Ten years after: A visit with perfection

It was May 18, 2004, and the Arizona Diamondbacks were in Atlanta facing the perennial division champion Atlanta Braves.  Turner Field had about 23,000 fans in attendance, certainly not a large crowd by Braves’ standards.  The game was televised locally in Arizona and the first pitch was thrown at 4:36 pm.  Most of us working folk were at least an hour or two away from heading home on this Tuesday evening.  We missed the opening pitch and many of the innings that followed.  But then again, most of us were not in any rush to catch the game.  The D-Backs entered the game in last place in the West, with a record of 14-23, while Atlanta found themselves also in fifth place in their division, with a record of 17-19.  Randy Johnson took the mound for the D-Backs and while he had a respectable 2.83 ERA, he entered with an unimpressive record of 3-4.  Johnson was 40 years old, an age that active major league pitchers rarely reach.  He was facing Mike Hampton, who was winless against four defeats.

Johnson faced Jesse Garcia, Julio Franco and Chipper Jones in the first inning.  The result?  Three up, three down, ending with Chipper striking out for the first of his three strikeouts on the night.  With the D-Backs leading 1-0, Johnson did that again in the second inning, facing and retiring in order Andruw Jones, Johnny Estrada and J.D. Drew.  He repeated that in third inning, this time against the bottom of the Braves’ line-up, which included Mark DeRosa, Nick Green and Mike Hampton, one of the better hitting pitchers in baseball history.  As each inning passed, the same groups of three would come to the plate and the same groups of three would return unsuccessfully to the dugout.  The closest the Braves came to a hit was when opposing pitcher Mike Hampton came to bat with two outs in the 6th inning, but an impressive play by Alex Cintron prevented an infield hit.

By the time the Braves came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, word had spread and people from all over the Valley had tuned into the game.  Johnson retired DeRosa and Green, and up to the plate came pinch hitter Eddie Perez, a career .250 hitter who was nearing the close of his 11 year major league career.  The at bat ended with Johnson blazing a 98 mile per hour fastball past Perez for Johnson’s 13th strikeout and the 27th consecutive out of the game.  Perfection! Perhaps almost as remarkable was the fact that the normally scowling Randy Johnson was actually smiling on the field.

Johnson became the oldest pitcher ever to toss a perfect game.  It was the 17th perfect game in baseball history and the first and only in Diamondback history.  It was the second no-hitter of Johnson’s illustrious career.  He finished the 2004 season with a record of 16-14, recording 290 strikeouts in 245 innings.

On that fateful night in May, the Diamondbacks played like a championship caliber team and completely stymied one of the most complete rosters in all of baseball.  By the end of the 2004 season, the Braves found themselves back in the playoffs, winning their division with a record of 96-66.  The Diamondbacks finished the season in last place, with a dismal record of 51-111.  Despite that, the imperfections of the 2004 season will also be known for a night of perfection.

The 2014 season has been off to a disastrous start for the Arizona Diamondbacks.  But regardless of the record, there will be a highlight on May 18, 2014, on a day that the D-Backs are scheduled to play a game against the evil empire from Los Angeles at Chase Field.  The Diamondbacks will be paying tribute to Randy Johnson on the 10th anniversary of his night of perfection.   Johnson will throw out the first pitch to Robby Hammock, who caught Johnson’s game 10 year ago.  Who knows, maybe Johnson will smile for us one more time.