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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dealing With Imperfection

If you pay attention to the sports world at all, you are well aware of the recent “tragedy” that occurred in Major League Baseball (MLB). In case you missed it, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from pitching a perfect game. (A perfect game is when a pitcher (or pitchers) wins a game, retiring all 27 batters faced.)

It would have been only the twenty-first perfect game in the 141 year history of MLB. That’s merely 20 perfect games in over 575,000 MLB games played. That’s about .003% of all games played. By comparison, more people have orbited the moon than have pitched a MLB perfect game. It is truly one of the rarest of sports achievements.

Galarraga was one out away from his perfect game when a ground ball to first resulted in a missed call by the first base umpire. The perfect game was forever ruined. Moreover, it was a bad missed call. In the words of MLB ESPN analyst Tim Kurkjian, this was a call that umpires get right 100,000 out of 100,001 times. The replay of the incident was shown over-and-over again on sports programs across the country.

Television news networks and newspapers across the country reported the happening almost immediately. I was on my laptop at the time, and both Fox News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had the story on their websites as “breaking news.”

In other words, because of his missed call, umpire Jim Joyce is now the most famous (or infamous) baseball umpire in the world. Pundits all over the sports world used this moment to call for sweeping reform in MLB umpiring—the use of instant replay. Some even called on baseball commissioner Bud Selig to intervene and “undo” the travesty. They make good arguments, but that is not the direction I would like to go here.

As stellar as Galarraga’s otherwise perfect game was, the performance afterward by the principle characters involved teaches a lesson that no perfect game would allow—one which I believe will leave each of them with a far greater legacy than the perfect game would have.

Immediately after the blown call, Galarraga smiled, returned to the pitcher’s mound, and went back to work. His manager Jim Leyland came out to argue the call; it was quite heated. After the game, Leyland was much more understanding. “The players are human, the umpires are human, the managers are human,” Leyland said.

After the game, upon seeing the replay, Joyce took the unusual step of quickly admitting his mistake. “It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the s­--t out of it,” Joyce said. “I just cost that kid a perfect game,” he added as he sullenly and humbly paced the umpires’ locker room.

Moments later, Joyce went even farther and tearfully asked the Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski if he could personally apologize to Galarraga. Joyce then went face-to-face with Galarraga and told him he was sorry and even added a hug. This act quickly diffused an otherwise bitter Galarraga. Galarraga said, “You don't see an umpire after the game come out and say, ‘Hey, let me tell you I'm sorry.’ He felt really bad. He didn't even shower.”

The next day, Joyce was scheduled to work behind home plate—the highest profile umpiring position. MLB gave Joyce the option of taking the day off. Joyce refused. Prior to the game, wanting to diffuse any negative crowd reaction to Joyce, Leyland sent Galarraga out with the day’s lineup card.

Leyland stated, “This guy is an outstanding umpire. I just really think it's a day for Tigers fans to really show what we are all about in a positive way…The guy had every bit of integrity. He faced the music. He stood there and took it. What else can he do? I just don't believe in beating people up like that…This guy was a mess. My heart goes out to him.”

As the lineups were exchanged, what boos were aimed at Joyce turned into cheers for Galarraga. Joyce, again full of emotion, had tears in his eyes. Galarraga patted him on the shoulder for support. When the game began, surrounded by his fellow umpires for their support, as the Tigers took to the field, several of them passed by Joyce and showed their support for him as well. For the most part, Tigers fans also showed themselves forgiving. When the game was over, Joyce said, “I don’t want to make it sappy and say it was love, but the support I got was just love.”

Don’t get me wrong, given a chance to do it over, almost everyone involved would rather see Joyce make the correct call and have Galarraga “immortalized” into MLB history along with the 20 other perfect game pitchers. However, we now have an incident that transcends sports. We have an example of grace and forgiveness. We have a man owning up to his mistake and saying that he is sorry. In other words, we have an outpouring of love that no “perfect game” could ever have given us.

Copyright 2010, Trevor Grant Thomas