Wilson Alvarez pitches the last no-hitter at Memorial Stadium – 8/11/91
Wilson Alvarez has been in the news a lot this baseball season for a guy who hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since 2005. A footnote in Minnesota lefty Johan Santana’s 17-strikeout masterpiece against the Rangers on August 19 was that he passed Alvarez to become the career leader in K’s for Venezuelan-born pitchers. When Mark Buehrle held those same Rangers hitless back in April, the record book showed he was the first White Sox pitcher to hurl a no-hitter since Alvarez, who accomplished the feat in just his second major league game. We were reminded of Alvarez again two nights ago when Red Sox rookie Clay Buchholz did the same, so it seems like the right time to look back at Alvarez’ first big league win in detail.
It was August 11, 1991 in Baltimore, where a dismal, sixth-place Orioles team was winding down its’ 38th and final season at Memorial Stadium before moving into a new ballpark. The White Sox, on the other hand, were within a game of catching the Twins for the AL West lead after winning the Friday and Saturday contests to open the series.
Ramon Garcia, a rookie right-hander from Venezuela, won Saturday evening’s game to extend Chicago’s winning streak to six, but got returned to the minors after the game to make room for Sunday’s starting pitcher. Another Venezuelan, 21-year-0ld left-hander Wilson Alvarez came up from double-A Birmingham, where he was 10-6 with a 1.83 ERA and leading the league in strikeouts. He didn’t sleep much Friday night after getting the word, but his wife helped him get ready to return to the big leagues.
Two years earlier, the Rangers brought Alvarez up from double-A prematurely to pitch against the Blue Jays. He didn’t retire a single hitter, and Texas traded him along with rookie Sammy Sosa to Chicago five days later in a five-player deal for White Sox legend Harold Baines.
It’s doubtful that anybody was anticipating what the Associated Press referred to as “one of history’s more improbable no-hitters”. Even Alvarez, a chunky 6’1″ southpaw weighing well over 200 lbs. admitted that, while he’d thrown a dozen no-hitters growing up in Maracaibo, he “never thought this would happen to me in the big leagues”.
He got some early help from Chicago designated hitter Frank Thomas, who walloped a two-run homer off Baltimore starter Dave Johnson in the top of the first. Alvarez started feeling comfortable after whiffing Mike Devereaux, Juan Bell and Cal Ripken in succession to get the first inning behind him.
Thomas nearly homered again in the top of the second, but Devereaux went over the wall to bring the ball back into play, holding the Big Hurt to a double. The White Sox pushed their lead to 4-0 though, knocking out Johnson in the process. The bottom of the second proved unusual for Alvarez, because he got his only three outs on the ground all game. Shortstop Ozzie Guillen started a double play after a leadoff walk, and second baseman Joey Cora took care of David Segui’s grounder to finish the inning. Alvarez would strike out seven and get seventeen outs by air before the game was complete. “His fastball was so alive that nobody could get on top of it,” observed White Sox manager Jeff Torborg after the game. “He just had a magnificent fastball today. Very, very alive.”
Alvarez could tell he didn’t have a good breaking ball though, so he asked pitching coach Sammy Ellis what to do and was told to shorten his stride. He mixed in a few along with an occasional change-up, not shaking off catcher Ron Karkovice’s signals even once. “I don’t know the batters,” Alvarez explained. He retired twelve Orioles in a row before a one-out walk to Leo Gomez in the sixth. By then, the White Sox lead had grown to 7-0.
Of course, nobody in the Chicago dugout dared to jinx the rookie southpaw by mentioning the zero on the scoreboard in the Baltimore hit column, but they told him “nice going” and encouraged him to “keep it up”.
With one out in the bottom of the seventh, Ripken bounced a dribbler in front of the plate and reached safely when Karkovice’s throw went astray. The official scorer immediately ruled an error on the play, and instant replay confirmed that an on-target toss would have beaten the Iron Man to the bag. Baltimore got two on with two out after a walk, but Alvarez’ no-hitter was intact through seven after Segui lined to Warren Newson in right.
Alvarez went right back to work after Chicago’s hitters were retired in order for the second straight inning, and he nearly lost the no-hitter when Chris Hoiles led off the bottom of the eighth. Hoiles hit a sinking liner that speedy centerfielder Lance Johnson was barely able to haul in…just inches before it hit the ground. It was a heck of a play! “I thanked him three times already,” said Alvarez after the game. “And I’ll thank him again later.” Johnson took care of a pair of routine fly balls to finish the inning, and Alvarez was only three outs from making history.
Devereaux led off the bottom of the ninth with another easy fly to Johnson for the first out. Alvarez whiffed Bell for out number two, as Karkovice made a good throw to first after failing to catch the third strike cleanly. Needing just one more out, Alvarez tried to be too perfect on the corners of the plate, and issued his fourth and fifth walks -to Ripken and Dwight Evans- on a total of nine pitches. He got ahead of Randy Milligan no balls and two strikes though, and rang him up for his seventh strikeout to complete the first no-hitter by a Venezuelan pitcher.
“I do my best to represent my country,” he said. “I hope they are happy tonight.” You better believe they were!
Alvarez remained with the White Sox until 1997, when he was traded to the playoff-bound Giants. For Chicago in 1993, Alvarez finished second in the American League in ERA and beat the Blue Jays in the ALCS with a complete game. The following season, he pitched a scoreless inning in the All-Star game. He joined the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a marquee free agent prior to the 1998 season, but injuries limited him to seventeen wins over five years -two of which he missed completly. Alvarez enjoyed a rennaissance of sorts with the Dodgers from 2003-2005, pitching mostly out of the bullpen, before announcing his retirement with a career record of 102-92. He currently serves as the pitching coach of the State College Spikes of the New York-Penn League.
By MALCOLM ALLEN
(NOTES – Wilson Alvarez’ no-hitter is the only one I attended in person. I was working as an usher in the upper deck behind home plate & I had a great view. Too bad the Orioles lost, but I’m glad I was there)
NO-HITTERS @ MEMORIAL STADIUM
Hoyt Wilhelm – Orioles vs. Yankees on 9/20/58
Steve Barber & Stu Miller – Orioles vs. Tigers on 4/30/67
Tom Phoebus – Orioles vs. Red Sox on 4/27/68
Jim Palmer – Orioles vs. A’s – 8/13/69
Juan Nieves – Brewers vs. Orioles – 4/15/87
Wilson Alvarez – White Sox vs. Orioles – 8/11/91