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Perfect and the Grace of Sports

Perfect is very rare. Perfect is very hard. Perfect beckons us as a goal, elusive but challenging. One thing about sport is the lingering possibility of experiencing perfection.

Baseball illustrates this more clearly than any other sport.  I am not talking about a gymnastics' 10, but rather the goal of facing 27 batters and getting them all out. 27 after all is the square of the sacred triad.  So when a perfect game occurs, it occurs metaphysically as well as physically (well it sounds good!).

Most of us don't find perfect in our daily life or more often we miss the perfect. We have perfect moments--moments where everything works, everything comes together--moments when we get it right. We find it anywhere--at work, at home, even walking on the street when the light, sky, buildings and sounds carve out a perfect moment.

Sports makes this more evident because its rules and ideals and patterns underscore flawless and achievement.  This is why sports can be so enticing, not just winning and losing, but achieving human excellence.

The judge scoring sports point in this direction. While the scores can feel arbitrary or random, they do suggest a Platonic perfection where the human body for an instant instantiates a perfect form in space in time.

The form of perfection becomes incarnate.  Those moments occur not just in the point awarded sports, but just like in life, for pellucid moments. We experience a perfect pass, a perfect jump shot, a perfect volley. The athlete knows it, the opponents know it and often those watching know. The perfect becomes a moment of grace in sport. We are better for having experienced it. In my own mind one of the true perfect moments of sports occurred in Michael Jordan's "shot" that won the NBA championship over the Jazz. It was of course the moment he retired and should have stayed retired.

Two days ago Dallas Braden threw a "perfect" game for the Oakland A's; he faced twenty seven batters in nine innings, the absolute mathematical minimum for a game. In the hundred twenty years plus history of baseball and hundreds of thousands of games, only nineteen perfect games have been thrown. In addition, he gave up no hits in the perfect game, something accomplished only nine times. This is a masterful accomplishment of discipline, talent, focus and teamwork.

Sports open a daily window into the possibility of perfection. We can experience human beings achieving transparent excellence in their chosen field. We can identify with the quest and celebrate the accomplishment. Many fans of other teams and opponents rooted for him and congratulated him in recognition of the beauty of the achievement. They are fans of the game, not just their team.

What sets a perfect game apart from the moments of grace and perfect shot is that it unfolds over time and involves not just one person but 18 playing against each other. The perfection builds upon mundane fielding, moments of luck and bounce, moments of exceptional fielding or pitching. There might even be a moment of perfection within the perfect game like an executed double play or stunning catch. So the perfect game is attributed to the pitcher who joins a short elite list ranging from Cy Young to Sandy Koufax to Randy Johnson. Some games are thrown by great pitchers but some are moments of greatness achieved by good pitchers. But the game belongs to the team. This is what makes a perfect game, rather than a perfect score or perfect moment. A perfect game can be lost in a second and not just by the pitcher but by any fielder. Perfect games overcome cumulative imperfections and astronomical odds.

Welcome to human perfection; we have it daily in our lives and often miss it, but sport provides us with a daily chance to witness it because its rules, forms and ideals enable us to see it. If it can happen in baseball, it can happen in our lives.


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