Road to Perfection

Philip Humber’s frustration with baseball had been building for quite some time.

His frustrations reached a crescendo in 2009.

That year, Humber—the New York Mets’ first-round pick in the June, 2004 draft and the third player selected overall—was in his second season with the Minnesota Twins. Traded to Minnesota the previous year as part of a deal that sent ace left-handed Johan Santana to the Mets, Humber made the Twins’ ’09 opening day roster as a long reliever.

But the bottom quickly dropped out for Humber, who prior to getting dealt to Minnesota had languished in the Mets’ organization for three years—including missing almost a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He pitched just 4 1/3 innings and his ERA skyrocketed to 12.46. The Twins designated him for assignment just three weeks into the season.

Humber cleared waivers, and Minnesota assigned him to Rochester, its Class AAA affiliate. He spent most of the year there, was called up briefly in August, and then optioned back to the minors 10 days later.

All the bouncing around and uncertainty was having an effect on Humber’s psyche.

“It just got to point where it wasn’t any fun to go to the ballpark,” Humber says. “It wasn’t fun between starts. I put so much pressure on myself and didn’t enjoy what I was doing. A lot of times I kept quiet to myself, at home and at work. I was just very down.”

Humber turned to God, but not out of desperation. A Christian since age 8—both of his grandfathers were Baptist preachers in his native Texas—Humber simply asked God to show him whether He wanted him to continue pitching.

“‘You know what? I’m tired of this,’” Humber recalls saying. “I prayed to God and asked him, ‘If you want me to keep playing, just make it obvious and just open the doors up.’ I just wanted to be able to enjoy what I did.”

Shortly after the 2009 campaign ended, a door did open for Humber. He became a free agent and signed a minor league contract with the Kansas City Royals. Humber spent a majority of 2010 in the Royals’ minor league system, but he did get called up in August and spent the rest of the year in Kansas City, picking up his first big league win in the process.

However, the Royals designated Humber for assignment in December of that year. He was claimed by Oakland and put on its 40-man roster, but the A’s let him go a month later.

Needed Break

Enter the Chicago White Sox, who claimed Humber off waivers and signed him to a contract for just over the major league minimum. The White Sox placed Humber under the wing of pitching coach Don Cooper, renowned throughout baseball for helping revamp the careers of struggling pitchers.

Cooper went to work. He improved Humber’s mechanics and scrapped Humber’s cut fastball for a slider. Humber worked his way into the White Sox’s 2011 starting rotation and turned out to be a pleasant surprise, going 8-4 with a 2.69 ERA while leading all of baseball in innings pitched through early July.

Although Humber slumped during the second half of 2011, he finished his first full major league season as a starter with a 9-9 record and a 3.75 ERA in 26 starts.

For the first time in his major league career, Humber went into the offseason knowing he would not have to battle during spring training to earn a spot on the roster.

This season, he traveled north with the White Sox out of spring training as their No. 5 starter. And making just his second start of the year on April 21 against Seattle, Humber etched his name into baseball’s record books forever.

That afternoon, Humber—who had taken no-hitters into the sixth and seventh innings, respectively, in 2011—threw the 21st perfect game in big league history, striking out nine and throwing just 96 pitches. It also was the first complete game of his career.

Congratulatory phone calls and text messages poured in from family and friends. Humber also received a phone call from President Barack Obama, who happens to be a White Sox fan, and even appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to read the Top Ten List.

“It was pretty crazy with all the interviews and people wanting to get your thoughts,” Humber says. ‘It (appearing on Letterman) was a lot of fun. I got a feel for how it goes behind the scenes. You kind of banter with him; it was kind of neat. He’s a baseball fan. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Just 10 days after his perfect game, Humber experienced another life-changing event. His wife, Kristan, gave birth to the couple’s first child, John Gregory.

“It’s been awesome,” says Humber when asked about his new role as a father. “I don’t think you can prepare for it, but you just kind of adapt. It’s been great. He’s really healthy and alert and fun to be around.”

Learning Lessons

But not everything has been perfect, so to speak, for Humber this summer.

His productivity on the mound went south immediately following his perfect game. Humber went 1-4 over his next nine starts and his ERA was a robust 7.50. He stopped the bleeding by picking up a win in the White Sox’s 5-4 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 16, but he went on the 15-day disabled list shortly after with a mild right elbow flexor strain.

Yet Humber stayed grounded through his latest pitching setbacks, knowing that God is in control.

“It’s been definitely something that God is going to use to shape me and to mold me as a child of His,” Humber says. “I’m keeping baseball in the right place and just really desiring Him.”

Humber’s desire to follow the Lord, though, doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his desire to shut down opposing hitters.

“I want to pitch well and want the team to win,” he says. “I want to play this game for a long time, but I think I’m not going to go back to the spot where a long career in baseball has to happen (for me) to be a complete person. I’m going to continue to trust that God has a plan and not put pressure on myself.

“There’s a lot of things I’m not in control of. I do the best I can do and the rest is not in my hands.”

No matter how the 2012 campaign turns out for Philip Humber—or how the rest of his major-league career fares—he knows Who’s got his back.

“He promises if we stay close to Him, He’s going to provide us with spiritual help and direct our path,” Humber says. “I put so much pressure on myself to succeed and make it (in the major leagues) that when it didn’t happen, it was just devastating to me. That’s the thing. You know God’s in control no matter what happens. He’s got a plan for my life.”

By Mike Sandrolini

Mike Sandrolini is a longtime contributor to Sports Spectrum and lives outside Chicago.