In this, the year of the no-hitter (and the perfect game that wasn’t) it seems only fitting to mark the anniversary of another gem that got away due to forces entirely beyond the reach of the pitcher at the center of it all.
Forty years ago today, Padres pitcher Clay Kirby took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Mets. Unlike Armando Galarraga, who was robbed by a bad call, Kirby was robbed by a questionable decision—by his own manager.
Baseball etiquette mandates that nothing change in a team’s dugout during a no-hitter: seating arrangements, nervous tics (which is to say, if you’re doing something when the no-no becomes apparent, keep doing it) and, especially, the lineup. Defensive substitutions are frowned upon as a matter of course (although they do sometimes work, as in the case of the game-saving catch by Dewayne Wise during Mark Buehrle’s 2009 perfect game), and the notion of having relievers warm up in the bullpen is virtually unheard of.
(“We were asking ourselves on the bench, should we get somebody up in the bullpen, just playing catch?” said Bob Brenly, the manager of the Diamondbacks in 2001, during Randy Johnson‘s perfect game. “In case he gives up that first hit we want somebody ready to go, so that by the time he gives up the second hit, we can go to the bullpen if we need to. But we didn’t want Randy to turn around and see a relief pitcher warming up in the bullpen. What should have been one of the easiest games to manage, I was losing my hair. . . . I didn’t want to do anything to screw up a perfect game.)
In 1970, the Padres were managed by Preston Gomez, who shared none of Brenly’s sentiments.
As Kirby, just 22, spun his no-hitter through eight, Gomez had another matter to consider: a walk, two stolen bases and a fielder’s choice had deeded the Mets a first-inning run, and the Padres trailed 1-0.
When, with two outs and nobody on, Kirby’s turn to bat came up in the bottom of the eighth, Gomez didn’t hesitate. His team needed to score.
“(Ed) Spiezio and (Bob) Barton were ahead of (Kirby),” said Gomez in the Los Angeles Times. “If Spiezio hits a home run or if one of them gets on and I can bunt with Kirby, then he stays in. But my mind was made up to hit for him if neither one of them got on.”
This didn’t keep the 10,373 fans at San Diego Stadium from booing at the site of pinch-hitter Cito Gaston, who, hitting in Kirby’s place, struck out. (The North County Times offers a robust retrospective on the affair.)
“My father was there,” said Kirby in the St. Petersburg Times. “It was the first game he’d ever seen me pitch in San Diego. He was madder than I was.”
A shouting match erupted in the dugout between pitcher and manager, and Kirby stormed to the clubhouse before Gaston even got to the plate. Jack Baldschun replaced Kirby in the ninth, and on his fourth pitch did what Kirby had spent eight innings not doing—giving up a hit, when Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson singled to left. That was followed by a sacrifice, a walk and two singles. The Mets won 3-0, and Kirby’s record fell to 5-12.
“It’s not that I’m bitter,” Kirby told the Times, 20 years after the fact. “But with a chance to do it again, I’d like to look back and say a baseball I pitched is in the Hall of Fame. When I try to look back at the logic behind it, I don’t see it. We were 20 or 30 games behind and we needed something to drum up interest in the ballclub. A no-hitter would have given the franchise a much bigger boost than one more victory. If it had been the seventh game of the World Series, I could understand it, I guess. But we were in last place.”
As if to prove it wasn’t a strategic ﬂuke, Gomez did the same thing four years later while managing the Houston Astros, pulling Don Wilson after eight no-hit innings for a pinch-hitter with his team trailing the Reds, 2–1. (The reliever he inserted, Mike Cosgrove, gave up a leadoff single.)
Never has a man been more inclined to prove the theorem that winning takes precedent over the Code, even for a team that would lose 99 games, as the Padres did that year.