How to Photograph A Perfect Game – THE PICTURE is What Matters

Watching White Sox pitcher Philip Humber nail down the last out to record only the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history (on TV I have to say, I was not on this road trip) naturally brought back memories of covering Mark Buehrle’s perfect game back on July 23, 2009.  Immediately, I went to scour the internet to see how other photographers covered what is one of the most rare, if not THE rarest of sports moments, and I must say, I was disappointed at what I found.  The jubilation was a train wreck, picture-wise, but the jube shot IS NOT “THE PICTURE”.  So I thought perhaps it might be a good idea if I recapped my day in the spotlight back in 2009 in an attempt to once again spread the word to any sports photographers interested in properly recording history on a baseball diamond.  FORGET THE JUBE, friends!  Jube is the result of making history, not history in of itself.  Read on… I initially wrote this article for Sportsshooter.com, but obviously I didn’t get the message across.  Maybe this posting will help in that regard.  Let’s go back to July 23, 2009.

As a baseball photographer, the season is long and each day usually provides some sort of story, some worth remembering and others, well…  there’s always tomorrow.  And then, there are the once in a lifetime days, the career days, the days you will never forget…  July 23, 2009 was one of those days for me. I’d like to once again share my thoughts, emotions and outcome of what it’s like to experience and capture for the ages one of baseball’s rarest feat’s…  the perfect game.  I’d been looking forward to covering the finale of the four game series between the Rays and White Sox… we (…being the team photographer, I always consider the White Sox “we”) had an opportunity to get back into first place with a victory, and with Mark Buehrle on the bump, not only did the chance sound reasonable, it might also happen quickly.  Mark is well known for his “speed”, and game times at or around 2 hours are a regular occurrence for the All-Star lefty.

CHICAGO - JULY 23:  Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois.  Buehrle pitched the 18th perfect game in major league baseball history as the White Sox defeated the Rays 5-0.  (Photo by Ron Vesely) (Ron Vesely)

Around the fifth inning I thought I'd better at least start making a few shots of Mark, even though I had plenty of file photos already in the archive. This day might become special. I was right.

Before the game I reviewed my archive and noted that I’ve already shot a number of games with Mark pitching, so adding more “file images” wasn’t really a pressing thing on my agenda…  We were preparing a cover story on Scott Podsednik, so Scott was really my focus (pun intended) for the day…  Things began well for the White, helped by a second inning grand slam by Josh Fields that gave the White Sox a quick 4-0 lead…  But in general, it was a rather “boring” game…  no pictures, a lot of three up and three down innings, and as we progressed along, the clouds came and we had a few sprinkles to dampen the day…

The fifth inning started and that’s when the chatter about a no-hitter began in the photo box…  We had more than the usual amount of photographers in house this game, and I remember telling Brian Kersey “I don’t know if I’m in the mood to shoot a no-hitter today, I’m a little tired from this homestand”…  Superstitions be damned, we were gonna start talking about what was going on, since A) we really didn’t think it would happen anyway, B) Mark had already thrown a no-hitter, how likely would it be that he would throw another and C) the Rays are a pretty dominate offensive club…  tough to keep off base and then once they’re ON base, tough to keep in one place.

Well, Mark kept mowing em’ down… on to the sixth…

I decided to change the conversation to that of a perfect game…  I let everyone know that we had more than a no-hitter going, we had a perfecto, and, well, I’m tired and I just don’t think I can handle the pressure of shooting a no-hitter, much less a perfect game.  However, I think most of us in that box agreed that if we get into the seventh inning and Mark’s still throwing a perfect game, it will be time to get serious…  minutes later, the side was retired and we were moving on into the top of the seventh…  show time, my friends…  time to “put on the blinders, block out the noise and put ‘The Plan’ into gear…”

CHICAGO - JULY 23:  Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois.  Buehrle pitched the 18th perfect game in major league baseball history as the White Sox defeated the Rays 5-0.  (Photo by Ron Vesely) (Ron Vesely)

I spent the seventh inning settling in on my final location, as well as making additional images of Mark in action. Glad I did, I ended up landing a Gatorade ad for my efforts.

