is already showing fatigue and he hasn’t started in nearly three weeks. But this is baseball, and you never know what might happen.

I figure will have plenty of chances to turn back, as it is just over 3.5 miles from Alta Plaza to the free views from behind the right field fence at the Phone Booth. I figure I might be able to get to the yard by the bottom of the eighth, depending on how quick the game goes.

I head east down Jackson atop the spine of Pacific Heights. I had forgotten how clean and quiet it is up here amidst the mansions that must still run into eight figures.

It is a long bottom of the 5th, Pablo Sandoval is up to bat with two men on. The Panda crushes a ball, and Flemming calls the shot as it rockets over the 20-foot high arcade and the 421 sign in the deepest right center field in the majors. By all accounts it is one the longest home runs hit to that part of the yard. It is 7-0 as I approached Russian Hill, still about 45 minutes away from the stadium. Sanchez regains command after the lengthy top half of the inning. Strike out, fly out, strike out, he has retired 18 in a row. The bottom half of the inning passes just as quickly, I am about to crest Nob Hill and it is suddenly the 7 inning.

At the top of the hill a young man tried to stop me on the sidewalk. He had a full beard and was wearing a dated suit that looked vaguely like an Hassidic Jew.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked?


“Then have a nice weekend.”

Hassidic indeed. Whatever he is up to he reminds me of those old men who approach the tourists at the Wailing Wall. If you are Jewish they help you with the prayers, if not, they tell you to have a nice vacation. I chuckle and tell him this without breaking stride.

He shouts at my back, “In Israel?”

I can hear the electricity building in the crowd as Sanchez strikes out the side in the 7th. His pace is quickening, his stuff must be phenomenal tonight. I too quicken my pace. I am crossing the filthy streets of Chinatown as the Giants go quietly, and too quickly, in the bottom half of the 7th. I am still at least 20 minutes away. I can’t get a cab, I’ve already crossed Grant and there are no taxis around. Besides, I’m superstitious, and I am positive that as soon as the meter drops, a Padres bat will produce a ground ball that squeezes through the infield.

I am now close to a jog, heading south through the Financial District as Adrian Gonzalez is leading off the 8th. If Sanchez can get Gonzalez, he has a real chance. I don’t even want to think it, but there have only been 17 perfect games in the 132-year history of baseball. Gonzalez hits one to deep to left, but Bowker runs it down at the warning track. I can hear the crowd buzzing as the anticipation of something historical begins to build.

As I am crossing Market Street, now within minutes of the game, Chase Headley hits a grounder to the left side that Juan Uribe cannot handle off what Miller describes as an awkward bounce. Uribe had shifted to third base when Pablo was taken out in the 6th. The Panda would have fielded that one, for sure.

The perfect game is over. Sanchez fires the next pitch to the backstop. He is laboring. But he gets a flyout and then a strikeout on a ball that actually hits the batter. I am now within blocks of the yard, and I notice a few groups clad in Giants paraphenalia walking in other direction.

Bad fans. Very bad fans.

The Giants add some unnecessary runs in the 8th, though they give me time to get to the right field fence without having to run for it. This is where I used to eat lunch during day games when I worked downtown. It was exactly 22 minutes from my chair on the 24 floor of 44 Montgomery to the second archway behind the right fielder. Usually it is possible to lean right up to the chain link, but tonight people are backed four deep behind the fence. It is a good thing I am tall.

Everyone is on their feet. The first batter in the bottom of the ninth hits a sharp ground ball to the left side. Renteria runs deep into the hole to the snare it and has to throw a perfect strike to Ishikawa for the out. Two more outs to go. Adrian’s older brother Edgar is up to bat. Sanchez misses badly up, then bounces one over the plate. The next pitch is a strike, but too much of a strike, and Gonzalez crushes the middle-of-the-plate offering to center field. Sanchez doesn’t even turn around; he is sure it is a home run. The crowd behind the right field wall surges forward to keep Aaron Rowand in sight line as he races back to the centerfield fence. Rowand takes a last step on the warning track, jumps, and stretches out as he crashes into the wall for the second time this week. He holds on for the second out.

The knothole rowdies are now jumping up and down and banging on the chain link with such force that it wobbles like a slinky. On the first pitch the batter contemplates a bunt. The crowd showers him with boos. the next pitch is in the dirt, 2-0. A strike on the outside corner, 2-1. A foul ball evens the count. The next pitch is a curve that breaks down into the zone, called strike three.

The last time the Giants threw a no-hitter was almost 33 years ago when I had just turned 4 months old. And Sanchez’ effort is actually a “no-no”. Though the term is often used interchangeably with no hitter, a true no-no means no hits and no walks, a much rarer and more difficult feat.

It is a great story for Sanchez. A pitcher who has struggled with command problems all season, who has been undone by the walks he allows, comes back into the rotation and throws the most dominant game of his career. More special still, his father flew in from Puerto Rico to see him pitch, the first time Papa had seen Sanchez start an MLB game.

Hopefully this night portends good things for the Giants season. They have far exceeded anyone’s expectations, and with their dominant pitching in a mediocre National League, it could be a special year in San Francisco.

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