Oklahoma City RedHawks pitcher Phil Humber rounded out a magical weekend last year by reading the Top 10 list on David Letterman's “Late Show.”
Humber received a congratulatory tweet from New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow, and a call from President Barack Obama, who congratulated him on his game against the Seattle Mariners, asked him about his pregnant wife and imparted some advice on him about being a new father.
But none of those highlights could touch the perfect game Humber threw.
Humber, then a member of the Chicago White Sox, retired all 27 Seattle Mariners he faced on April 21, 2012, to become the 21st pitcher in Major League Baseball history to throw a perfect game.
“(Obama) is actually a White Sox fan, so I expected him to call,” Humber said. “Most of the time when guys do that, the president calls. So I had seen Mark Buehrle, when he threw (a perfect game) for the White Sox ... (and) he called him. So it's pretty neat; it's not just every day you get to hear from the sitting president.”
But those are just memories now.
Humber was released by the White Sox seven months after his historic game. The right-handed pitcher was immediately picked up off waivers by the Houston Astros, but was designated for assignment six months later after going 0-8 in nine appearances, including seven starts, with a 9.59 ERA.
Humber accepted the move and joined the RedHawks on May 17, but his struggles have continued in Triple-A.
“In the big leagues, it's all about results, and I wasn't getting good results, and so that's what happens,” Humber said. “It's happened to me before: I've been in the big leagues and come down to Triple-A and worked at it and figured some things out and got another chance. That's what you hope for.”
On Monday night, Humber put his team in a hole in the second inning and allowed the Iowa Cubs to tie the game in the fifth after the RedHawks had taken a 5-3 lead.
In 4 2/3 innings, the third overall pick by the New York Mets in the 2004 draft allowed eight hits, six runs — two of which were home runs — and three walks with three strikeouts, and he hit a batter.
“For me, it's all about being consistent,” Humber said. “I have three innings that are really good and then two innings that really aren't. You have to be consistent in order to be successful at any level, especially in the big leagues, because the margin for error is not very big, so you have to have everything together when you get up there.”
In the six games Humber has pitched in for the RedHawks, he has lost both of his starts, allowed 23 hits, 17 runs — 13 earned — five home runs, walked eight batters and only struck out 11 in 16 2/3 innings.
So why hasn't Humber been able to return to form in the last year? It's not because of a mental roadblock, Humber said, and RedHawks pitching coach Steve Webber said confidence and attitude aren't the issues either.
Webber recalled one of his first conversations with Humber regarding what needed to happen to get him back to the majors and playing at a high level.
“(We're) just working on the delivery, the synchronization of his lower and upper half,” Webber said. “It's a process. When you're trying to make changes, it takes time. It's very rare you find somebody and say ‘Hey do this' and it just clicks.
“He's had a lot of big league experience, and he's been through the wars. I think he still believes in himself, I think he has confidence, and he just thinks he needs to make adjustments. Obviously this game will bring you to your knees at times … it's just a matter of him — he's got the right attitude — working to get back on track and eventually end up back in the big leagues.”
In his eight years in the majors, Humber's best season came in 2011, when he was with the White Sox. That season, the Nacogdoches, Texas, native started 26 games and finished with a 9-9 record. He struck out 116 batters and finished with a career-low 3.75 ERA in 163 innings.
The next season, he would pitch into the ninth inning for the first time, finish his first complete game and pitch that perfect game.
Humber's former White Sox teammate Brent Lillibridge, now back in Triple-A with Iowa, said that game had everyone amped up.
“You knew what was going on, so you're pretty nervous to not be the guy to let a ball drop,” Lillibridge said. “I was excited to help him out and get the game over with; it was a lot of fun.”
After Michael Saunders went up 3-0 in the count in the ninth inning in Seattle, Humber was able to strike out Saunders swinging for his eighth punch out of the game, and Humber would get John Jaso to fly out to right for the second out.
Humber had one man standing between him and his perfect game.
Mariners pinch hitter Brendan Ryan was up next. Ryan worked the count full, then went down on a checked swing that required White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski to throw to first to secure the final out.
Fourteen months removed from that day, the former teammates found themselves on opposing teams when the RedHawks and Cubs faced off Monday night. Lillibridge, like Humber, was sent to Triple-A after the Chicago Cubs designated him for assignment.
“It's different, especially for him, after having such amazing success in just the past year to be down here trying to work on stuff is just a part of the game,” the Iowa infielder said. “He's a very talented pitcher; he wouldn't have been able to throw a perfect game if he didn't have good stuff. It's a part of the game that a lot of people won't hear about is the guys that have success, struggle a little bit and try to figure it out down here and then go back and have more success.”
There's no telling when the Phil Humber of 2011 or April 21, 2012, will make an appearance again, but his manager and coaches know he has the mental strength not to let his struggles consume him.
“(Baseball is a) very difficult game; it looks easy on TV and from the sidelines, but when you're out there, that baseball has affected a lot of players over the years,” RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco said. “It's very hard on your brain; there's a lot of failure that goes on in this game.
“The players that handle it everyday are the ones that succeed. The other ones who let it get too mental, it just kinds of eats up at you everyday. Lack of success causes players to believe they're not as good as they once were.”