By Jonah Dayton
Scott Reifert had just ignored the president.
Mark Buehrle was sitting in the White Sox media room, answering questions from reporters just minutes after throwing the 18th perfect game in Major League Baseball history, when Reifert got the call.
“(White Sox owner) Jerry Reinsdorf was standing to the right of me as we listened to Mark take some of the questions,” said Reifert, the White Sox vice president of communications. “My phone rang, and I looked down and it said, ‘No caller ID,’ so I hit ignore. As soon as I hit ignore, Jerry’s phone rang. He looked at it and it said, ‘No caller ID,’ but he answered it. It was the White House.”
President Barack Obama, a lifelong Sox fan, wanted to congratulate Buehrle on his historic achievement.
Of all the days to throw a perfect game, Buehrle did so in the middle of a Thursday afternoon. The Sox were set to head to Detroit that night for a doubleheader against the division-leading Tigers the next day, so manager Ozzie Guillén didn’t have his top lineup to face the Tampa Bay Rays. Paul Konerko was the designated hitter, which meant first base was manned by Josh Fields, a third baseman by trade who had made just six career starts at first prior to July 23, 2009.
A.J. Pierzynski had the day off ahead of the doubleheader, which meant catching duties fell to backup Ramón Castro.
“Castro was very good defensively,” Guillén said. “He was one of the best No. 2 catchers I ever had. I remember Mark never shook him off.”
Having just been acquired from the Mets seven weeks earlier, Castro was playing in only his 11th game with the club. It was first time he had ever caught Buehrle.
“Buehrle had never thrown to Castro ever,” said Scott Merkin, a Sox beat writer for MLB.com. “Not in a bullpen, not in a warmup, so that’s pretty amazing.”
“That was one of the running jokes afterwards in the clubhouse,” Reifert said. “Even when the guys from that team get together now they all look for any opportunity to make fun of A.J., poke A.J. a little bit.”
Always the quick worker and never one to shake off a sign, Buehrle put his head down and went to work. B.J. Upton led off the game by smoking a grounder right at second baseman Jayson Nix for a 4-3 putout; the next 8.1 innings was soft contact galore. Buehrle generated routine play after routine play, which his defense easily gobbled up.
“When we got to about the sixth inning, we got into perfect game/no hitter planning,” said Reifert, who had to leave a leaguewide conference call early to start preparing. “We’re getting historic lists prepped, ensuring photographers and videographers know what to shoot, talking about what we want to cover.”
Then the catch. Dewayne Wise entered the game in centerfield as a defensive replacement in the ninth, when Gabe Kapler stepped to the plate. The ball was crushed to deep left-center. Wise sprinted back, tracking it all the way, and rose up against the wall to rob a home run, preserving the perfect game while cementing himself into White Sox lore.
Buehrle then struck out Michel Hernández — on a 3-2 changeup, no less — before getting Jason Bartlett to roll over to short. Alexei Ramírez scooped up the grounder and fired across the diamond to make history.
“It’s one of the best memories I have as manager,” Guillén said. “Mark is a special guy in my career to me and my family. He just attacked batters and didn’t overcomplicate things when he was on the mound. A special arm.”
Fourteen years later, July 23, 2009, remains at the forefront of Sox fans’ memories, but perhaps none more so than Patrick Neary, a lifelong Sox fan who, at the time, was 28 and living in Bridgeport, just a short walk from the ballpark.
“It was my day off,” said Neary, who then worked nights at Midway Airport. “I said to my fiancée, ‘It’s supposed to be a beautiful day and the Sox have a day game. I’m going to walk to the stadium, buy a seat in the outfield, get a program and a beer and keep score.’ I decided to have a couple of Bloody Marys and then take a little nap before the game. The next thing I know, I wake up to the sound of fireworks signaling that our beloved White Sox had just beaten the Rays. Shoot, I missed the game. I rolled over to grab my phone and I had dozens of missed calls, voicemails, texts. I turned on the postgame show as I started to go through my messages and I was like, ‘Oh no.’ I made a Kenny Williams-style trade. A chance to see my favorite pitcher throw a perfect game for a nap.”
Back in Reinsdorf’s office, members of the White Sox communications team scrambled to try to document Buehrle’s call with Obama.
“At that time, the technology was such that we had a video camera that you could hit a red button to start, and you could hit a red button to stop,” Reifert said. “It was handheld, and it would only shoot like 30 seconds of video. I said to one of our PR assistants, ‘Do you know how to use this, because you got about 20 seconds to figure it out.’”
The video was a bit shaky but nonetheless successful, and the Sox pushed it out on that night’s “CBS Evening News.”
“That was one of the first times that our own content kind of reached the world,” Reifert said. “Nowadays, we’ve got multiple cameras and photographers and almost everything we do we push out, but that was one of the very first times in my experience that that happened.”
Jonah Dayton is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter.