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A View to a Thrill: Being There for Zambrano's No-Hitter

By Jeff Burd

On the night of September 14, 2008, I was in a baseball stadium in Milwaukee where the home team was Houston. That alone was unusual enough, but the night held another most unexpected surprise.

It was a game I never would have been at had it been played in Houston as originally scheduled. But hurricanes don’t stop or alter their course for baseball games and, in this case, a big one named Ike was punishing the gulf coast of Texas. The Astros game with my team, the Cubs, would have to be moved.

Illustration by Tim Souers (http://www.cubby-blue.com/)Opportunity presented itself when Miller Park in Milwaukee, just 50 miles from my home in Gurnee, was improbably announced as the place where the game would be played. Destiny seemed to be calling me to the game.

Still, I almost didn’t go. When old reliable friend Bo said no, it seemed to be a sign that I should stay home to nurse my festering cold and get a good night’s sleep so I’d be ready for my students the next morning.

But I couldn’t not go. The temptation of unexpected baseball, so close to my home, late in the season, featuring the Cubs, was a siren song against which I was powerless.

I dialed my friend Edwin. In short time, I had convinced him to join me. All it took was some cajoling and the lure that seeing a relocation game was “a once-in-a-lifetime chance." That wasn't entirely true; Miller Park had hosted a Cleveland/Anaheim series last year when it had to be relocated because of snow at The Jake. Nonetheless, he was on board and I was glad to have his company.

We sped to Milwaukee at the last minute, scored the cheapest tickets we could, and dashed into the stadium right after Alfonso Soriano's lead off home run. I snatched a free scorecard, and as we ascended the escalator, I scratched out "Reds" and "Brewers" and penciled in "Cubs" and "Astros." We claimed our seats in the 400s, looking down the first base line, as Darin Erstad was leading off the bottom of the first.

I scanned the stadium once we were able to catch our breaths between innings. Cubbie Blue had poured into the lower two levels to fill the place to half capacity. It was a quiet crowd; enough so that I could hear Randy Wolf call out "I got it!" when Reed Johnson popped up to him in the second inning.

We didn’t see any action until the third, when the Cubs batted around the order and plated four runs courtesy of a run-scoring Derrek Lee double and a couple of other hits, all coming with two outs. Michael Bourne drew a walk with one out during the Astros’ turn at bat, but Carlos Zambrano nullified that when he got Miguel Tejada to ground into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth zipped by uneventfully, except for the four strikeouts Zambrano notched and the zeroes he was continuing to register in the “runs” and “hits” sections on my scorecard. I was drawing Edwin’s attention to them between innings, and twice asked, "How weird would it be if Zambrano threw a no-hitter in Milwaukee, and the Brewers weren't even here for it?" Edwin let the question hang uncomfortably between us in the middle of the seventh. He knew as well as I who was due to bat in the third spot for the Astros.

In my mind, I could see the soon-to-be highlights of the game on ESPN. It would be the umpteenth time I heard a SportsCenter host declare, “So-and-so took a no-hitter late into the game before it was finally broken up….” Carlos Zambrano would become the hapless “So-and-so” this time, and I had little doubt that Lance Berkman would break it up once he flexed some of the MVP-caliber muscle he has been showcasing all year.

There was a palpable excitement around the stadium by the time he dug in. He worked a 2-2 count before fouling off a slider and two fastballs. He got caught looking on the eighth pitch. The partisan crowd roared. I glanced at Edwin and muttered, "Zambrano has a chance." I texted my friend Scott with the line score and favorable pitch count: 84.

I have wondered what the rest of Cubs Nation was thinking the moment Berkman struck out and there seemed to be at least a good chance that we were going to see something unforgettable. Older Cubs fans may have been thinking about Sam Jones, who ended a 40-year drought of Cubs no-hitters in 1955 against the Pirates. They may have been thinking about Don Cardwell, who stymied the Cardinals two days after they traded him to the Cubs in 1960. If they weren’t lucky enough to see that, they may have been thinking about how lucky they were less than a decade later when Ken Holtzman hurled the first of his two no-hitters, which was the first of 4 thrown between 1969 and 1972 by Holtzman again, then Burt Hooten, and then Milt Pappas. Younger Cubs fans, deprived of no-hitters since Pappas worked his magic against the Padres 36 years ago, may have been thinking about a trifecta of lost opportunities to witness immortality. Names like Chuck Rainey, Jose Guzman, and Frank Castillo may have floated to the surface of their baseball memories and bobbed there awkwardly. Between 1983 and 1995, all three had lost their no-hitters with two outs in the ninth.

I was sweating enough to feel it in my armpits when Geoff Blum stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth. Edwin and I didn't dare look at or talk to each other; we were scared straight by superstition. If something happened, he would have every right to blame me for mentioning the unmentionable in the first place. Blum ripped a first-pitch fastball deep to right field; Mark DeRosa snared it while 23,000 of us sucked the air out of the stadium. When we exhaled, it was to chant “ Let's Go Z! Let's Go Z!” It looked like Zambrano was throwing junk from that point on, even though he was still hitting 95 on the radar. He worked deep into the count on both Hunter Pence and David Newhan, and couldn’t seem to find the strike zone. It didn't matter; whatever he was throwing was enough to sit them down.

I couldn't focus during the top half of the ninth from fretting over Zambrano's reputation as a head case. I was worried that Cuckoo Carlos would emerge and blow the deal. My stomach rumbled. I felt sweat trickle down my ribs under my sweatshirt. I tapped my pencil on my knee. The Cubs sat down in order, exactly as they had in four of the previous five innings. It was as if they knew not to give Z time to think about what he was doing.

Humberto Quintero grounded out 6-3 to lead off the bottom of the ninth. Jose Castillo followed suit, but if there was ever a more agonizing bouncer to the hole than his, I would have to see it to believe it. I swear I saw the stitches on the ball as it ricocheted off the infield grass. The gasping of the crowd was enough to momentarily vacuum-seal the stadium. It's going to bounce over Theriot's head... But the nimble boy from Baton Rouge dropped back, waited for it, squeezed it, and then rifled it to first for the out. After that infarction, I somehow knew that Darin Erstad wouldn't be able to change the outcome. I was right. He flailed off-balance at Zambrano’s 110th pitch.

Zambrano dropped to his knees and pointed to the sky. His teammates stormed the mound. The fans jumped into each others' arms. Edwin and I shook our heads and smirked. It was all we could do then and as we walked to the car and as we drove south on Interstate 94. The only thought we could verbalize between us was I can't believe what we just saw... did we really just see that?

I barely remember driving home. A swarm of thoughts buzzed through my head. I had just witnessed the unexpected lead to the improbable, and when you’re a Cubs fan, something in your genetic scheme makes you wonder if the improbable is foreshadowing what has been impossible for the last 100 years. Is the Ron Santo sound clip on WGN-- “This is the year!”-- actually true? I tried to banish the thought; too many times, even in my short tenure as a Cubs fan, optimism had led to anguish. Whatever was going to happen in October would best be left to thinking about in October. What mattered most at that moment was that I saw a no-hitter in real life, unfiltered by camera lenses and television screens. It will be etched in my mind and detailed on my scorecard forever. The thought of it will continue to draw me to the ballpark with the promise of possibly seeing something unforgettable.

Ninety minutes after Zambrano had met his fate, I dropped Edwin off in his driveway. He turned to me, still shaking his head and smirking, and said, "You were right. That was a once-in-a-lifetime chance."

Jeff Burd works as a high school Reading Specialist when he is not writing and watching baseball. He is in the Creative Nonfiction program at Northwestern University. His blog can be viewed at: http://burdly.blogspot.com/.

Posted on Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 01:34PM by Registered CommenterLovable Losers Literary Revue in , , | Comments34 Comments | References1 Reference

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