40 Years and Counting: Cleveland's Last Perfect Game and Len Barker's Life After Baseball
It’s been more than 40 years since a Cleveland baseball pitcher has thrown a no-hitter. Young ace Triston McKenzie came close last week. He was perfect through nearly eight innings, meaning he didn’t allow a single base runner. That got WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto thinking back to the last time a Cleveland pitcher did it: Lenny Barker’s perfect game in 1981.
In 1981, Pluto was in his second year writing for The Plain Dealer. He said he had been to every Cleveland baseball game at Municipal Stadium except for five. That day, May 15, was one of them. He was at an awards banquet in downtown Cleveland.
In the 7th inning of Barker’s incredible performance, Pluto got the call to head to the stadium.
"I got there in time to see the last three outs. And I haven't seen one since — a perfect game or a no-hitter," Pluto said.
An unexpected performance
Barker, standing tall at 6 foot 5 inches and 230 pounds, was not the prototypical ace that you expect to throw a perfect game. With a high leg kick, blazing fastball sitting around 95 mph, and a large frame, many wondered if he had the efficiency it takes to mow down 27 straight batters, allowing no hits or walks.
“He was getting better all the way along,” Pluto said. “What he had developed that day, he had this tremendous curveball.”
Barker was no slouch leading up to the perfect game, however. In 1980, he won 19 games. He was an All-Star during the 1981 season, where the game was held in Cleveland. In 1982, he won another 15 games.
On this day, about 7,000 fans filled the cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Indians finished the season at just a mediocre 52-51, good for sixth place in the former AL East division. Little did the fans know their starting pitcher would accomplish something that would remain unbeaten for the next 40 years.
“[Barker] said by the seventh inning, he was thinking, ‘Can I actually be the guy that does this?’” Pluto said.
“You really don’t see a notable big league pitcher coaching at a place like that very often. He recreated himself."
A grueling career
Barker pitched 11 seasons in the majors, a remarkable feat considering how overworked pitchers were back then.
“One game, he threw 197 pitches. They kept a pitch count and nobody payed attention to it!” Pluto said.
Pluto remembers the first time he noticed signs of wear and tear on Barker’s arm, following a start early in the 1983 season.
“We’re talking to him after the game, and we see he’s got his elbow wrapped in ice. He takes the icing off; the elbow’s swollen,” he said. “After every start it was swollen, and he just kept pitching with it.”
Barker had a lifetime major-league record of 74-76. He was eventually traded to the Braves during the 1983 season. In Atlanta, he was signed to a lucrative $4 million deal over five years.
However, it was clear that Cleveland got the best of Barker’s career. He began dealing with more elbow injuries and ultimately was forced to receive Tommy John surgery, a huge blow to any starting pitcher.
“He was pretty much done after that. I look at that and think this guy should’ve been good for 10 years,” Pluto said.
Life after baseball
After retiring from baseball in 1987 with the Milwaukee Brewers, Barker went through a divorce and found his way into construction, another physically taxing profession. He founded Pitch Perfect Construction and ran the business for 20 years.
In 2010, Barker came back to baseball and became a pitching coach at Notre Dame College in South Euclid. He has been their head coach since 2012.
“You really don’t see a notable big league pitcher coaching at a place like that very often,” Pluto said. “He recreated himself."
And Pluto says Barker has remained down to earth after baseball.
“He’s just such an ordinary guy, and they love him [at Notre Dame College] because of that,” he said.