A tragedy it was, they say.
Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga stood one out away from baseball immortality. Twenty-six Cleveland Indians batters had stepped up to the plate and all twenty-six failed to reach base. Considering the vagaries of the game — broken-bat pop-ups falling in the outfield for a hit; weak ground balls batted absolutely perfectly, squeaking through the infield for a “seeing eye” single; or the temporary loss of control by the pitcher resulting in a walk — Mr. Galarraga was one lucky chucker. The baseball gods seemed to be conspiring to give him only the 21st perfect game in Major League history — if only he could prevent Cleveland pinch hitter Jason Donald from reaching base.
With a count of one ball and one strike, Donald — now, forever, and always a part of baseball lore — swung and hit a slow bouncing ball to the right side of the infield. Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera ranged far to his right to snare the ball and pivoting smartly, threw to Galarraga who was charging toward first base from the pitcher’s mound to cover.
Sprinting down the line, Donald stretched out his foot to make contact with the base, only to have the ball and Galarraga beat him to it. Donald was clearly out by half a step. But 23-year veteran umpire Jim Joyce inexplicably called Donald safe at first to the chagrin of Galarraga, Cabrera, and every fan in the stadium.
I must say that Galarraga has handled the blown call extremely well. In fact, too well. Galarraga was seen smiling broadly, which I suppose is the reaction of a man who wants to cry but doesn’t want to break down in front of 30,000 people. I can imagine what Don Drysdale or the fearsome St. Louis Cardinals hurler Bob Gibson would have done following such an outrage. The next batter that stepped to the plate had better have been prepared to duck as the very next pitch would have been in their ear.
To this point, what we have is something that occurs with great regularity in sports: a stone-cold blown call by an official whose job it is to make the right call on every play. The dilemma of umps, refs, linesmen, and judges was best summed up by old-school baseball umpire Nestor Chylak, who once said, “The way I see it, an umpire must be perfect on the first day of the season and then get better every day.”
But it is what occurred after the game, and continues today, that is both disturbing and maddening. Mr. Galarraga has been elevated to victim status, because for the millionth time in baseball history an umpire blew a call at first base. “But it was a perfect game,” Galarraga partisans argue. “Surely something must be done. Surely this injustice must be rectified. Surely we must take this to the commissioner and ask him to overturn the call and give the perfect game to Galarraga.”
Surely, you’re joking.
As a metaphor for the current state of American society, it is almost too perfect. A result occurs with which someone isn’t pleased, and immediately we run to government to beg for relief, as Zombie’s latest post highlights. Government has become the arbiter — and, more ominously, the enforcer — of fairness and justice. The problem is that one man’s fairness is another’s unfairness. To rectify unfairness, government usually takes from somebody and gives to someone else in a highly arbitrary manner. And justice, no matter how well intentioned, is a subjective matter that depends largely on the point of view of those asking for relief.
What’s the point of asking Commissioner Bud Selig to overturn a call made in good faith by a professional umpire? Joyce wasn’t on the take, or drunk, or conspiring with Cleveland to deny Mr. Galarraga his place in history. He got it wrong. So what? Life is unfair and baseball may be the unkindest of games next to golf.
Indeed, they call it the “rub o’ the green” in golf. Stuff happens, so accept it and move on. Nothing you can do about. And running to Daddy Selig crying that it’s just NOT FAIR that Galarraga was robbed of glory because Jim Joyce is human and not able to avail himself of slow motion replay in real time is unseemly and not worthy of the traditions and history of the game.
Joyce’s reaction to all this has been unbelievable. He is being praised from one end of the country to the other for his “honesty” in admitting his mistake. He should be fined, suspended, and prevented from working either the postseason or the All-Star Game. Not for missing the call but for undermining his and every other umpire’s credibility by actually talking to the press about it in the first place, and then not having the courage to stand by his decision made in real time on the field. Instead, he blubbered like a two-year-old about being sorry for ruining Galarraga’s moment.
Jim Joyce, Armando Galarraga, and Bud Selig are not more important than the game itself. And each of those gentlemen has done a disservice to baseball by elevating themselves and a single play over the integrity of the game. Blown calls are a part of baseball. They are part of the history of the game, and will continue to be a part of baseball as long as human beings are used to make the judgments necessary to maintain a fair outcome — or as fair as it can be made given the limitations and lack of perfection in all of us.
If Joyce had to talk to the press, he could have said that he called it as he saw it and pretty much left it at that. It doesn’t matter if replays show a different outcome to the call. Umpires make their decisions and, right or wrong, that’s that. Rare is the umpire’s call that is overturned. If it is, the call is reversed by the crew chief usually after a huddle of all the umpires to determine if any of them saw the call another way.
Treating this one call any differently than the thousands of others he has made in his career is an error in judgment far worse than the missed call he made at first base. Rather than the focus being on the game, and the still-brilliant pitching performance of Galarraga (he pitched a 3-0 shutout), attention shifted to the umpire and his media mea culpa. Umpires should never be the the center of attention in baseball. That’s not their job, although some modern umpires don’t seem to understand that. In fact, Major League baseball just took the nearly unprecedented step of fining an umpire for bringing attention to himself in the aftermath of an incident in Chicago. Joyce should be fined for the same reason, regardless if he was “honest” or not.
Meanwhile, Galarraga is receiving kudos for his “sportsmanship” in not holding it against the umpire. Holy smokes, fella. Act like a human being (or at least a baseball player) rather than some Oprahfied dishrag of a professional athlete. In an age where parents discourage their kids from competing, where every kid who participates gets a reward, where there is less emphasis on winning and losing, Galarraga becomes a poster boy for modern American sports. I will take the attitude of a Vince Lombardi any day of the week over Galarraga and his milquetoast, touchy-feely sensibilities. I’d rather see him break his hand against the clubhouse wall by hitting it in frustration and anger following the game than smile like an idiotic gnome and play the role of national priest in forgiving Joyce his sin.
It’s not like there haven’t been blown calls in baseball that haven’t cost the offended side a lot more than personal glory. In an exact duplicate play of what happened the other night in Detroit, umpire Don Denkinger blew a call in the 9th inning at first base in the 1985 World Series that cost the St. Louis Cardinals a world championship. All Galarraga lost was a perfect game. The Cardinals lost it all.
Denkinger did not talk to the press afterward and never apologized for missing the call. It took many years but eventually, as is baseball’s way, the Cardinals embraced the history of that moment and actually began to invite Denkinger to reunions and other team events. “The Call,” as it has become known, is now a part of the baseball mythos where it is safe to take it out, relive it, examine it, and hold it lovingly in your hand as you contemplate the frailty of man and the breaks of the game.
If you want to feel bad for Galarraga, go ahead. Just don’t drag the rest of us into this treacly soap opera of supposedly high-minded ideals and weepy parables of forgiveness. Ty Cobb would have spit tobacco juice in Joyce’s eye and found a way to run into him while legging out a hit.
For my money, that would have been an excellent example to follow in this case.