As the 1997 Orioles wrapped up the month of May, the team was already well on its way to destroying the rest of the AL East. They entered their game on May 30 with a whopping 7 ½ game lead in the division, barely breaking a sweat as they crushed all comers and amassed a major-league-best 34-15 record. Yes, the Orioles were clicking on all cylinders.
But for Mike Mussina, the season wasn't going perfectly so far. Mussina, who'd been the Orioles' ace for pretty much the entirety of his seven-year career, was having a decidedly mediocre (for him) 1997 season. First he missed his usual Opening Day assignment with elbow tendinitis. When he returned, he won six of his first seven decisions, but carried a so-so 4.26 ERA. He'd had outings in which he allowed five runs, six runs, and seven runs. In the early goings of 1997, Mussina wasn't exactly the shutdown, overpowering ace he'd been in previous seasons.
That all changed on the night of May 30. On this glorious evening in Baltimore, Mussina came tantalizingly close to etching his name in baseball lore, unveiling one of the most dominant pitching performances in the history of the Orioles.
The night got off to a good start when Mussina struck out two Cleveland Indians in a 1-2-3 first inning, and then induced three groundouts in a perfect second. In both those innings, Mussina went to a three-ball count on a hitter. He didn't do so again until the NINTH.
The O's offense is barely worth mentioning, aside from the fact that they managed to put runs on the board so that Mussina's brilliant effort wouldn't go to waste. The Birds tallied a run apiece in the first, third, and sixth, with RBIs by Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro, and Cal Ripken.
But all eyes were on Mussina on this night. He continued to shut down the Indians, which was no easy feat-- the powerful Indians had a lineup stacked with sluggers like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Matt Williams, and David Justice. Mussina's perfect third inning included two more strikeouts. He barely had to get his teammates involved in the fourth, retiring the side in order by fielding a pair of comebackers and notching his fifth strikeout.
One by one, fans began to notice that something special was happening. For Mussina, the realization hit him in the fifth. "It got into the fifth inning, and I thought, ‘You know, I don't think they've had anybody on base yet. I don't remember pitching from the stretch,'" he told the Associated Press after the game. He set down all three batters he faced in the fifth, with a strikeout and two grounders. In the sixth, a popup to short was followed by two more Ks, Mussina's seventh and eighth. Remarkably, through six innings, only one Indians batter so much as got the ball out of the infield (Omar Vizquel's flyout to left in the third).
By now everyone was aware what was going on. Mussina had gone 18 up, 18 down against the Indians' order. He was bidding to become the first Oriole ever to throw a perfect game, which would've been (at the time) just the 13th in baseball history. "The whole game I was really amazed that I was in that situation," Mussina said. "Every time I went out there they made three outs in a row. ...Before you know it, everybody is out there cheering every pitch, and I'm just trying to get three more outs."
He got those "three more outs" in the seventh on a fly to right and two grounders to second. He was two innings away. Baseball superstitions were in full force. Nobody dared breathe a word to Mussina. His teammates left him all alone on the bench. Eye contact was avoided at all costs, under penalty of death. (Probably.)
Mussina faced a tough test in the eighth, when the Indians sent up the meat of their order: Williams, Justice, and Ramirez. The result: a strikeout, two groundouts, and one Orioles pitcher now three outs away from a date with history.
Now, I don't have video from this remarkable night. But I do know someone who was part of the Camden Yards crowd of 47,759 that evening: Camden Chat's esteemed leader, Stacey Long. Even 15 years later, Stacey remembers the ninth inning as being "the most intense sporting event I'd ever been to, including the playoff game I'd been to the year before." She explains: "Everybody was holding their breath."
In general, Mussina was not a pitcher who got easily fazed, but even he had to be feeling some nerves in the ninth as every single pitch had the potential to make or break his epic achievement. He put himself in a pickle when he fell behind Tony Fernandez 3-1 in the count to start the ninth, but Fernandez then grounded to second. Just two outs left.
Up next was Indians catcher Sandy Alomar, brother of Orioles second baseman Roberto. Alomar would prove to be a thorn in Mussina's side throughout his career-- going 9-for-20 against Moose all time-- and tonight was no exception. On a 1-1 pitch, Sandy shattered Mussina's bid for immortality, lining a clean single into left field.
The crowd let out a collective "AWWWWWW" as the perfect game went up in smoke, but then erupted for a loud standing ovation for Mussina's incredible effort. There would be no perfecto on this night, and in fact there still hasn't been one in Orioles history. (Yes, it's simply shocking that the Orioles' incredible collection of pitchers over the last 14 years hasn't accomplished the feat.)
If Mussina was crestfallen, he didn't show it. "I was really surprised that it lasted as long as it did," he said. "So you give up a hit, it's a one-hitter, and you have something to work for the next time." Undeterred by the failed attempt, he promptly struck out the final two batters of the game to complete his second career one-hitter and notch his 12th career shutout.
The memorable night marked yet another amazing accomplishment for Mussina. And it's why he remains a beloved figure among Baltimore sports fans to this very day.
...Wait, he signed with who? HE IS DEAD TO ME.