Baseball's brewing decade of the no-hitter added perhaps its most unlikely contributor Sunday afternoon.
Wilson Alvarez, a Chicago White Sox rookie who before Sunday had never gotten so much as an out in a major league game, held the Baltimore Orioles hitless at Memorial Stadium to become the youngest pitcher in 21 years to throw a no-hitter and to etch his name into the record books during Chicago's 7-0 victory.
The 21-year-old left-hander from Maracaibo, Venezuela, began the day as a virtual unknown--not just to the Orioles but also to his teammates. And certainly he came on as an unlikely candidate to deliver the next no-hitter after the perfect game delivered two weeks earlier by a 15-year major league veteran from Nicaragua, Dennis Martinez, for the Montreal Expos against the Dodgers.
Alvarez was considered a top minor league prospect in each of the two organizations for which he played over the past several years, but his lone experience in the big leagues had proven less than successful: On July 24, 1989, pitching for the Texas Rangers in his only prior major league game, Alvarez faced the Toronto Blue Jays and failed to get out any of the five batters he faced.
He surrendered two home runs and was charged with three runs and a loss on that day, and he hadn't managed to make it back to the major leagues since.
Alvarez, who was added to Chicago's roster Sunday after being promoted from the minor leagues on Saturday, celebrated his return in grand style, and the crowd of 40,455, mostly Oriole fans, cheered more loudly for him with each out.
He became the first rookie to execute a no-hitter since the Oakland Athletics' Mike Warren in 1983, and he's the youngest pitcher to accomplish the feat since Oakland's Vida Blue--who was 86 days younger than Alvarez--on Sept. 21, 1970. If not for that ill-fated outing for the Rangers, Alvarez might have become just the second pitcher in this century to pitch a no-hitter in his initial major league start (Bobo Holloman of the St. Louis Browns did so in 1953). Alvarez is the youngest White Sox pitcher to pull the trick.
Afterward, he seemed overwhelmed as he faced a modest gathering of reporters. He spoke in hesitant English, later reverting to his native Spanish when the media crush grew in the White Sox clubhouse. He said he planned to celebrate over dinner with his wife, who was at the game.
He's a veteran of no-hitters, having thrown a dozen of them in Venezuelan youth league games between 1981 and '86. But this, after all, was the major leagues.
"I never think I'm going to throw a no-hitter," Alvarez said. "I didn't think about it today until the last out. Right now, I am so happy. I want my family (in Venezuela) to see this. It's so unbelievable."
Alvarez had five walks and seven strikeouts in the game, and only two Oriole runners made it as far as second base.
Several Baltimore batters hit the ball hard, but only on two occasions did the Orioles come close to getting hits.
Catcher Ron Karkovice was charged with an error on a seventh-inning play when he threw past first base on Cal Ripken's ground ball in front of home plate.
Then in the eighth, Chris Hoiles hit a line drive that seemed certain to be the spoiler. But center fielder Lance Johnson raced to his left and toward the infield, and he caught the ball with an acrobatic, headlong dive.
"That catch by Lance Johnson was just awesome," Chicago Manager Jeff Torborg said. "I was as much of a fan as anybody in the ballpark. That was terrific. (Karkovice) did a super job behind the plate and this is a sharp young kid. He might have been the calmest person in the ballpark."
It was a sparkling White Sox debut for Alvarez, and a triumphant moment that did not come without its obstacles while in the making. The Rangers traded Alvarez to the White Sox in a July of 1989 deal that also sent outfielder Sammy Sosa and infielder Scott Fletcher to Chicago in exchange for outfielder Harold Baines and infielder Fred Manrique.
Yet Alvarez, though touted continually by scouts as a superb prospect, remained in the minor leagues until this weekend, having battled arm troubles and undisclosed personal problems a year ago.
He had thrived this season at double-A Birmingham, however, compiling a 1.83 earned-run average in 23 games. Sunday he said, "My arm is fine and my family is fine," and his pitching indeed seemed unburdened.
Date Pitcher Team Opp. Score May 1 Nolan Ryan Rangers Blue Jays 3-0 May 23 Tommy Greene Phillies Expos 2-0 July 13 Bob Milacki, Mike Flanagan Orioles Athletics 2-0 Mark Williamson, Gregg Olson July 26 *Mark Gardner Expos Dodgers 1-0 July 28 **Dennis Martinez Expos Dodgers 2-0 Aug. 11 Wilson Alvarez White Sox Orioles 7-0
*--Gardner allowed two hits in the 10th inning and was the losing pitcher in the Dodgers' 1-0 victory.