The Plan…  I’ve rehearsed The Plan in my mind, and occasionally, on location a few times in recent years.  But as luck would have it (or really lack of luck), someone would get a hit and it was, well, better luck another day…  and July 23 was just that as I went back to my office to re-group and prepare.  I loaded new batteries, installed fresh cards and made the decision as to which lenses to come out with for the top of the eighth inning….  I grabbed my Nikon 70-200 and  200-400 zoom lens and set my D3 on the 70-200 to shoot RAW plus JPG and headed back to the field…

For those of you who don’t know me personally, not only is the combination of baseball and photography my career, they are my two passions.  I LOVE the classic photos from the game, photos that have forever been associated with the great players and moments in Major League Baseball history.  And when I would think about no-hitters and perfect games, iconic images of Sandy Koufax and Don Larsen come to mind…  and to me, what made these images classic and memorable was one key ingredient… the scoreboard in the background.  Scoreboards tell a wonderful story all by themselves, whether they were from the Yankee Stadium in 1956 with Don Larsen, the 60’s at Chavez Ravine with Sandy Koufax or July 23 with Mark Buehrle.  The combination of the player and the scoreboard tells the perfect visual story.

There you have it…  The Plan…  for “The Picture”…  now comes the tough part.  Execution!!

I made my way down next to the Rays dugout on the first base side of U.S. Cellular Field in the top of the eighth inning and sized up the situation.  The VERY BEST location was a seat in the middle of the front row, one section to the left of the dugout.  Cool!  Well, not quite…  there were fans in those seats today, and considering what was going on, my talking them out of those seat were, well…. impossible.  That’s when I noticed that maybe that seat wasn’t so great… it was in-line with the Rays on-deck circle.  And there isn’t a player in the game today that just “sits in the on-deck circle”… they move around.  Dangerous stuff when you’re attempting to record history.  Time to modify The Plan…

CHICAGO - JULY 23:  Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox pitches in the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois.  Buehrle pitched the 18th perfect game in major league baseball history as the White Sox defeated the Rays 5-0.  (Photo by Ron Vesely) (Ron Vesely)

I spent the eighth inning "test shooting" The Picture". Mark pitches so fast I didn't get much practice in!

I went right next to the Rays dugout and talked to one of our security officers who was stationed in that spot.  Thankfully, most everyone at the ballpark knows me, and he graciously let me sit in front of him on a stool near the Rays batboy…  I sized up my shot and felt it would work…  it was the best I felt I could do with the least amount of “risk”, so I settled in.

As Mark polished off the Rays in the eighth, I felt it was a good time to have a “chat” with the Rays batboy…  I tapped him on the shoulder and said “should ‘things’ happen next inning, please be aware that I’m right behind you to your right, and to please avoid as best you can walking in front of me to the dugout”.  He shook his head in acknowledgement and, as I can say now, remembered what I said…  I don’t know your name young man, but if you read this before I see you again, “thank you”… job well done!  I “put on the blinders” to start the ninth.  I basically spent the entire time looking through the lens and listening to the crowd reaction.  They roar or groan of the crowd would be my audio indicator as to what was going on around me.  All I had to do is concentrate…

