When “Len Barker” is said aloud, eyes involuntarily widen and smiles creep onto the faces of Cleveland sports fans.
That is because Barker is a member of Cleveland sports royalty. He’s a true rock star in the city that’s the epicenter of that musical genre.
Sunday marked the 30-year anniversary of the event that made Barker an instant legend in Northeast Ohio. On May 15, 1981, Barker became the 10th player in major league history to throw a perfect game.
The Indians starter needed just 103 pitches — 84 of them strikes — to set down 27 straight Toronto Blue Jays in a 3-0 victory that only 7,290 people witnessed at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.
It was only 49 degrees that Friday night on the shore of Lake Erie, but Barker was on fire. He used his best two pitches — a nasty slider and a blazing fastball — to daze and confuse hitters such as future Indians player Willie Upshaw (0-for-3), current TV analyst Buck Martinez (0-for-2) and current Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge (0-for-2).
Barker got better as the game wore on. All 11 of his strikeouts came after the third inning and all of them were swinging. He had no three-ball counts during the outing, and needed just two hours and nine minutes to put the feat in the record books.
Meanwhile, 30 miles away in the city of Elyria, there was an 8-year-old boy — exactly one month away from his ninth birthday — who was just getting his first taste of organized baseball on the Little League East diamonds.
The boy was just starting to watch the Indians play on TV, and occasionally would get to go see a game live at the stadium.
Baseball was a new experience that was slowly sinking its hooks into him.
He loved the camaraderie he experienced on his team. He liked the roar of the crowd during the big plays. He saw the excitement on the field and felt the energy flow through him.
But it was Barker’s big game that completed the marriage with sports for that boy. He listened to the fanatical way Barker’s name was thrown around for weeks following the perfect game. He pretended to be the famed pitcher as he threw the baseball around in the backyard. The years went by and Barker’s perfect game was one of the few bright spots in a long list of miserable memories the boy had of his city and its sports history.
Years later, he shook his head with amazement when his wife brought home a baseball cap with Barker’s autograph that she had gotten at a work event, and the memories of that magical day came flooding back.
It’s hard to believe that a boy who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s and was a hardcore Indians, Browns and Cavaliers fan could have sports became a central theme in his life.
His job centered on sports. His nights out on the town with friends often included attending sporting events or watching them on high-definition TVs at the local watering hole. He even signed his daughter up for a sport — gymnastics — at the age of 2.
Coaching youth soccer, baseball and softball followed. There was no sport that went unwatched, and ESPN’s “SportsCenter” became the TV show of choice to fall asleep to every night.
Looking back over the past four decades, that boy didn’t have a lot of great sports moments to choose from when compiling the list that shaped him as a person and allowed him to become the sports lover he is today.
But Barker’s perfect game came at the perfect time in his life, and certainly sits near the top of that list.
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