The Last Time We Saw That Guy: Mark Buehrle

“That’s why I haven’t said anything. I haven’t talked to anybody. I just kind of let it go. Hopefully one day it just kind of got forgotten, and five years down the road (people said), ‘Where’s that Buehrle guy? Is he still around?'”

Mark Buehrle on his retirement, 2017

It’s the final Sunday of the season, and the Toronto Blue Jays are playing meaningful baseball. That battle, at least, is already won. They clinched the division a few days ago, a postseason berth just before that — an August and September that, homer by homer, hammered two decades of futility into the dirt. With a win today and a loss from the Kansas City Royals, they could guarantee home-field advantage through a hypothetical ALCS. That is not why this game is important. The camera keeps panning to a nervous group of people, sitting in the stands under shadow, waiting out the top of the first, as the Blue Jays go silent — waiting for Mark Buehrle, who steps onto the Tropicana Field mound to face the Rays for the second time in three days. They can count out the numbers they are hoping for on their hands. Six outs. Six outs to get to 600, to 200 innings — to 3000 innings, spread with shocking consistency over 15 consecutive seasons. 

John Gibbons was questioned about this decision, of course. That the Jays are in the postseason at all seems a tenuous enough position to maintain. He knows, and everyone knows, that they should reach for every advantage they can get. And yet everyone knows, at the same time, that there can be multiple important things happening on a baseball field — that personal milestones, arbitrary as they are, are meaningful; that what is meaningful to one player can be almost as meaningful to the entire team. Six outs.


When Mark Buehrle’s career as a professional baseball player began, he was something of an unknown entity: drafted in the 38th round by the White Sox, he was unheralded, lacking the instinct for attention-seeking. He was “boyish” and “quiet,” according to some early headlines; “Mark Buehrle does not care for too much fuss,” reads the opening line of a 2003 profile in Baseball Digest. Even at what was perhaps the height of his fame, as the ace leading the 2005 White Sox to their eventual World Series victory, Sports Illustrated opened a profile of him with this: “Soft-spoken and unassuming, White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle has never liked being the center of attention.”

Even as he kept adding to his list of accomplishments, he never stood out, sharp and brash and huge, like some other pitchers of similar talents. He stayed level, with the same mid-80s fastball, the same comfortable, predictable rhythm: a harmonious undertone, a solid root around whom a complex chord could be built. It was hard to imagine him having a sudden decline. When he got going in the later years, as he did in stretches of 2014 and 2015, it was hard to imagine him putting a full stop on his career at all.


On the first play of the game, Ryan Goins boots the ball. 


Why do people keep watching baseball games, over and over, every day, for entire seasons, entire lifetimes? Even when the basic structure is always the same, even when the entertainment value is sub-par and the product unsatisfying? It can’t be because there’s nothing better to do — there’s almost always something better to do. Part of it has to be the simple impulse to find out what happens next. I want to know if this guy will get better or worse, if that team will finally get over the hump. I want to know who will win, to understand how they got there, how others are planning to get there in the future. What will happen next? What will happen next? It can be the only thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, sometimes, that banal drive towards continuity. 

As far as the 2015 regular season goes, and as far as the 22-year Blue Jays playoff drought goes, the story is done — we know how it goes. We have known how it ended since the Jays clinched. We don’t know, yet, what will happen in the postseason — but we’re not there yet. This is not that moment. This is a strange moment, caught in between two points of history: it is part of a longer story, a story with a gentler arc than the hard spike of a sudden surge towards success. A moment of uncertainty.


Josh Donaldson snags a sharp grounder to first. He gets the out at second. Nothing else. The camera pans to the people in the shadows, the people wringing their hands. The air is flat.


No-hitters, perfect games — these, too, are strange in-between moments, self-contained interstitials. A perfect game has never ended a pitcher’s career, or marked the culmination of a team’s season. It is not a predictable story point, rising action, climax, denouement; it could happen any time, anywhere. It’s a day among days — one impossibly special, serendipitous day. And then life goes on. Life always goes on.

Just as well as he knows the moments of triumph, of curse-breaking and championship, Buehrle knows these moments. His first no-hitter came against the Rangers in 2007; his perfect game, against the Rays, too, came at home in Chicago in 2009. Buehrle is 36, now, certainly not too old to keep playing, but old enough that a shoulder is plaguing him, that there’s talk of this being his final game ever. It might not be, though. He hasn’t said anything about it. No one is saying goodbye just yet, though the possibility hangs in the air regardless. No one is looking for fireworks. Just five more outs.

