The most enduring image of Len Barker's perfect game is not the 6-foot-5-inch right-hander with a bushy mustache and long hair. It's not the way he kicks his left knee above the brim of his block-C Indians cap just before delivering another strike to home plate. It's not how he nervously adjusts the elastic waistband on his pants before and after every pitch. In fact, it's not Barker at all.
What's impossible to forget about that cold night in 1981 is how it ends. Toronto Blue Jays pinch hitter Ernie Whitt lifting a short fly ball to shallow center field, Rick Manning gliding in, arms outstretched as if to call off all 7,000-plus in attendance: He's got it. When the ball hits Manning's glove, he leaps, arms raised in a joyous, bounding sprint to Barker in the infield. The rest of his teammates and even some fans swarm the field to join the celebration of the first perfect game since Oakland's Catfish Hunter in 1968.
"Nothing felt especially different," Barker tells Jeannie Roberts for this month's "Life According To" feature. "I was just really zoned in on my control."
Watch footage from that game, and you'll realize Barker's understatement. A 19-game winner the year before, the 25-year-old's fastball hit 96 mph that night. But after the third inning, Barker started using his curve. He struck out 11 Blue Jays — many of them flailing away as the ball vanished into catcher Ron Hassey's mitt.
Barker didn't need much help that night: 84 of his 103 pitches were strikes. Still he got it anyway from Manning, who chased down a liner in the gap to end the second inning; Toby Harrah, who leapt into the stands for a pop-up in the fifth; from Duane Kuiper, who made two nice plays at second base; and from Hassey, who, on the final out, urged Barker to keep the 1-2 pitch to Whitt low in the strike zone.
Barker still loves to talk about that game. But not because it's a Len Barker story. He likes to recall how much it meant to our city. So maybe it's fitting that Manning is the picture of jubilance etched in our memory. When he finally made it to the swarm surrounding Barker, Manning tried to hand Barker the ball. But he wouldn't take it.
Everything needed to be perfect. "No, I'm giving it to you, for all the things you've done," Barker told him.