A YouTube clip from his perfect game against Tampa Bay on July 23, 2009, tells it all about the connection between Mark Buehrle and the fans in the working-class neighbourhood on the south side of Chicago.
A fan high in the stands behind third base is holding the camera. It’s the top of the ninth inning at U.S. Cellular Field, 24 batters up and 24 down, Buehrle pitching, Gabe Kapler batting, DeWayne Wise just into the game as a defensive replacement in centre field, playing shallower than usual to prevent a blooper from spoiling the show.
Crack. Kapler hits a long fly ball to left-centre field. “No. No! Noooo! Noooooohhhhhh!” screams the fan apparently holding the camera, as the ball soars toward the bleachers. Wise, once a Rule 5 draftee of the Blue Jays, races full speed to the wall, jumps with his back to the stands, snares the would-be homer, crashes into the wall, sees the ball squirt from his glove and somehow clutches it barehanded on descent.
“Yeeeeaaahhhhhhh!!!!” the fan yells as pandemonium erupts around him, the camera shaking with the vibration of the stands.
Wise hears about it constantly from fans. He’s come to accept that as Buehrle will forever be associated with the White Sox, his legacy will be the catch.
“When the ball came off Kapler’s bat, I was thinking, I can’t believe this just happened,” Wise recalled. “It felt like everything was in slow-mo. I couldn’t hear anything in the stadium. I could have heard a pin drop.”
After Buehrle recorded the final out, teammates poured onto the field and buried him in pile of joyous humanity.
“I cried,” said the White Sox’ colourful announcer, Hawk Harrelson, said in an interview this season. “And the reason I cried was, I was so happy for him. Some guys can pitch a no-hitter but they’re an ass, and you say congratulations and that’s it. With Mark, you couldn’t experience what I was feeling unless you know him.”
Scenes from the perfect game were played in a video tribute between the top and bottom half of the first inning Monday night, upon Buehrle’s first return to U.S. Cellular Field since leaving in 2012 for the Miami Marlins. Buehrle popped out of the dugout and waved his hat to the crowd before the tribute was played.
Self-described as “not a big media guy,” the scene greeting him on Monday for a pregame session in the visitors’ dugout was one he’d dreaded nervously for weeks: six television cameras, two dozen Chicago-area media members.
“Only thing different was walking past that [White Sox clubhouse] door,” Buehrle told the media. “Driving in today, it felt normal. When you do something for 12 years of your life … it’s not just the people I played with, but the security guards, the bag handlers at the field, just everybody who touched my career and my life, obviously I’ve had some great memories.”
Beloved for his no-nonsense, gritty approach on the mound, the 38th-round draft choice in 1998 won 161 games for the team, threw two no-hitters including the perfect game, won two postseason games, made nine opening-day starts, won three [of his now four] consecutive Gold Gloves, earned a World Series ring.
Before signing his four-year, $58-million (U.S.) contract in Miami, Buehrle met with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Buehrle wanted to stay a White Sox. At the same time, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had arrived to provide security for his family, to continue contributing to a nearby animal shelter as his primary charity.
“He said, ‘I don’t know what route we’re going or what we can do in free agency, and I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for this organization and the way you’ve gone about your business.’” Buehrle recalled previously. “When the Marlin thing happened, my agent called [the White Sox] back and said, ‘This is what the deal is, just to give you guys a last chance.’ They said, ‘We can’t come close to that, so have at it.’”
Some have argued the Sox made the right move, to give the team financial flexibility. Yet less than two seasons later, White Sox pitcher John Danks is being encouraged to “be like Buehrle” as he returns to action from shoulder surgery.
“I don’t think he throws as soft as I do yet,” Buehrle said, typically self-deprecating. “Give him a few more years.”