CLEVELAND, Ohio – A week ago pitcher Triston McKenzie was perfect.
For 7 2/3 innings, 24-year-old McKenzie did not allow a hit. Or a walk. Or a baserunner in what became Cleveland’s 11-0 victory over Detroit on August 15. Twenty-three up, twenty-three down. Then Detroit’s Harold Castro lined up a single with two strikeouts in the eighth.
McKenzie did this at 24.
“This kid had to be thinking of a perfect game,” Len Barker said. “You start to feel it when it’s so close.”
Barker is one of the few pitchers in baseball history who can speak authoritatively about it. It was Barker who pitched a perfect game on May 15, 1981. It wasn’t just the last perfect game in Tribe history, it was the last without a hit from a Cleveland pitcher.
Forty years ago, Barker was so precise that he didn’t have a single 3-bullet count. It was so overwhelming that few bullets were even hit hard. There were some nice plays from Toby Harrah and Duane Kuiper in the infield. Rick Manning had a superb center catch.
Domineering. Irresistible. And yes, perfect. Barker threw 103 shots, all but 19 were strikes. His fastball sizzled in the 95 mph range. He struck out 11 of 27 batters.
“My curve was the best ground that night,” he recalls. “I could throw it anytime, almost anywhere I wanted for a strike.”
This game was played on a soggy spring night, with a temperature of 47 degrees for the first pitch and up to 30 degrees for the last three strikeouts of the game. The tribe won, 3-0. Playing time: two hours, nine minutes.
They don’t play them so fast anymore.
WERE YOU THERE?
The announced “crowd” was 7,290 people at the old municipal stadium. He was probably closer to 6,000 in terms of bodies in the seats – although at least 60,000 claim to have seen him.
I was in my second season as the tribal baseball editor for the Plain Dealer. I think I missed about five games that season. It was a. I was with my wife Roberta at a banquet downtown in the old Stouffer’s Hotel in the public square. I had just received a writing award when someone came to our table and said, “It’s the seventh inning, Barker has a no-hitting game. Go down to the stadium.
My wife was wearing her best dress, the same one she wore to our wedding in 1977. I was in a suit and tie. We rushed to our car and got to the park just in time to see the last three outs – and yes, write a story.
“I was all these people pretending they were there,” Barker said. “Now most just say they saw it on TV.”
If they did, the late Joe Tait and Bruce Drennan called the action on Channel 43. Some of the sets might still have been old in black and white. It was so long ago.
MAN OF MANY NAMES AND STORIES
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Barker had a high kick and an upbeat personality. He also had nicknames. Some teammates called him “Grand Lenny”.
The former head of the tribe, Dave Garcia, nicknamed him “The Big Donkey”. It was a term of affection.
When Barker was in the Texas Rangers farming system, he once lifted a pitch that climbed above the screen’s safety net into a spring training ground. Another fastball reverberated against the press box during a game in Sacramento.
In 1978, a memorable third wild throw landed halfway up the screen behind the Fenway Park home plate.
Barker throwing a hit wasn’t a huge surprise. He was overkill in 1980 when he was 19-12 with a 4.17 ERA. He completed eight of 36 starts. He pitched 246 1/3 innings, leading the American League with 187 strikeouts and 14 wild shots.
In 1981, he made several starts in the fifth inning without allowing a hit. His control had also improved considerably. But a perfect game?
“I obviously didn’t see it coming,” he said. “But I thought one of us would throw a hit back then.”
This starting staff included Bert Blyleven, John Denny, Rick Waits and Barker. Due to a baseball strike, the tribe only played 103 games and the pitching staff completed 33 of their starts.
Blyleven lost a hit in the ninth inning earlier in the 1981 season.
“When you have a hit, guys stop sitting next to you,” Barker said. “They don’t even talk to you on the bench. You are nervous. They are too. No one wants to hurt you.
McKenzie said the same happened to him last Sunday.
BARKER WAS AN EMERGING STAR
Barker was on the AL All-Star Team in 1981. From 1980 to 1982, he was 42-30 with a 3.98 ERA. He completed 27 of 91 starts.
“I’ve already made 197 shots in a game,” said Barker. “They counted the locations, but they didn’t take you out unless you were in trouble.”
In 1982, he was 15-11 with a 3.90 ERA, completing 10 of 33 starts spanning 244 2/3 innings. He was 26 years old. His elbow was starting to bother him too. Barker continued to throw with a sore elbow in 1983. His speed was slowing, his curve was not as sharp. After a few games, you could see that his right elbow was swollen as he spoke to the media.
Barker never apologized. He always said his arm was “fine”. When he pitched badly, he would say, “I was horrible, just horrible.
BE HANDLE AT THE ELBOW
Barker was traded to Atlanta in the middle of the 1983 season. He continued to rock through the pain. He had an 8-13 record and a 5.11 ERA. He then becomes a free agent. With a comeback, Atlanta signed him to a 5-year, $ 4.5 million contract. His arm got worse.
“It got to the point where I felt like someone was stabbing my elbow with every throw,” said Barker. “I had just signed this big contract and felt I owed the Braves to keep throwing.”
Finally, he had to be operated. He had some form of Tommy John elbow reconstruction at the start.
“I don’t have a funny bone in my right arm,” he said. “I had a giant spur in the ligament. They cut the muscle … “
Her voice died out.
“I probably came back too quickly,” Barker said. “Every now and then I threw well, other times I threw at 80-82 mph.”
Barker pitched four years after leaving the tribe, retiring at the end of the 1987 season. He was 31 years old. It was five years after his perfect match.
A NEW CALL
Barker was a big league pitcher for 11 seasons. He is now in his 11th year as a baseball head coach at Notre Dame College in South Euclid. He has been in school since 2010 when he started as a pitching coach.
“I’ve had a construction business for a long time,” Barker said. “I helped get the job done. But my knees are gone. I had them both replaced. My body was collapsing.
Through Tribe’s Fantasy Camp, he met Dave Armstrong, a former vice-president of College Notre Dame. Armstrong told Barker about the school’s baseball program and they got an opening on the coaching staff.
“Why not?” thought Barker. “I’ve coached my kids over the years and helped some in high school. It was like the next step.
Barker has a 200-243 record in Division II school, 128-107 in the Mountain East Conference. Baltimore Orioles pitcher Tanner Scott played for Barker at Notre Dame.
“Our team has a cumulative grade point average of 3.2 over the past few years,” he said. “We have good children. I’m still learning patience. I really like it. “
Barker is now 66 years old. His batting coach is former Tribe teammate Joe Charboneau.
“I remember when I was hired (in 2012) as an athletic director,” said Scott Swain of Notre Dame. “I knew Len was a big league pitcher. He was already a head coach. But I wondered, “Would this guy have a big league attitude?” It was quite the opposite. He’s the most down to earth guy you would ever meet.
Barker lives in Chardon and has been in Northeast Ohio for 22 years.
“It has become a home,” he said. “I work for a large school and it’s a great place to live.
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