Barker's special night remains vivid
Everything came together for team that was less than perfect
BAINBRIDGE TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- The construction company's name is "Perfect Pitch" -- an apt title, given the baseball background of its owner, Len Barker.Sitting behind his desk in the company's modest office in this rural community 25 miles east of Cleveland, Barker discusses the difficulty of getting such a business off the ground. "The construction business is not an easy business," he says. "You've got to stay on top of things, or else you can fall right through." Barker could just as easily have been talking about the business of big-league pitching, a profession he took on proudly for 11 years. The slightest mistakes on the mound -- a curveball that doesn't curve, a fastball that runs too far over the middle of the plate, or series of pitches that fall outside the strike zone -- can ruin a starting pitcher's night and the four days of preparation that came before it. And that's not even counting the faith and reliance a pitcher puts on his surrounding cast, because even the most routine play in the Major Leagues can be flubbed as easily as it is finished. All of this serves to make the notion of a "perfect game" seem rather outlandish. "It's not just the pitcher who throws a perfect game," Barker says. "It's everybody who plays in it. Guys have to make the plays. Routine play or not, they still have to make 'em." The 50-year-old Barker would know. Because 25 years ago, on an ugly night not fit for man nor beast nor baseball, in a cavernous ballpark nearly bereft of fans, he and his Indians teammates were, indeed, perfect.
Imperfect setupThe weather in Cleveland wasn't perfect on Friday, May 15, 1981. Persistent showers and unseasonably cold temperatures ensured the attendance for the home game that night at Municipal Stadium would be sparse. Not that the Tribe, which entered the game in first place in the AL East, was exactly reeling in the fans to begin with. The club's home attendance in that strike-shortened '81 season would average 12,248 per game. Had the fans known the punch Barker's magnificent curveball would pack that night, they might have packed the stands. Instead, he would work his magic in front of a crowd of 7,290. The small turnout didn't bother Barker. Nor did the weather. "I could pitch in anything," he says. "I grew up in Philadelphia, and when we'd start up in April, it would be freezing. The main thing was trying to get your grip on the ball. In that kind of weather when it was cool and wet, a lot of guys wouldn't rub the balls up well, and they'd be like ice slipping out of your hand." That's an excuse Barker could have tried to make for some of the, shall we say, less than perfect moments of his professional career. The most prominent of these moments came in 1979 when Barker, then a pitcher for the Texas Rangers, let a fastball get away from him. And the plate. And the batter's box. And the field. The ball somehow managed to clear the net behind home plate and land in the press box at Fenway Park. No, Barker wasn't trying to get back at any writers who had slammed him in the newspapers. He was just his usual, wild self. "It didn't bother me because it had happened before in some Minor League parks," he says with a shrug. "Stuff like that happens sometimes. But it was the first time I ever heard Fenway Park go quiet. Nobody knew where the ball went!"
In controlBarker's wild past didn't make him the best candidate to throw a perfect game, but his dominant stuff certainly made a no-hitter seem possible. In fact, several times in his career before that cold May night, Barker had taken no-hitters into the sixth or seventh inning. "I had pitched no-hitters in school and fall ball and things like that," Barker says. "But a perfect game? You have to have good control to throw one. But you can have good control and be wild with your control. Back then, we pitched inside a lot on purpose. A real lot." When Barker did so, it was usually with his fastball, which topped out around 95 mph. But in this outing, his arching curveball, made even more deceptive by the high leg kick he used in his delivery, was the order of the day. Barker had been having success with the curve in previous outings in that '81 season, building off a 19-win '80 campaign. He came into this start leading the AL in strikeouts with 25. Those K's had helped him go 2-1 with a 1.67 ERA in his first four starts of the season. "I was in the zone, pitching-wise," he recalls. "Everything was going good. I was throwing strikes and getting them over the plate and getting guys out." With the confidence of his strong start to the season in tow, Barker quickly disposed of the Blue Jays on three groundouts in the first. When his teammates strung up two runs in the bottom of the first, Barker knew he could be on his way to a victory. What he didn't know was that he was on his way to perfection.
Little dramaBarker would use just 103 pitches to dispose the Jays as the game wore on. Most of those pitches were curves. "I was known as a fastball pitcher," Barker says. "If I threw 100 pitches, usually 85 were curves. But in that game, I threw 65 curves, and the rest were fastballs, except for two changeups." One of those changeups went to Lloyd Moseby in the fourth inning. He hit a hard liner down the first-base line. Luckily for Barker, the ball landed foul by about three feet. Barker took that as a good omen. He also took it as a lesson learned not to use the changeup anymore. "We got rid of that baby real quick," he said with a laugh. From that point, his perfect outing sailed smoothly. He struck out 11 of the last 17 batters he faced, and he never once found himself in a three-ball count. "They weren't even hitting the ball after the fourth inning," he says of the Blue Jays. Barker, though, did benefit from a little help from his friends. In the fifth, third baseman Toby Harrah sacrificed his body to make a leaping catch of Willie Upshaw's popup in the stands. Second baseman Duane Kuiper backhanded Rick Bosetti's grounder in the sixth and fired the ball over to first baseman Mike Hargrove for a close out. But the toughest play of the game came an inning later. Leadoff man Alfredo Griffin hit a bouncer to Kuiper's left side. Kuiper took several strides to get to the ball and then fired it to first for the Blue Jays' 19th consecutive out. "There were a couple bang-bang plays, but they weren't questionable," Barker says. "The guys were definitely out."