Problem is, Mark Buehrle pitches INCREDIBLY quick!!  Even when shooting file images, it’s really difficult to re-compose, re-focus and shoot!  Now, with an added sense of nerves working against me, his speed was, well, freakin’ me out a bit…  slow down, Mark…  yeah, sure…  The first batter in the ninth, Gabe Kapler, lifted a long, high fly ball towards the left centerfield gap…  I thought it was gone from where I was situated.  I began thinking about my other close but not quite games…  I had shot a no-hitter back in 1984 by Jack Morris, but I think he had 6 walks…  I remember shooting two games where the no-hitter or perfect game came apart with two outs in the ninth… Scott Garralts at Candlestick Park and Milt Wilcox at Comiskey Park…  oh well.  Then I heard the crowd…  A loud roar bellowed throughout U.S. Cellular Field as DeWayne Wise made one of the greatest catches, considering the importance of the catch, I think there has ever been!  I really didn’t know how great a catch it was until I watched highlights later…  WOW!  One out!   Quickly, the next batter, Michel Hernandez, was out on strikes…  One out to go…

While all this was happening, I was “test shooting” The Picture with every batter… I really had to concentrate on my focus point.  Using the 70-200, I have found it is much harder for me to focus “short glass” than it is long telephoto lenses.  My tests confirmed this.  Settle on a focal length that works, concentrate (quickly, remember, it’s Mark pitching!) on focus and be ready.  The 200-400 was between my legs, ready to go once the pitch was delivered.  But The Picture was to be made with the 70-200…  Jason Bartlett, always a tough out, was the last batter.  I shot every pitch, listening closely to the crowd.  Everyone was on their feet, cheering every strike, groaning with every ball… quickly, it was 2 balls and a strike… the wind up and pitch…

CHICAGO - JULY 23:  Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox throws the final pitch of the game to Jason Bartlett to record the 18th perfect game in major league history against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois.  The White Sox defeated the Rays 5-0. (Photo by Ron Vesely) (Ron Vesely)

CHICAGO - JULY 23: Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Soxn Bartlet throws the final pitch of the game to Jason Bartlett to record the 18th perfect game in major league history against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Rays 5-0. (Photo by Ron Vesely)

I heard the bat followed by the crowd roaring… dropping my 70-200 to my lap I grabbed my 200-400…  history!  I was now in what I call “machine mode”…  I felt like no one else was around me…  Just shoot as best you can…  a few of the Rays made their way back into the dugout, so I was unable to see the initial reaction and celebration, but I picked up on it as soon as my sight lines cleared…  But if I accomplished what I had rehearsed in my mind for years, preparing for this moment, I should have succeeded in achieving my goal… The Picture...  everything else would be gravy from this point on as long as I made The Picture…

CHICAGO - JULY 23:  Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox is mobbed by teammates after Buehrle recorded the 18th perfect game in major league history against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois.  The White Sox defeated the Rays 5-0.  (Photo by Ron Vesely) (Ron Vesely)

Just like many of the more recent perfect games tossed in the majors the past 4 seasons, the jube was nothing to write home about. But it's NOT history...it's the result OF history!

I didn’t have time to “chimp” The Picture until later…  geez, that makes me reminisce about what it would have been like to have made The Picture back in the film days…  no chimping, 36 frames per roll, lousy processing screwing it all up, scratches on the emulsion side of the film from a crappy slide mounter…  Forget hitting the buffer!  Try capturing these great moments with 36 frames per roll!  (Flash back…  Joe Carter walk-off World Series winning home run…film…how did we do it?)  Film… the “good old days”?  I don’t think so!  It’s a no brainer for me… I’ll take my chances with filling the buffer!

CHICAGO - JULY 23:  Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox hugs outfielder DeWayne Wise #31 who made a great catch in the ninth inning enabling Buehrle to record the 18th perfect game in major league history against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois.  The White Sox defeated the Rays 5-0.  (Photo by Ron Vesely) (Ron Vesely)

Every perfect game seems to have that one special moment. For Phil Humber, it was Brandon Ryan swinging at ball four as it skipped away from A.J. Pierzynski, Buehrle's was DeWayne Wise's spectacular catch.

After a few seconds, I leapt over the wall (remember, the security guards all know me and I had club credentials… don’t try this or you might end up spending the night in “the cell”, and I don’t mean U.S. Cellular Field, and headed out to follow Mark.  I set my 200-400 down on the ground behind home plate and quickly realized that the 70-200 was a bit tight for what I really needed…  but it still time to concentrate, and I’m glad I was because I was able to capture Mark hugging DeWayne Wise, who made the perfect game saving, home run stealing catch.

CHICAGO - JULY 23:  Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox waves to the crowd after recording the 18th perfect game in major league history against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois.  The White Sox defeated the Rays 5-0.  (Photo by Ron Vesely) (Ron Vesely)

I wish the shaving cream pie in the face and water dumped on the head was a thing of the past. I hate having a historical moment cheapened by such behavior. It doesn't seem fitting nor appropriate.

It looked like all of the wire and newspaper photographers went to transmit as soon as Mark left the field, but I made my way to cover his press conference and was surprised to see that I was the only still photographer there.  Reminiscent of my coverage of the White Sox World Series run in 2005, I was in  “historian” mode and wasn’t about to leave Mark’s side until he returned to the clubhouse.  Shortly after the press conference began, word came that a certain White Sox fan who lives in the White House was looking to talk to Mark personally.  Quickly, the press conference was concluded and Mark was led to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s office, where he would take the call. Marty Maloney from our PR staff and I were allowed to record this memorable moment.  Marty’s video made the evening news around the country, and my images were distributed via Getty Images to the world as well.

CHICAGO - JULY 23:  Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox talks to President Barack Obama after recording the 18th perfect game in major league history against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois.  The White Sox defeated the Rays 5-0.  (Photo by Ron Vesely) (Ron Vesely)

Buehrle received his call from President Obama immediately following the game. I understand Philip received a call too.

And of course, the fun was just only beginning!  My cell phone began ringing (unfortunately… I should have put it on “silent’) before the dust even settled… I was covering the press conference when I heard from Nate Gordon at Sports Illustrated.  Nate left a message asking if I made The Picture, and to give him a call.  Nate, Brad Mangin and I have discussed The Picture many times, usually in the context that no one made it, so I quickly made a return call to let Nate know that it was in the bag…  That said, I wanted to make sure that The Picture would be initially available exclusively to Sports Illustrated.  Of course, the White Sox could use it immediately since I was working for them, but that meant that MLB Photos and Getty Images would have to wait to be able to post or distribute my two images of The Picture.  They could distribute everything else, just not The Picture.

It took countless phone calls and emails to ensure that this indeed was worked out, but in the end it did and I believe by keeping this photo OUT of the mainstream media, it made it a special image, and I was rewarded for these efforts when I got the call from Nate on Monday to tell me that The Picture was the August 3 cover of Sports Illustrated!  Very cool on many counts, since not only was The Picture used on the cover of SI, but The Picture itself was also such an important moment in baseball and White Sox history.  Only the 11th White Sox cover in Sports Illustrated history…  The baseball fan in me was amped up about this!

Next time you have the opportunity to cover something historic, think beyond a potential jube picture or isolated reaction image and think history, think about all those cool, old images that were shot loose and include items that tell the story.  Don’t over think your plan, yet think ahead of time (now is a good time) and have a plan in the back of your head so that it’s ready to go when you need it.  You’ll be glad you did, because history happens quickly and usually, without warning!  I’m truly blessed and still living the dream… I’ve been able to cover such historic events such as Kirby Puckett’s 1991 World Series home run, Joe Carter’s 1993 World Series walk-off Series ending home run, the 2005 White Sox World Championship run, Jim Thome’s walk-off 500th home run, and now Mark Buehrle’s perfect game

Kudo’s to photographers Ben VanHouten and Rod Mar.  Those boy’s got game, and made The Picture.  Anybody else??  Let me know, but I don’t think so.  For the record, shooting a random pitch in the ninth inning doesn’t cut it.  That image isn‘t history.  Remember… FORGET THE JUBE. MAKE  THE PICTURE.

Don’t let history pass you by.  It might be the only chance you’ll ever get!

 

 

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