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Thursday, July 23, 2009
Updated: July 24, 10:58 PM ET
Just like you, but perfect

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- How does he do it?

That's the company line, the inside joke, the way we deal with a normal dude like Mark Buehrle doing abnormal things like throwing a perfect game, winning a World Series, and marrying the pretty girl he proposed to in a deer stand.

How does Mark Buehrle do it?

Look at him. He's a monster-truck-driving, deer-hunting, self-proclaimed country boy who strains to hit 90 on the radar gun and was picked in the 38th round of the 1998 amateur baseball draft.

Did you even know there were that many rounds in a draft? Heck, Ron Schueler, the former White Sox general manager who selected the left-handed Buehrle, took his own daughter in the 43rd round in 1993.

No one could have predicted Mark Buehrle's career.

Gifted only with an impeccable sense of control and remarkable poise, Buehrle added a new first line to his obituary Thursday afternoon, tossing the 18th perfect game in baseball history in a 5-0 victory over Tampa Bay. That's his second no-hitter, the first one coming against Texas on April 18, 2007. He's the sixth pitcher to do both, joining guys like Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson (who threw the last perfect game in 2004) and Cy Young.

"I don't know how to explain it," he said. "I never thought I'd throw a no-hitter."

How did this happen again? Buehrle, who likes to work quickly and directly, was pitching to Ramon Castro, who was traded from the Mets earlier this season and had never caught Buehrle before.

Mark Buehrle & Josh Fields
Mark Buehrle can barely believe it.

The play of the game came from substitute outfielder Dewayne Wise, who made a leaping catch at the wall in left-center to start the ninth. Little-used Josh Fields hit a grand slam in the second to give Buehrle breathing room. You can't make this stuff up.

This kind of game could happen only to Buehrle.

Has a Chicago pitcher ever had a better career, pitching only in the Windy City, than Buehrle? Here's your answer: no-hitter, perfect game, World Series ring, 133 wins and counting at the age of 30.

"He has no fear," White Sox captain Paul Konerko said. "That's why he puts himself in position to do what he does."

In a game still decided by power, Buehrle (11-3, 3.28 ERA) lives off 89 mph cutters, curveballs and changeups. He pitches in the strictest sense of the word, by hitting his spots and establishing a quick rhythm. He throws 200 innings every season, the mark of a true professional.

For the guys out there with love handles and three days of scruff, Buehrle is your kind of guy. His coaches get on him for his offseason conditioning, which consists of watching his kids play, deer hunting, and jogs to and from the fridge. He's a real person. He loves to catch those ceremonial first pitches, and he comes to work nearly every day in cargo shorts and a T-shirt.

How does he do it? Even President Obama probably wanted to know. He called Buehrle after the game. Well, Mr. President, it's real simple.

"Strikes, a lot of guts, and confidence in himself," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who has coached Buehrle since 2004.

Dewayne Wise
Dewayne Wise was one of the unlikely secondary heroes, pulling back a homer in the ninth.

Buehrle doesn't believe in superstitions and jinxes, so he talked to teammates, walked around the dugout. Whenever he would go into the clubhouse, he would joke with catcher A.J. Pierzynski, his lockermate and friend. Earlier this season, Pierzynski tried to explain Buehrle's continued success.

"I think one thing he's learned is that velocity doesn't really matter," Pierzynski told me when I profiled Buehrle after he got out to a 5-0 start for the first time in his career. "Sometimes he still goes out there and tries to see how hard he can throw and he gives up some hits here or there. We try to preach to him that velocity doesn't matter. Eighty-six is sometimes better than 96, especially with the way his ball moves, and the pitches in his repertoire."

Buehrle said he threw only a handful of cut fastballs, his signature pitch, relying mostly on curveballs and changeups en route to perfection.

Of course, his fastball is similar to other guys' changeups, so it's tough to gauge. He did say that Konerko, who served as the designated hitter, spotted one late fastball at 91. According to ESPN research, his fastball averaged 86 mph, just 7 mph faster than his changeup.

"When you're a pitcher, you want to go up there and see the gun," Buehrle said to me in May. "For me, it's 90. For other guys, that's like 100."

Buehrle's perfect game came out of nowhere, as they always seem to do. But this one is more than improbable, given the getaway day lineup that Guillen trotted out.

Castro had to learn Buehrle's stuff before the game. Jayson Nix started at second base, and Fields got a start at first and put the Sox ahead in the second inning with his grand slam. And while both are in the regular lineup, rookie Gordon Beckham is still developing at third, and Alexei Ramirez is talented but error-prone at short.

"Unbelievable," Castro said. "It's an honor for me."

Ramirez assisted the last out on a Jason Bartlett grounder. Fields snagged it and ran toward the mound, and the team dog-piled on Buehrle. Buehrle's wife, Jamie, was on the field with their daughter, Brooklyn, who was born during spring training, and wore a red dress for the occasion.

"In the coaches' room everyone was in tears," Guillen said. "One thing, it couldn't happen to a better guy."

Josh Fields
Josh Fields was another, hitting a grand slam.

Guillen recalled Buehrle's first no-hitter, when he wondered how a guy who pitches to contact and prides himself on working fast could get so lucky.

"He's one of the most underrated pitchers in the American League in the last 10 years," Guillen said.

Buehrle got to a three-ball count on only five batters and didn't need a highlight-reel play until the ninth. And what a play it was.

Wise, just inserted into the game for defensive purposes, robbed Gabe Kapler of a home run with a perfectly timed leaping catch at the wall. Wise juggled the ball as he tumbled to the ground but never took his eyes off it, snagging it with his bare hand before popping up.

"I told myself I was going to run through the wall to catch this ball," said Wise, who was on the opposing bench during Johnson's perfect game.

You can't overstate the magnitude of that catch, which was made by an outfielder almost universally reviled by the team's fan base. When the Sox demoted defensive specialist Brian Anderson and kept the .196-hitting Wise, some people called Guillen racist and questioned the team's sanity.

"We keep this guy for a reason," Guillen said after the game.

What was Guillen thinking when Kapler's ball was in the air?

"I can't say it here; you'd have to bleep me," Guillen said.

Wise, a 31-year-old journeyman, is going to get a big-time present for his catch.

"I bought the guys watches, everybody on the team, for the last one," Buehrle said. "That was an expensive no-hitter. This one is going to be a lot more expensive."

It wasn't that long ago that Buehrle was on his way out of town. Trade rumors swirled during 2007, and a couple of months after his no-hitter, most people thought he would be traded. Instead he signed a four-year, $56 million contract and continued to make a run at being known as the greatest Sox pitcher of all time, with a fighting chance at the Hall of Fame. This year he made news when he said he might retire after his contract ended in 2011, or go back to his hometown St. Louis Cardinals to finish his career.

He just might do it -- retire or leave town -- and either choice would be a shame. Nobody's perfect, but when it comes to pitchers, I don't know if anyone's better than Mark Buehrle.