The crowd swellsThe Blue Jays' uneventful at-bats didn't go unnoticed. As fans in Cleveland watched on WUAB Channel 43 or listened in to the play-by-play of Herb Score and Nev Chandler on radio flagship WWWE and realized what was going on, the cold and rain didn't seem to be much of an issue anymore. With Barker arranging a date with perfection, the attendance began to swell. "People started to come in the late innings when they heard," Barker says. "It was a neat feeling. They all started gathering down by the home-plate screen. They were cheering constantly on every little pitch. It was pretty noisy for a small crowd." The crowd knew what Barker slowly began to comprehend. He really could become the first pitcher in 13 years and the 10th in baseball history to achieve perfection. "In the ninth inning, I knew when I walked out there that I could pitch a perfect game," he says. "And there was no doubt in my mind that I could get those three guys out. But before that? No, I didn't think I could throw a perfect game."
The final outsBarker might have been confident that he could get the last three outs, but that doesn't mean he wasn't nervous. He was so nervous, in fact, that when he bent down to pick up the ball before beginning that last inning, he dropped it. "And I almost fell over," he recalls with a smile. "I was nervous on the mound. But once I started throwing, I was fine and back in the groove." Barker rediscovered his comfort zone against Bosetti, who led off the ninth. The center fielder popped out to Harrah in front of the Blue Jays dugout. Toronto manager Bobby Mattick dipped into his bench, sending Al Woods in to pinch-hit for Danny Ainge. Barker, unfazed, made Woods his 11th strikeout victim on three straight pitches. Now, with the crowd on its feet and adrenaline pumping in his veins, Barker was one out away. Up came pinch-hitter Ernie Whitt, and Barker tossed him a pitch on the outside edge of the plate. "As soon as I threw the pitch, I knew it was a good one," Barker says. "He had to lean out and stretch for it." Whitt made contact, sending a lazy fly to center field. "Once I saw [Whitt] hit it, I knew it was an out," Barker says. "Especially with Rick Manning out there in center field. The guy was a Gold Glover. He ran everything down." Manning charged in on the ball, made the catch, stretched out his arms and jumped in celebration. Before Barker could even let out a breath of relief, he was swarmed on the mound by his teammates, security and a group of fans. "It was over," he says. "Then it was celebration time."
The celebrationBarker received the red-carpet treatment when he headed back to the Indians clubhouse. Actually, it was more like a white-towel treatment. The clubhouse staff laid towels on the ground leading from the dugout to the clubhouse. Upon his arrival to his locker, Barker found several bottles of champagne waiting for him. A reporter asked Barker if he had ever heard of Addie Joss. "Nah, who's he?" Barker replied. He was told Joss was the last Indians pitcher to throw a perfect game, way back on Oct. 2, 1908. "I didn't see that one," Barker joked. After his perfect night, Barker returned to his Parma home with several teammates. With the phone ringing off the hook, the party lasted deep into the night, even though the Indians and Blue Jays were on national TV as NBC's "Game of the Week" the following day. "They were a day late!" Barker says of the network.
Change in careersBarker and the Indians didn't ride the high of the perfect game for long. The players' strike that summer took its toll on Barker's arm, as he went on to finish 8-7 with a 3.91 ERA for an Indians team that went 52-51 and ended up sixth in the East. After a 15-11 mark in '82, Barker's career spiraled downward. In 1983, the Indians shipped Barker to the Braves for center fielder Brett Butler, third baseman Brook Jacoby and pitcher Rick Behenna. The following year, Barker underwent surgery on his throwing elbow. "That pretty much finished me off right there," he says, pointing to the scar. After hanging up his spikes in '87, Barker stayed in Atlanta for several years and built spec homes. He moved back to Cleveland in the '90s and met Eva Ferrante, a Burton, Ohio, native. They married in 1999 and have two children together. When he's not pitching to his 6-year-old son Jared's Little League team, Barker is focusing on his business. Perfect Pitch Construction has been in business for seven years now, and Barker says it's doing well. But whenever Barker is out on the job, doing estimates on remodeling work or flood repair, he comes across people more eager to discuss his former career, and particularly his night of perfection, than his current one. "I talk to people just about every day about it," he says. "I run into people who tell me where they were or what was going on." That's a perfect bond Barker, one of only 17 pitchers in Major League history to throw a perfect game, will always share with the people of Cleveland, his adopted home. "It was a special moment," he says. "Not just for me, but for me and my team and everyone in the area that was a Tribe fan. Nothing major was going on with the team for a long time, but the perfect game happened and everybody shared in it."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.