Chastain: Garza evokes Vander Meer

Chastain: Garza evokes Vander Meer

ST. PETERSBURG -- Whenever a Major Leaguer throws a no-hitter, Johnny Vander Meer immediately comes to mind.

So when Matt Garza threw the first no-hitter in Rays history Monday night, I thought of Vander Meer, my late neighbor in South Tampa.

Vander Meer, of course, is best remembered for accomplishing what no pitcher has matched: pitching back-to-back no-hitters. On June 11, 1938, he threw a no-hitter against the Boston Bees, and in his next start, on June 15, he held the Brooklyn Dodgers hitless in the first night game at Ebbets Field.

I first met Vander Meer on July 17, 1990, when I worked for the Tampa Tribune. Melido Perez of the White Sox had pitched a six-inning no-hitter against the Yankees on July 12 -- that's back before baseball changed the rule on the qualifications for a no-hitter, ruling anything less than nine innings as not qualifying as an official no-no. So I wanted to watch Perez's next outing with Vander Meer to see if Perez could tie his mark and write about the experience.

Vander Meer graciously invited me to watch at his house, so I walked over and met the baseball legend for the first time.

Upon walking into his house, my eyes wandered to a black-and-white photograph hanging in his living room in which Vander Meer sat next to Babe Ruth. Turned out the photograph was taken in 1938 in the visitors' dugout of Ebbets Field moments before pitching his record-setting second consecutive no-hitter for Cincinnati.

The always photogenic Bambino -- an invited guest of the Dodgers -- wore street clothes, a Reds cap and had his arm around the shoulders of the youthful Vander Meer. That photograph commemorated Vander Meer's first meeting with Ruth; the two would become good friends.

We settled down in front of Vander Meer's TV, talked and drank a couple of beers while waiting for the game to begin. When I told him rats had been eating the fruit off my citrus trees, he enlightened me how to remedy the situation. There were stories about hunting with Ruth and about his no-hitters. He figured his fastball would have been clocked in the mid-90s for both no-hitters, and he described both games as vastly different in style.

Matt Garza, No-hitter

Once the game began, any suspense about Perez going back-to-back quickly went out the window when Lou Whitaker led off the Tigers' half of the first with a single to center field.

Including his two starts before and after the no-hitters, Vander Meer pitched a total of 21 1/3 no-hit innings over four games, which is considered an unbreakable record. Ewell Blackwell of the 1947 Reds came the closest to matching Vander Meer's record. He no-hit the Boston Braves 6-0 on June 18, 1947, and got through 8 1/3 innings against the Dodgers in his next start before surrendering a hit.

Now we come to Garza, who on Saturday will make his first start since pitching his no-hitter on Monday.

James Shields stated the obvious when the Rays right-hander noted that the odds were against Garza, but then again, he added, "He's got the kind of stuff where he can do it on any given day."

Like a lot of players in the Rays' dugout, Shields said Garza didn't have his best stuff Monday night.

"What he was doing was changing eye levels," Shields said. "And he wasn't throwing the ball in the same spot twice. It's hard to do that -- to elevate, change eye levels, go in and out when you want to. And that's one thing that he did do really well."

Shields added that the only bad part about throwing a no-hitter is the fact "it can only get worse from there."

"You give up a hit in your next game, and you're kind of disappointed," Shields said.

Kelly Shoppach caught Garza's no-hitter and noted a pitcher "has to be really good to even have a chance" at back-to-back no-hitters.

"No one has their A-plus stuff every time," Shoppach said. "Something works one day and doesn't work the next. You might have the best curveball in the world one day, the next day the slider is the best slider in the world and not the curveball."

Joe Maddon hoped out loud that tossing a second no-hitter won't be on Garza's mind Saturday night.

"The moment you try to start doing better than that, you're going to get into trouble," Maddon said.

The Rays manager smiled when asked if he wanted to forecast another no-hitter for Garza.

"I'm not going there," Maddon said. "It's not Matt Vander Meer."

Vander Meer died on Oct. 6, 1997, in Tampa. Were he alive today and asked about Garza's prospects Saturday night, he would likely smile and note his familiar response about the prospect about his record being broken: "Tied, maybe. Broken? Never."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.