Two singles — Evan Longoria, Mikie Mahtook — load the bases. Steven Souza Jr. lobs a soft liner to the infield, and for a moment, it seems like the hardly-rangey Edwin Encarnación will somehow manage to soar over and reel it in. Instead, the ball bounces off the side of his glove. A run comes in. In the stands — dismay. The bases are loaded again, and out in the bullpen, Ryan Tepera begins to warm up.

Buehrle induces a popup on the next pitch, but quickly loses Tim Beckham on a walk, keeping the bases loaded. And on a full count to Joey Butler, he leaves one middle-middle, 85 mph. It takes 10 seconds to leave the yard. Kevin Pillar hangs off the wall, his efforts useless.

And as Butler rounds the bases — today will be the final day of his big-league career, too — Buehrle meets on the mound with Pete Walker and Russell Martin, a covered, quiet conversation. Walker makes his somber walk back to the dugout, and Buehrle continues his striving. Four, now. Just a few more.

When Luke Maile, the ninth batter in the lineup whose average and OBP are both .171, hits a swift double to left-center, it is over. Buehrle pulls his cap down, heads into the dugout, navigates through the waiting high-fives; out in the stands, tight-lipped grimaces accompany a standing ovation, slight shakes of the head. This moment, this particular story — a 15th consecutive season with 200 innings pitched — is over. He disappears down the tunnel, and though it seems doubtful anyone respects 198 2/3 any less, it is still sad. It seems so little to ask for: A round number. A satisfying, complete exit. No unfinished business.

It takes a lot going right to get 27 outs without allowing a baserunner. Sometimes it takes a lot going right to get any outs at all.


In 2002, in his final game of the season, Buehrle was four outs away from becoming the first White Sox pitcher to win 20 games in almost a decade. A homer in the eighth, though, put them behind, and the Twins put the game away in the top of the ninth. It was disappointing, of course — for Buehrle, to whom the milestone was most personally meaningful, but perhaps more so to the rest of the team, the batters who felt they had let him down.

A year later, Buehrle told Baseball America that it wasn’t the four missing outs that frustrated him the most. It was the focus on him, the tension that it created in the players — tension that, perhaps, contributed to their inability to score runs.

“I could tell in the clubhouse, but they shouldn’t have been that way,” he said. “They should have just went out there and played just like every other game.”


Buehrle didn’t address his retirement publicly for around two years. He never announced it. He moved out to his beloved ranch in Missouri; he bought an RV, apparently, and joined a beer league. When his number was retired by the White Sox, he finally explained why he chose to just leave, in a way that few high-profile players do. He told the Chicago Tribune: “I didn’t want all the attention… I’ve always told people I was a young guy that came into the big leagues unknown, kind of snuck into the big leagues. I wanted to sneak my way out.”


After the game, Toronto headlines describe the start as “disastrous.” Buehrle is left off the postseason roster. He remains coy about whether or not he will continue playing. But in a few days, the division series begins in Toronto — the first since 1993 — and his lost four outs are all but forgotten in the tense excitement, the initial elation, the sinking despair as the Jays drop the two games at home. You don’t have to look too hard, though, to see him still there in the background: there, in the dugout, talking to Marcus Stroman, clapping his teammates on the back, still present.

And after that home run in Game 5, in the maelstrom of flying bottles and people storming the field, shaking the stadium down to its concrete foundations, somehow, only a single player was ejected. Look on the broadcast, and you won’t be able to find the moment — the camera had so much else to focus on. But there was a player who wasn’t on the roster, who wasn’t supposed to be there on the field. The umpires tossed him — nobody knows when.

What we do know, though, is that he made his way back onto the field after it all ended, when the game was won. There are pictures of him there, grinning widely and hugging Marcus Stroman. When asked, days later, why he had been ejected, he smiled: “Was I?”

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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4 years ago

I loved seeing this guy play! If nothing else, he’ll always be remembered for that behind the back flip to first.

4 years ago

Actually, it was a between-the-legs flip to first base with his glove as he tumbled to the ground which made it even more memorable.

4 years ago
Reply to  Buford

Yea, you’re right! Still a heck of a play and a heck of a unique career.

4 years ago

The behind the back flip was Bartolo.