Few things are guaranteed in baseball, other than intrigue, the seventh-inning stretch and the belting chorus of “O!” during the national anthem at Camden Yards.
Severna Park High School varsity baseball coach Eric Milton, a former Major League pitcher, accomplished one of the game’s most coveted yet unexpected feats 20 years ago when he notched a no-hitter for the Minnesota Twins on September 11, 1999.
The game was anything but ordinary, starting with an 11:06am first pitch. The Twins had to finish their matchup with the Angels before the start of the Minnesota Golden Gophers college football game.
“There were maybe 10,000 people in a 60,000-seat stadium,” Milton said of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
With Terry Steinbach calling pitches behind the plate, the 24-year-old Milton got off to a hot start. The Angels struggled to make contact, with only three balls making it past the infield in the first five innings. Because of the early start time and September call-ups, the Angels lineup that day featured two regular starters in Troy Glaus and Orlando Palmeiro.
A run-scoring triple by Steinbach in the first inning gave the Twins a lead, and they added on with three in the second and two in the fifth. By the seventh inning, Milton had surrendered two walks but no hits.
“Even though there were maybe 10,000 fans, by the sixth or seventh inning, it sounded like 20,000,” Milton said. “That kept me going.”
Taking notice of the potential no-hitter, Milton felt a twinge of superstition.
“There was a guy who would bring me Gatorade,” Milton recalled. “He was the only guy sitting near me, and eventually, he got up and left. I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You have to come back.’”
While superstition was on the minds of Twins in the dugout, it was also a topic of conversation in the press box after an ill-timed “Wheel of Fortune” promotion. A fan had to fill in the letters of a puzzle on the scoreboard to unveil the answer to the question of “Who pitched the first no-hitter for the Twins?” (The answer is Jack Kralick). The question had been developed before the game and went unchanged despite the no-hitter.
Looking back, Milton said he was unaware of the trivia question. His no-hitter faced a bigger threat in the next inning.
“There was one play late in the game, in the eighth inning, with a bloopy hit — I don’t know if it broke the bat — but the ball looped over Eric’s head on the mound,” said Tom Kelly, who was the Twins manager. “Cleatus Davidson zipped in there and made a catch right below his knees, so it was one of those dying lobs that almost fell in, and if it hit the AstroTurf, who knows what would have happened.”
Eleven pitches was all Milton needed to escape the eighth inning. In the ninth, Milton induced a pop-out and a ground-out. With the no-hitter on the line, he threw a 3-2 pitch to Jeff DaVanon. He swung and missed.
The Twins defeated the Angels, 7-0. Milton struck out 13 batters, with his fastball reportedly touching 94 mph.
“Anytime someone pitches a no-hitter, you don’t get by on two pitches,” Kelly said. “You have to have a lot working for you: the fastball, breaking ball, a changeup.
“It’s just one of those dominant games,” he added. “He pitched a lot of great games, but that was the feather in the cap.”
Surprisingly, Milton said the no-hitter doesn’t top the list of his favorite accomplishments. That honor goes to his victory in the American League Divisional Series against the Oakland Athletics in 2002 when he pitched seven innings, giving up two earned runs in an 11-2 victory.
The no-hitter comes close, though, as does his near no-hitter with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2004. As for that 1999 game, Milton became the fourth pitcher in Twins history to pitch a no-hit game, joining Scott Erickson, Jack Kralick and Dean Chance.
“Eric didn’t like to lose. He always seemed to pitch with a chip on his shoulder,” Kelly said. “I managed a lot of years, and we didn’t always have guys on the mound that we were proud of. You felt like you had a chance to win when he went out to pitch, and I think the players felt the same way, and that is important.”