Boos rained down as Philip Humber walked off the pitching mound at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago for the final time in 2012. Humber, 30, had just given up eight runs while recording only one out in a nine-run loss to the Minnesota Twins, and the crowd was quick to voice its displeasure.
Humber says that game on Sept. 4 was the low point of a season that started with so much promise: On April 21, he tossed the 21st perfect game in the history of major league baseball, retiring all 27 opposing batters in a row. It was Humber’s first career complete game, first shutout, and first win of the 2012 season, and in the process he achieved something Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and a long list of Hall of Fame pitchers never did.
In the aftermath of the perfect game, Humber had one thought on his mind: to prove the game of his life wasn’t a fluke. But by season’s end, the former first-round pick was sitting in the bullpen and the White Sox were sitting out the playoffs. Humber’s season ERA of 6.44 was the highest in baseball among pitchers who logged at least 100 innings.
Humber had struggled before, but this time it was under the national spotlight. After he was sent to the bullpen in August, opposing fans delivered a steady barrage of insults: “When you pitch a perfect game and pretty much fall on your face after that, you’re an easy target,” Humber told me during a March phone interview. “I can’t say at times they didn’t say things that made me mad.”
But what Humber “thought was terrible actually couldn’t have been better,” because God redeemed the post-perfect game slump. Pride—in the form of self-pressure to live up to others’ expectations—left Humber realizing he’d been worshipping his own version of God: one who bases His love on good behavior. “That’s totally wrong thinking,” he said, and “not anything like what Jesus teaches in the Bible.”
The birth of Humber’s first child, John, 10 days after the perfect game helped reinforce what the Bible does teach: God’s unconditional love for His people. “[John] is going to disobey me, but I’m never going to love him any less or bring him anything but good,” he said. “The reason I discipline him is because I love him.” Humber’s deepened understanding helped him at home, even though results on the field remained lackluster.
The White Sox released Humber after the season, and now almost a year after his magical day, Humber’s name is synonymous with “perfect game.” It brings up countless Google search hits; it’s why he’s been featured in everything from Sports Illustrated to The New York Times; and it’s what every new reporter, teammate, and coach wanted to talk about when Humber arrived at Houston Astros spring training in February. “There are a lot worse things to be known for,” he said.
Humber said he’s happy the perfect game happened, although he doesn’t dwell on it. He donated his hat and a game ball to go with his plaque at the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but everything else from that day is tucked away in a box under the bed.
He says the confidence he gained through the perfect game is the main way it changed him on the field. While that didn’t equate to success in the rest of 2012, he’s off to a good start in Houston: He earned the third spot in the Astros pitching rotation after posting a 1.73 ERA and holding opponents to a .152 average this spring—the third-lowest mark in baseball.
Humber, a member of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, said coming back home to play in Houston—where he led the Rice Owls to the 2003 College World Series title—is a perfect fit: “We’re both coming off a rough patch and looking to move forward.”