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Humber’s perfection speaks to the everyman

April 24, 2012

Go ahead. Start your love affair with Philip Humber.

No one could blame you.  The former first-round draft pick with sky-high potential had plummeted to everyman long before he reached baseball immortality. Though he once electrified the Mets organization with his crisp curveball, by the time Humber took the mound on Saturday afternoon in Seattle, he was more Willy Loman than Nolan Ryan. But after the dust had cleared on his 12th career win, and 27 Mariners had been retired, the 29-year old owner of a formerly bright future found himself on the bottom of an improbable celebration pile-up, career finally made.

Of all the pitchers slated to start that afternoon, the struggling journeyman might have been the least likely to hurl baseball’s 21st perfect game. Both 2011 Cy Young award winners were set to toe the rubber, along with James Shields, Tom Gorzelanny, and Roy Halladay–who pitched a perfect game of his own.  But the day belonged to Humber, the small-town Texan who captured the hearts of the baseball world for one magical game–even if most of them had no idea who he was.

Though not quite an allegory–those were the Mariners that Humber faced, not the Red Sox or Yankees eating up broadcast time on the opposite coast–when viewed against the backdrop of Major League Baseball and all its superstars, Humber’s  hyperspeed coming-of-age story as it played out on national television felt awfully symbolic.

Drafted in 2004, Humber showed signs of being the next great pitcher when he signed for $3.7 million with the Mets. Possessing electric strikeout stuff with a smooth 11-5 curveball and a power sinker, the Mets’ first rounder looked to be ready for big-league action within a season.  But Tommy John surgery slowed the fast track to greatness, shutting Humber down until the following year. That would prove to be a portend of disappointing things to come.

In 2008, the baseball world watched in rapt attention–and later bored apathy–as the Johan Santana saga dragged into January. Though higher-profile prospects were posted by the Yankees and Red Sox, and for a while it seemed as though the Twins were going to settle for nothing short of Derek Jeter, negotiations broke down. By the time the dust settled, Santana was in a Mets uniform and New York had gutted its mediocre farm system by sending Humber and other mid-level prospects to the Twins in a bizarrely disappointing deal.

It was under those circumstances that the whole of the game was introduced to Humber: as the co-headliner in an anti-climactic trade that pleased almost no one. But for Humber, who now had to live up to Santana’s legacy as well as his own potential, the everyman story wasn’t about to become heroic any time soon.

In the three full seasons following the trade, Humber posted an ERA just under 5.00. in the Twins’  and Royals’ farm systems, while serving sporadic time in the big leagues.  But just as Loman toiled in futility under his own melancholy, Humber found success by persevering, and his breakout campaign was a only little hard work and circumstance away.

In 2011, Humber landed with the Chicago White Sox, where he began to retool his arsenal, adding an overwhelming slider that would, only a season later, be the key to his induction into baseball history. When an injured to White Sox ace Jake Peavy opened the door for Humber, he closed it behind him, finishing 2011 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.178 WHIP in 163 innings. Humbly (as it were) proving that sometimes success is nothing more than hard work coupled with a series of small decisions, Humber continued to pitch without flash or fame, wealth or endorsements.

It should be no surprise that Humber’s fairy tale moment on Saturday came with warm acclaim beyond that of his incredible feat. He is the anti-Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum, who seem to possess an other-worldly talent that emerges seamlessly on the mound. Though it would be egregious to say that Humber scratched and clawed his way to greatness–he was an acclaimed first-round pick given opportunities not afforded to most aspiring big leaguers–his appeal as an identifiable hero is very real.

It’s human nature to be drawn to the underdog story. As much as we love the fantastical and supernatural, the heroes that resonate most are the ones who look like we feel. The reason we root for Holden Caulfield to find his place in life is because we see ourselves in his wandering confusion.  This is why there will always be a place for players like Humber beside the Derek Jeters and Matt Kemps.  And when that final slider hit the dirt, we held our breaths. Not only to revel in the glory that is the perfect game, but for the man to whom it would forever belong.

One Comment leave one →
  1. John Finn permalink
    April 24, 2012 3:08 pm

    Very nicely done. This is such an American story, as well: the underdog coming from seemingly nowhere. It’s the HOF that assures us that Humber’s glory will not be as short-lived as so many things in our lives. The permanence of baseball and the sport’s insistence on our remembering its history will work in this Everyman’s favor.

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