Thirty years ago: Len Barker's perfect game
Len Barker's nickname, as bestowed upon him by his manager, Dave Garcia, was 'The Big Donkey.'
For one day, though, May 15, 1981, Barker was a pure thoroughbred on the pitching mound, pitching a perfect game — 27 up, 27 down.
It was a typical day in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, sometimes known as the world's biggest and emptiest refrigerator. It was 49 degrees and there were 7,290 fans sprinkled among the 75,000 seats, buried under blankets and faces covered with wool caps.
A few months later, in August, after a long players strike, Municipal Stadium was stuffed with 72,086 for the All-Star game and those fans saw Barker pitched two scoreless innings.
When Tom Browning pitched his perfect game for the Cincinnati Reds in 1989, a game that was delayed from starting for two hours by rain, there were 16,591 in Riverfront Stadium.
"Everybody I meet now tells me they were at that game, so there must have been 300,000 there," said Browning.
That didn't happen to Barker because in those days the Indians were so bad, fans didn't want to admit they attended a game.
And Barker was about as unlikely a suspect to pitch a perfect game as a hockey goalie scoring two goals in one game.
Barker was wild. Wild and wooly. To pitch a perfect game, a pitcher must not only not give up a hit, but he can't walk anybody or hit anybody with a pitch either.
Barker once threw a wild pitch that thunked against the backstop screen in Fenway Park. And he did better than that another time, throwing a pitch that landed in the press box.
But on this day he was letter perfect, from A to Z against the Toronto Blue Jays and their baby blue uniforms.
The Jays had a potent lineup, guys like Alfredo Griffin, Lloyd Moseby, George Bell, John Mayberry, Willie Upshaw, Buck Martinez and Ernie Whitt.
It mattered not to Barker, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound right-hander who possessed a bushy mustache, a blue-flame fastball and a slider that could take a bite out of an apple.
In a game that took only 2 hours, 9 minutes to complete and prevented half the fans from freezing to death, Barker threw 103 pitches and 84 were strikes, only 19 pitches out of the strike zone. He didn't strike out anybody until the third inning, but finished with 11 strikeouts, all swinging.
And Barker did not have a three-ball count on any of the 27 hitters, this from a guy who walked 513 for the 1,323 innings he pitched during an 11-year career during which he was 74-76 with a 4.34 ERA.
The Tribe's broadcaster that day was Herb Score, a guy much more famous for his pitching than Barker. As Barker retired hitter after hitter, Score said, "Len Barker has serious control tonight and not just over the plate but the corners of the plate as well."
Barker walked to the mound for the start of the ninth inning, having retired 24 straight.
"Nervous? Well, when I picked the baseball up to start my warm-ups for the ninth, I dropped it," he said later.
But using a high leg kick that had his knee nearly touching his chin on his delivery, Barker retired the first two Jays to bring up the left-handed Whitt.
The 27th out was a shallow fly ball and center fielder Rick Manning squeezed it. He tried to give the ball to Barker, but Barker said, "You keep it. You guys are the ones who helped me do this."
Barker, a native of Fort Knox, Ky., was pure gold on his big day after he was drafted in the third round of the 1973 draft by the Texas Rangers.
Barker was traded to the Indians in 1978 and it was under, uh, bizarre circumstances.
The deal was made in the men's room, with Cleveland general manager Gabe Paul and Texas owner Brad Corbett standing next to each other at a urinal.
Barker came to the Tribe for Larvell "Sugar Bear" Blanks and quirky relief pitcher Jim Kern. But Barker wasn't the main guy acquired by the Indians. That was Bobby Bonds, a yearly All-Star and father of Barry Bonds.
August 28, 1983 Barker was traded to Atlanta for $150,000 cash and player(s) to be named later. After the season, the Braves sent Brett Butler, Rich Behenna and Brook Jacoby (now the Reds hitting coach) to the Indians.
When he arrived in Cleveland, some thought Barker loved beer more than baseball and admitted he used to spend four or five nights a week chasing his passion in local dives. He reportedly once did $7,000 worth of damage to a Pompano Beach, Fla. bar.
His weight ballooned as the six-packs disappeared, but the Indians convinced him to give up the hops and he won 19 games in 1980, his best year.
"I didn't take care of myself before then," he told a writer. "I used to go out four or five nights a week, sometimes the night before I pitched. My wife changed all that."
And he had his best years with the Indians, culminating that Friday night in May with perfection.