Perfection’s Pitfall

Philip Humber

Baseball’s been around for a while.  It’s “modern era” started in 1900.

Since then, thousands upon thousands of major league games have been played.  Thousands upon thousands of opportunities for the pitcher to get every single opposing batter out.

When a pitcher gets 27 outs in a row, it’s called a perfect game.

Over all of those years, only 18 pitchers had ever thrown a perfect game before April 21,2012.

Philip Humber was not known as a superstar pitcher.  In fact, up until that morning, his career record was 11 Wins and 10 Losses, with an Earned Run Average of 4.06, in 55 Major League Starts.

Yet, on a breezy Spring day in Seattle, playing against the Mariners, Humber joined the ranks of men like Cy Young and Don Larsen, giants of baseball.   His stat line:

  • Innings Pitched: 9
  • Hits: 0
  • Runs: 0
  • Earned Runs: 0
  • Walks:  0
  • Strike Outs:  9

Perfection.

In a profile in Sports Illustrated, writer Albert Chen recounts the journey of Humber’s day of perfection.   But where it gets really interesting is post-game.

After reaching the pinnacle of his profession, Humber had nowhere to go but down.

A self-identified perfectionist (as many Major League pitchers are), Humber spent his entire life working towards this goal.  The challenge after achieving it was the pressure to live up to the self-imposed identity of “perfect”.

In the aftermath of the perfect game and the groundswell of publicity (including a call from the President and a guest spot on Letterman), Humber got creamed:  he gave up 9 runs in 5 innings the next game, 8 runs in 2 1/2 innings 2 games later.

So what did Humber do?  He pushed harder.  He threw his slider more often, a pitch that worked in Seattle, but was physically taking on his arm.  He watched more game video.  He worked out more.  He kept adjusting the grip on his pitches.   Where did this get him?  After more poor outings, it got him a spot on the disabled list with a strained right elbow.  By the end of the year, he finished the year with a 6.44 Earned Run Average, the highest of any pitcher in baseball.  The White Sox placed him on waivers.

From perfection to out of  your job–in the course of a season.

You don’t need to be a baseball player to be a perfectionist.  It’s easy to relate to the constant striving, the attempts to capture a past result by focusing on the result, rather than the process.  The nagging voice in your head telling you what you should be achieving.

What if, instead, we saw our “perfect games” not as ours, but as gifts from the baseball (or whatever else) gods?  That our only job is to focus on the work at hand, and let the the results take care of themselves?

Maybe the stars will align towards perfect.  Maybe not.  That’s not our place to decide.

Do your job.  Do your best.  Forget the rest.

Besides, thinking that attaining perfection is all about you is a tall act to live up to.  Particularly when you’re human.

 

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