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No-Hitters, Perfect Games And The Meaning Of Life

Johan Santana (#57) of the New York Mets celebrates after pitching a no hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals at CitiField on June 1, 2012. The Mets defeated the Cardinals 8-0.
Mike Stobe
Getty Images
Johan Santana (#57) of the New York Mets celebrates after pitching a no hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals at CitiField on June 1, 2012. The Mets defeated the Cardinals 8-0.

Two weeks ago Johan Santana threw a no-hitter for the New York Mets. It was his first. More remarkably, it was the first Mets no-hitter ever. Santana succeeded where Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Doc Gooden had failed. For baseball lovers, a no-hitter is a thing of beauty. For Mets fans like me, Santana's achievement is a cause for jubilation.

And then this past Wednesday, Matt Cain, the San Francisco Giants pitcher who'd recently signed a huge multi-year contract, performed an even rarer feat. He pitched a perfect game. A perfect game is one in which, from the point of view of the pitcher who is credited with throwing it, nothing bad happens. It's 27 men up, 27 men down.

As a general rule, sports are about winning and losing. We judge performance by the bottom line. Points, goals, touchdowns, etc. But not baseball.

Sure, the winner is the team with the most runs, however they come about. But in baseball we also take up a different perspective and ask not "what happened?," but "who is responsible for what happened?" Did the batter get on base through his own achievement, or as a result of someone else's mistake? That is, did he get a hit? Did the runner steal second base, or did he merely take it owing to the indifference of the defenders, in which case his action, though materially the same, does not count as a steal? We individuate events in baseball in relation to the question of credit and blame. What is a strike, really, but a pitch that a batter ought to be able to hit and that therefore counts against him if he fails to hit it?

The point is, baseball is preoccupied with agency. It is a forensic sport, as I have suggested here before. It is, at bottom, a kind of experiment in responsibility. That's why we love it, and that's why it can teach us so much.

Take the case of the no-hitter. What makes a no hitter special is not that the opposing team fails to get on base or score runs; what makes it special is that you can't blame the pitcher for the bad stuff that happens to his team; he gives up no hits and so he can't be faulted for what the other team manages to do. He isn't accountable if the batter gets to first on a dropped third-strike, advances to second on a ground-out, and then to third on a passed ball, eventually scoring on fly ball hit deep into the outfield. It's not the pitcher's fault that the run scored. Yes, the opponent scores the run, but, crucially, he didn't earn it.

Wait a second, you might object, we certainly can and will blame the pitcher if — as with Santana's no hitter — he walks numerous batters, or if he hits a batter with a pitch and so gives him a base. Yes. But what's telling here is that, at least in traditional baseball thinking, the batter himself gets no credit for walking or getting hit by a pitch; these don't even counts as "at bats." If the batter deserves no credit for accomplishing something, then surely the pitcher can't be blamed for what the batter actually does. And that's what we are signaling when we applaud the pitcher's no-hitter: not success, but a certain blamelessness and so a certain praise-worthiness.

A no-hitter is special because in baseball, as in life, we sometimes care less about what happens — who's actually winning or losing — than about who is accountable. Nothing brings this out more than the fact that it is possible to lose a no-hitter; indeed, this has happened. Its quality, its value as an achievement, floats free of outcomes.

Sometimes life is like a no-hitter. Outcomes are sometimes less important than intentions, purposes, reasons. For example, it is not the deed, but, really, the intention, that marks the difference between murder, justifiable homicide and accidental killing.

Things are just the other way around with a perfect game. A no-hitter is perfect when it is not only the case that the pitcher lets no bad stuff happen (e.g., gives up no hits), but no one else does either. A perfect game is special because sometimes we care primarily about outcomes; we applaud the pitcher not only because he gave up no hits, but because he got lucky; the stars lined up and the enemy was vanquished.

A perfect game is so easily spoiled. An errant throw, a booted ground ball, an umpire's bad call. A game is only perfect when everyone on the field is perfect.

Sometimes life is like a perfect game. Outcomes can be all that matters. Murder, justifiable homicide, accidental killing. These are different names for the act of killing a human being, aren't they?

I think baseball fans tend to think that no-hitters are great but perfect games are correspondingly greater, rarer, more special. A perfect game, from this point of view, is thought of just as a very special kind of no-hitter. It is a no-hitter plus.

But actually no-hitters and perfect games are entirely different kinds of achievements with incommensurable values. We credit a pitcher for a perfect game the way we credit the President for the nation's prosperity. It's not that he's really responsible. He got lucky, and he got out of the way and let luck do its work. And so with the pitcher.

The pitcher of a perfect game is admirable because he is blessed. Not so the pitcher of a no-hitter. His achievement is all his own; it is earned. But in the end it is really only his achievement; it doesn't guarantee his victory or that of his team.

Baseball, like the law, is an arena in which to investigate these competing ways of thinking about life, what we do and what matters.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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