Chasing Perfection

“Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” – Vince Lombardi

By IAN WILSON

Nobody’s perfect.

Perfection, they say, is a myth.

Even Walter White was unable to cook a batch of meth that was completely pure. (Fans of the TV show Breaking Bad may recall that his product was 99% pure).

Yet, in the realm of sports, perfection does exist. Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored seven perfect 10 scores at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. The Miami Dolphins had a perfect win record in 1972, racking up 17 regular season victories en route to a Super Bowl title. Heavyweight boxer Rocky Marciano was undefeated in 49 bouts. Pugilist Floyd Mayweather Jr. surpassed that mark by winning all 50 of his fights (making him somehow more perfect than Marciano, perhaps?).

Bowling offers a perfect score of 300, while darts provides the prize of a nine-dart finish, the quickest path to a winning total of 501.

And in baseball there is the perfect game. 27 batters up, 27 down. No one reaches first base via hit or walk.

It’s a rare achievement for a pitcher and the defence that takes the field with him. At the Major League Baseball (MLB) level, only 23 perfect games have been recorded during 149 years of play.

In the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL), which has been in operation since 2000, there was no record of a perfect game until this summer.

That’s where Rich Walker comes in. When the Edmonton Prospects’ pitcher took the mound at Shell Place in Fort McMurray on June 29th, he unleashed a flawless performance on the Giants.

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Rich Walker (left) talks with a teammate at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks … photo by Ian Wilson

GATEWAY TO EDMONTON

But before we get to that date with history, it’s important to look back at why Walker was even there in the first place.

The product of Cave Creek, Arizona spent the winter of 2017-2018 playing his sophomore season for Mesa Community College. The 20-year-old pitched well enough for the Thunderbirds. During 16 appearances, he won six games and lost four. He also struck out 36 batters and posted an earned-run average (ERA) of 4.14 in his 45.2 innings of work.

But Walker only started two games and he was hoping to keep playing after his college season ended in May.

“I mentioned at Mesa that I was looking for a summer ball team,” said the slim, 6-foot tall right-hander. “I wanted to keep throwing through the summer and find a good league.”

David Robb, an assistant coach with Mesa, spends his summers as a hitting/bench coach with the Okotoks Dawgs of the WMBL. Several Thunderbirds were also making plans to head to Okotoks in the summer – including catcher Marcus Skundrich, outfielder Greg Student and pitchers Cameron Doherty, Carter Robinson, Nolan Ruff and Dustin Schorie.

“He and I both wanted him on the Dawgs. It was coming down to the end of our school season and Rich didn’t have a place to play yet,” said Robinson.

The snag in Okotoks was that the Dawgs had already filled out their roster, but the coaching staff in Mesa pledged to help find a team for Walker.

In April, Walker pitched three innings against GateWay Community College. During the 8-2 victory for Mesa, he struck out one batter, yielded four hits and gave up one earned run. One man watching the appearance was GateWay assistant coach Orv Franchuk, who also works alongside Edmonton Prospects’ head coach Ray Brown during the summer.

“Orv liked him and Orv said we should take him so we took him,” said Brown.

The move made Walker an instant rival of his Thunderbird teammates.

“When we found out we would be playing for rival teams this summer there was definitely a little chirping going on,” said Robinson.

“I don’t think either of us fully understood the rivalry between teams until we got up there.”

FROM CLOSER TO STARTER

When he arrived in Edmonton, Walker’s first pitches for the Prospects came out of the bullpen. During a season-opening 11-4 loss to the Dawgs on June 1st at RE/MAX Field, he pitched two clean innings, allowing no hits or walks to the first six batters he faced in the WMBL. That was followed up by a two-inning save in Fort McMurray during a 7-6 win over the Giants.

Walker’s first WMBL start came next. It was a forgettable 12-1 loss at Seaman Stadium. While he didn’t walk any batters, he was touched up for seven hits and four earned runs. In the fifth inning of that matchup, a line drive from Collin Ridout struck his throwing hand. Walker remained down for several minutes before trying to test it, but he was unable to continue – and while he was fortunate to avoid any broken bones, his hand swelled up like a catcher’s mitt shortly after. By that point, his Mesa teammates in Okotoks were enjoying a successful summer, leaving Walker to wonder what could have been had he ended up with the Dawgs.

The 180-pound pitcher continued to get starts for Edmonton – the results were average and, while he picked up his first win of the season, he also suffered two losses.

On June 27th, Walker came out of the bullpen again during a game that was memorable for all in attendance at RE/MAX Field. After disputing a call – and in an attempt to fire up his team – Dawgs’ head coach Mitch Schmidt engaged in a chair-tossing tirade that left fans cheering, heckling, laughing and scrambling for their cell phones to record the incident.

“It’s one of those things you definitely don’t see every day, so you’ve got to appreciate it,” Walker told Alberta Dugout Stories. “It was wild!”

Just two days after Schmidt’s meltdown went viral, Walker would shine a spotlight on the WMBL once again – this time for all the right reasons.

PERFECT NIGHT

Heading into Walker’s late-June start against Fort McMurray, the Prospects had lost six straight games and their record was just 8-14.

Before he took the mound at Shell Place, Walker made a pledge to his teammates.

“I told them before the game that I’d give them eight scoreless innings and I just tried to stick to my word,” said Walker, who wore jersey number 32 for the Prospects.

Despite this bold claim from a pitcher who had not made it past the sixth inning all year, Walker prepared for the game like it was any other.

“I went through my stretch routine and went through my throwing. It felt like just any other normal day getting ready for a start,” recalled Walker.

Edmonton’s offence went to work early, scoring four runs in the top of the first inning, providing all the run production the Prospects would need.

Walker also went to work quickly, retiring the first three batters he faced on six pitches. The second inning required just eight pitches. A bit more effort was needed in the third inning when Fort McMurray’s designated hitter B.J. Minarcin ran the count full on a 10-pitch at bat before striking out. With a third of the game complete, Walker had faced every Fort McMurray batter. No one advanced to first base for the Giants and Walker had collected three strikeouts.

“All I remember is hitting the ball hard right at people, and his team was playing great defence,” said Giants’ infielder Drew Dickerson, who flew out to centre field in the second inning.

“He got ahead the majority of the time and located every pitch.”

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Drew Dickerson, pictured here in Okotoks, had little to smile about when facing Rich Walker on June 29th at Shell Place in Fort McMurray … photo by Ian Wilson

The fourth inning was no better for the Giants. Swinging strikeouts from Liam Rihela and Mike Bowes sandwiched a pop up to second base by Chris Panzarella. Fort McMurray went down again in order in the fifth inning, but the team got a glimmer of hope to start the sixth inning. Centre fielder John Loschiavo had a 3-0 count before he ultimately grounded out to first base, allowing Walker to avoid issuing a walk. Another strikeout and a ground-ball out completed the game’s sixth inning.

“By the time I got through the lineup the second time at the end of the sixth inning, I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m only nine outs away from something pretty crazy here,'” said Walker. “No one talked to me. My coaches didn’t say a word to me. We knew what we were doing, we knew what the game plan was, and we just stuck to that.”

THE HOMESTRETCH

In the Fort McMurray dugout, the mood was getting anxious.

“I remember getting into the sixth or seventh inning and our hitters were starting to get frustrated and our dugout was getting kind of skittish,” said Rihela, who was playing third base for the Giants that night and hitting in the leadoff spot.

“We were at the point where we would’ve done anything to get that hit. I remember standing up at the dugout fence in the last couple innings and seeing the plays their defence made, or more guys striking out, and kind of realizing that it was inevitable.”

The bottom of the seventh inning started uneventfully with two grounders to shortstop Aidan Huggins for outs before Bowes scorched a line drive up the middle that was caught by second baseman Zane Takhar.

“On that play, I was just fortunate enough to be in the right position and get a good first step on the line drive,” said Takhar.

“It kind of seemed slow motion while it happened and didn’t really hit me until I got back in the dugout how big that was.”

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Infielder Zane Takhar made some key defensive plays during Walker’s perfect game, including a nice snag on a line drive late in the game … photo by Ian Wilson

Word was starting to spread beyond the 470 fans in attendance at Shell Place as the game went on and it appeared something special was in the making.

Walker’s pitching pal Robinson was at Seaman Stadium, with the Dawgs entertaining the Melville Millionaires. The Okotoks hurler wasn’t pitching that night and during a bathroom break he checked his phone and saw a flurry of texts. An old teammate of both players gave Robinson the news that Walker was in the late stages of a perfect game.

“In that moment I got really excited and nervous. After that, I kept coming back and forth from the dugout for updates. When he finished it I ran out and told all the other Mesa guys on the team. Everyone was excited for him – none of us thought of it as an Edmonton win as much as a Ricky perfect game,” said Robinson, who has known Walker since high school.

BOTTOM OF THE NINTH

Following another perfect eighth frame, Walker felt no mental or physical fatigue and was looking forward to finishing the job in the final inning.

“I was just ready to go do it. I was feeling great … I was probably the most calm in the ninth inning,” said Walker.

After striking out the first two batters in the ninth, only Minarcin stood in his way. He took a ball before making contact on the second pitch, which hopped to the shortstop Huggins.

“When I saw him make that play, he was totally in control and didn’t try to rush it. When I saw it hit the (first baseman’s) glove I threw my glove and I turned to my catcher and he was right there and the whole team came running out. It was an unreal moment,” Walker told Alberta Dugout Stories.

“A lot of people stuck around to shake my hand. The fans gave me a pretty good ovation and the Giants were applauding me, too.”

Fort McMurray catcher Adam North, who struck out twice during his three plate appearances, was among those saluting the achievement.

“It seemed like he was getting three or four pitch outs every batter, so our approach was to grind out some long at bats to drive up his pitch count, but he took advantage of that approach by just pumping early count strikes. The theme with Walker all night was him letting us get ourselves out at the plate,” said North, who caught a no-hitter in high school but had never been a part of a perfect game.

“A perfect game is something you don’t see very often, so when you find yourself on the the wrong end of one all you can do is tip your cap to the other team.”

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Giants’ catcher Adam North struck out twice versus Walker … photo by Ian Wilson

Walker’s zero-filled line in the boxscore included nine strikeouts and 63 of his 95 pitches went for strikes. The game took just over two hours to complete, but the memories will last a lifetime for those involved.

BROWNIE POINTS

Edmonton’s skipper knew better than most how special that evening was.

During his playing days, Brown threw a no-hitter for the Billings Mustangs in his first professional start in the Pioneer League in 1971 – the only mistake he made was hitting the second batter he faced.

In 1973, while playing for the San Jose Bees of the Single-A California League, the right-hander used his devastating slider to toss a seven-inning perfect game against Modesto.

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News clipping of Ray Brown’s perfect game in 1973

“I think in the third or fourth inning I told my teammates, ‘Yeah, I’m pitching a perfect game,’ and they started yelling at me. And then when we got to the last inning, I looked in our dugout and I winked at our coach. Then there was a ground ball to the second baseman and the game was over,” recalled Brown of his own perfect outing.

Walker and his teammates were unaware of their coach’s impressive performance from decades gone by, but Brown reminded Franchuk of the feat when they were back on the bus and headed to Edmonton.

“It was Rich’s night, he didn’t need to hear about Ray Brown … I said to Orv, right now we’ve got two guys on this bus who have pitched perfect games,” laughed Brown.

WHAT DO YOU DO FOR AN ENCORE?

It’s been said that the most difficult part of attaining perfection is finding something to do for an encore.

Following Walker’s unforgettable night, the Prospects won their next three games. They finished the regular season with 23 wins and 23 losses, good for third place in the western division.

While Walker was not quite that good again, he came close. He pitched two more complete game shutouts, including a two-hitter during a 2-0 win over the Brooks Bombers on July 14th and a three-hit, one-walk performance in another 2-0 victory against the Lethbridge Bulls on July 27th.

When the playoffs rolled around, Walker squared off against his Mesa teammates and the Dawgs in Game 4 of the first-round series.

The game featured a pitchers’ duel between Walker, who was battling the flu, and his high school buddy Robinson, who lasted 7.2 innings and gave up six hits, along with two runs – only one of them earned. Walker pitched seven innings, allowing just two hits and one unearned run, while striking out four batters. The final result was a 2-1 win for the Prospects, who upset the Dawgs three games to one in the best-of-five series.

“It was awesome to be able to throw against him for the first time,” said the 6-foot-8 Robinson.

“Obviously, I would’ve liked to win, but it was a great game … if I had to choose a way to go out, it would be a pitchers’ duel between me and Ricky, and that’s exactly what it was.”

Walker’s final outing of his summer season was his shortest. Lasting just 1.1 innings against the Medicine Hat Mavericks in a decisive Game 5 loss during the Western Division finals, he gave up seven earned runs during the 11-4 drubbing. Walker appeared to suffer a leg injury before he was pulled.

Despite the loss, Walker plans on returning to Edmonton next summer so he can continue to chase perfection. Prospects fans hope he does so they can catch excellence once again.

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