On April 21, 2012, Philip Humber threw the 21st perfect game in MLB history, made even more memorable by a controversial checked-swing strike three to end it.
Two days later, he received the customary invitation all perfect pitchers receive -- the opportunity to deliver the Top 10 list on "The Late Show with David Letterman."
It was funny then, because Humber read his lines with more inflection than the average athlete (see Buehrle, Mark). It's still funny now, but for a different reason.
For the first half of the clip, Letterman peppers Humber with questions -- some earnest, some steeped in self-amusement. Then the host transitions into the prepared material at the 1:50 mark:
Letterman: Well, anyway, congratulations my friend. If I were you, I'd retire now.
Humber: Thank you, I know, I told somebody I need to.
Little did either of them know what the next four years had in store.
In his next start, Humber walked the very first batter he faced, then gave up three straight hits later in the inning to fall behind 2-0. After stabilizing in the second, he loaded the bases with a ground-rule double and two walks with one out, then gave up a grand slam to Kevin Youkilis and a solo shot to Jarrod Saltalamacchia immediately after.
The Salty homer represented the extra kick in the junk that baseball kept in store for Humber, who finally decided to call it a career on Tuesday after nearly four years of professional agony. I'm pretty sure this timeline violates the Eighth Amendment.
May-Sept. 2012: Humber struggled to tie together effective starts through June, when he hit the disabled list with a right elbow flexor strain. The time away didn't help, and spent the last two months in the bullpen. One
(An extra kick: Sept. 4, when he came out of the bullpen in the fifth inning with the Sox trailing 7-4 and retired just one of the 10 batters he faced. Dewayne Wise, the first White Sox position player to pitch in 17 years, closed out the game.)
Nov. 2012-Sept. 2013: The White Sox placed Humber on waivers, and the Astros came calling. They continued showing why they had the highest waiver priority during a 51-111 season, and Humber played a part by going 0-8 with a 7.90 ERA. The Astros were 1-16 in games he pitched.
Oct. 2013 - Nov. 2014: Humber became a free agent and signed with the Oakland A's. They used him almost exclusively in the bullpen (41 of 44 games), and they used him exclusively at Triple-A Sacramento despite decent numbers for the PCL (3.65 ERA, 68 strikeouts over 69 innings). Humber seemed to know the deal:
"I think a lot of times from the outside looking in, you look at a guy’s ERA and you say, ‘He was in the big leagues, and now he’s in Triple A,’ " said Humber. "It’s got to be so rough.’
"But really, it’s just life like everyone else. You have good days and bad days. Sometimes, you get a promotion; sometimes they invite you to leave. That’s just how life is for most people. Sometimes people separate sports because they’re just watching highlight shows."
Dec. 2014 - July 2015: Humber signed with the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization for $600,000, a career move he didn't exactly embrace ("As much as you want to say, 'I'm a Major League baseball player,' the checks cash the same.") Even adjusting for the KBO's offense-heavy nature, Humber struggled. He posted a 6.75 ERA and gave up 11 homers over 50⅔ innings before Kia released him.
I asked Humber about the hitter-friendly nature of the KBO, which over the past two seasons has sent sluggers Jung Ho Kang and Byung Ho Park to North America, and he didn't spare himself with his answer.
"I helped 'em out with that,'' Humber said, smiling. "The whole time there wasn't easy, but I'm glad we went. Like my wife said on the airplane home, 'If we can get through that, we can get through anything.'"
Oct. 2015 - Nov. 2015: Humber resurfaced with the Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Winter League. He pitched in four games, bookending his brief stint with nine innings' worth of shutout appearances.
Nov. 2015-March 2016: Winter ball paid off -- somewhat -- as the Padres signed Humber to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training and an outside chance to win a bullpen job. He sounded like somebody at ease with his position:
"I’m just looking at it like I’m a kid again, even though I’m older than most of the guys here," Humber told the Union-Tribune last month. "This is just a fresh opportunity for me, because once I went to Korea, I didn’t know if I would ever come back and experience another major league spring training.
"I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I want to either pitch in the big leagues or maybe it’s time to find something else to do. I just want to make sure that I’m not just going to spring training as, ‘Well, you’re going to Triple-A, but you can come to camp with us.’ I wanted to make sure it was a real opportunity, and that’s what they presented to me. And that’s all you can really ask for."
Both sides lived up to those terms. The Padres gave him a look into the last days of spring training, and when they didn't have a job for him, Humber decided to hang 'em up. (Matt Thornton did win one of the spots, so he'll prolong his career after it looked like it might be in jeopardy.)
Humber's story line couldn't be scripted, at least in any conventional way.
- Act I: Third-overall draft pick undergoes surgery, bounces around and tries to dodge the dreaded "bust" label.
- Act II: He finally puts it together, culminating with a perfect game.
- Act III: He walks the first batter he faces in his next start, triggering a four-year rake sequence.
And there's no happy ending, either. He'll finish his career 4-13 with a 7.59 ERA after the perfect game. It's so easy to call it a curse, and the Sports Illustrated story from December 2012 -- still a definitive account of his descent -- doesn't say it wasn't:
Every time Humber took the mound, he tried to be the pitcher he was in Seattle—but competence seemed unattainable, much less perfection. In his next start, he allowed nine runs in five innings. Two outings later he was bombed for eight runs in 2 1/3 innings. Every time he fell short of the new standard he set for himself, he pushed himself harder. He began spending more time than ever in the video room. He played with every imaginable grip for his pitches. He threw extra bullpen sessions. He ran more, lifted more. He asked teammates how they dealt with their struggles. He couldn't understand why he couldn't recapture the magic. "I just feel lost," Humber said to Cooper at one point. "I don't know what I'm doing out there."
Even if the perfect game altered the trajectory of his career irreparably, I'd still probably take it. Even before April 21, 2012, the White Sox witnessed the best pitching of his career -- good for a 9-9 record and a 3.69 ERA over 27 starts. That's basically the equivalent of Eric King. Including the perfect game and the meltdown afterward, his White Sox career resembles that of Kip Wells.
Neither King nor Wells threw a perfect game, though. If that's the range of legacy outcomes, I'll take the one with the history, "fluke" tags and all. All articles about Wells' retirement were aggregated around a tweet.
Humber will forever be a curiosity and something of a laughing matter, but his story will be one worth revisiting for both the perfect game and the ensuing struggles, even if following a comedian's tongue-in-cheek advice would've saved his stat line. Here's hoping Humber can relax in retirement as much as Letterman appears to be basking in his: