At least—one could say—it was over early. There was no late-inning heartbreak or pretension of throwing a no-hitter or perfect game. But still, a single swing of the bat changed it from something remarkable to something that is just remarked deep in the annals of Toronto Blue Jays history. A single swing of a bat disqualified membership into an exclusive club of professional pitchers. A single swing of a bat, most importantly, changed it from a win to a loss. A single swing on a single mistake.
On another day, in another game, facing another team, starting against another pitcher, rookie Paul Menhart may have gotten away with his mistake, but on August 2, 1995 he was tasked to face the Baltimore Orioles, and his hitters were tasked to face Mike Mussina.
Back in 1995, the Orioles weren’t yet the powerhouse Orioles of the late-90s, and the Blue Jays were but a mere shell of the powerhouse that dominated the American League in the late-80s and early-90s. The Jays, less than two years removed from winning their second consecutive World Series, still had legendary names like Devon White, Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, and John Olerud in their lineup. But things never clicked and by August 2 they were in last place, 11 games under .500. The upstart O’s were sitting at 43-44, six games back of Boston and had the likes of Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla, and Cal Ripken in their lineup and a rotation fronted by a 26-year old Mussina.
* * *
Menhart was the same age as Mussina. But whereas Mussina already had three All-Star Game selections and Cy Young considerations in his pocket, Menhart was just pitching in his first season in the big leagues. He was selected as an eighth-round pick in 1990, as a senior from Western Carolina University. Jerry Reed was probably the other most notable player to come out of WCU. Menhart took the long route to get to the majors, with stops in St. Catherines, Myrtle Beach, Dunedin, Knoxville, and finally Syracuse in 1993. A couple of months after Joe Carter touched 'em all, Menhart was pitching winter ball in Puerto Rico when he heard his elbow snap.
He broke down and cried. He would need Tommy John surgery and his career was in jeopardy. Recovery from the dreaded reconstructive surgery was not nearly as sure back in 1993 than it is today. But Menhart was lucky and had a great orthopaedic surgeon—Dr. Joe Chandler—and so was feeling so well in spring training 1994 that he set a goal to be a September callup that year. Alas, there was to be no baseball played in September that year after the players decided to put down their bats and pick up picket signs.
When the players finally decide to start playing again in 1995, Menhart found himself on the 25-man roster to start the season. He would spend a couple of months back in triple-A but finally he had made it to the big leagues.
* * *
It was a night game at a muggy Camden Yards, then still sporting that new-stadium smell. Paul Menhart, having just been recalled from Syracuse four days earlier, reported in the afternoon. Like most of his bullpenmates, he was expecting to spend most of the hot summer night watching the game from over the left-centre field wall. As he was dropping his stuff off in the clubhouse, he heard the voice of manager Cito Gaston calling him. Was he being sent down again?
Forget about the bullpen—he was going to start the game.
You see, the scheduled starter for the game, lefty Al Leiter, was suffering from one of his damn blisters again. Young Menhart hadn't pitched in four days and was a starter in triple-A, so he was voluntold to fill in, hopefully logging five or six innings to save the rest of the relief corps. Needless to say, Menhart was a nervous wreck, being told he was going to start a few hours before game time.
* * *
It wasn’t like he hadn’t been nervous before—in his major league debut he was called on in the ninth to relieve starter Pat Hentgen, who had been fantastic, giving up just four hits and a single run to the Oakland Athletics.
"I didn't want to screw it up for Pat," Menhart explained, "but Cito brought me in to face Mark McGwire."
Battling his nerves, Menhart took a deep breath and let go of his first pitch in the majors towards the Athletics' big slugger. Swwwwing and a miss! After a couple of balls, and a couple more whiffs, Big Mac was retired by the 26-year old rookie. Then another strikeout later, the game was over and the Blue Jays'—and Pat Hentgen's—victory was secured.
Now a pitching coach for the Washington Nationals double-A affiliate Harrisburg Senators, he tells the story a lot to his players to help them prepare for their own major league debuts.
* * *
In the visitor's clubhouse in Baltimore, Menhart was still stewing in the clubhouse an hour or so before the game. It wasn't his first game or his first start, so he had gotten over the nerves of pitching against the Orioles. But he was worried about facing one particular Oriole.
Menhart thought, "what if I hit Cal?"
Earlier in the week, Menhart had watched highlights of an Astros-Padres game and he saw San Diego's Brian Williams lose control of a pitch and hit Houston superstar Jeff Bagwell, breaking his hand and causing him to miss two months . At the time, the reigning National League MVP had been batting .283/.394/.494 and his team was in the middle of a playoff race.
But the consequences of hitting Cal Ripken and causing him to miss time would've been was unthinkable. At the time, Ripken had played 2,096 consecutive games and was just a little over a month away from breaking Lou Gehrig's record of playing 2,130 straight. Injuring Ripken at such a historical time deeply worried Menhart, who was aware of his own control problems.
"I was worried about my family being targeted; that's all I thought about," Menhart recalled with a little laugh, "then Sam McDowell came by and asked 'what the hell is wrong with you?'" McDowell, the former six-time All-Star, was employed as the Blue Jays' sport psychologist.
"When I told him what was wrong, Sam just said 'screw him! He's a big boy and he'll get out of the way!' Of course, he said it in a much more colourful way."
The talk calmed Menhart down and allowed him to focus on preparing for the start. They were on the road, so he didn't see any video of the Orioles, but Al Leiter went through the Orioles' lineup with him and between each inning the two pitchers would sit together and talk strategy. Having someone there in the dugout with him helped with Menhart's confidence.
* * *
The game started on time, but viewers who tuned in slightly late may have completely missed the first inning. Mike Mussina got Devon White, Domingo Cedeno, and Roberto Alomar out 1-2-3 on just 11 pitches, then Paul Menhart bested that by retiring Brady Anderson, Bret Barberie, and Rafael Palmeiro with just eight. The Jays failed to score in the top of the second despite getting two men on base, then Menhart got big Bobby Bonilla out in the bottom half of the inning. Then up came Cal Ripken. Working very carefully, he induced a groundout from the Ironman after Ripken fouled off a 2-2 breaking ball. Menhart breathed a sigh of relief; Ripken lived to have another at bat.
Harold Baines was next. Menhart pumped in a couple of fastballs, and with a 1-2 count, he planned on throwing a curve in the dirt to get Baines to swing at it. And swing he did, slamming the offering for a solo home run to dead centre field.
"It was a hanging curveball," Menhart told reporters after the game, "I hung one curve to [Ripken] and he fouled it off. Baines hits one out. That's what makes baseball funny sometimes."
Menhart would shut down the next 12 Orioles before walking three in the bottom of the sixth to load the bases for Bonilla, but Bonilla grounded out on the first pitch to end the threat. After struggling through that inning, Menhart faced the minimum for the rest of the night, with a walk erased by a double play.
But the bats weren't there to help him. Blue Jays batters managed just four hits off of Mussina, who also pitched a gem of a game. Alomar tried to start a rally in the ninth to help his rookie starter by singling to right, but then the two-hour twenty-minute game came to an end when Joe Carter flew out and John Olerud grounded into a double play.
The Blue Jays loss 1-0, and Menhart gained another "L" on his career record.
* * *
Menhart harboured no resentment for his teammates, however, praising them for all they did on the field.
"[Catcher] Sandy Martinez called a great game, and we had outstanding defense from Robbie and Cedeno," referring to a couple of would-be Oriole hits taken away when Alomar ranged far to his right to get to a grounder up the middle, and climbed he ladder to capture a line drive.
"I had tunnel vision, and was too focused to really remember too much of the game, but I remember that I didn't have pinpoint command or control, but I was very focused and came out pretty lucky." The most important part, he felt, was his focus and his confidence in his fastball that night.
"At the time, it was just another ball game and it was a loss," Menhart said when asked how he felt after the game, "but it didn't hit me until I was older that it was quite an accomplishment."
"I have [newspaper] clippings still, but I can't find the video of the game." He mentioned that someone had recorded the game on a VHS tape, but it has since been lost. He said that he would love to watch the game again if anyone still had a copy.
And why wouldn't he? It was the best game of his career, which only lasted two more years. But for one night, while standing on the mound in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, he out pitched Mike Mussina, and gave it his all to give his team a chance to win. He just made one mistake. He landed in the history books by losing a one-hitter—to this day, he is one of only 26 pitchers have done that in the history of the major leagues.
And yes—he didn't hit Cal Ripken.
- Personal interview with Paul Menhart.
- DiMauro, Mike. "Mystic's Menhart mending quickly". The Day, April 26, 1994, C3.
- Kerr, Byron. "Menhart talks to his experience with Tommy John Surgery". MASN Sports. Link.
- Millson, Larry. "One-hitter loss a Blue Jay first". Globe and Mail, August 3, 1995, C10.
- Steve78. "Paul Menhart, Ultimate Goal - 3464". The Greatest 21 Days. Link.
- Zwolinski, Mark. "Jays waste rookie's one-hitter". Toronto Star, August 3, 1995, D1, D2.