It was routine. Breaking ball to the outside, and a weak grounder off the end of the bat. The otherwise defensively challenged first baseman scuttles to his left. He moves with a sense of urgency and purpose that comes only when a player knows whats at stake, and what a misstep could cost his teammate. History hangs in the balance, and his throw to the covering pitcher is true. The bag is tapped, and the elated pitcher presents his glove to the first base umpire, waiting in that split second for the final triumphant fist pump that would cement his place in baseball history, and grant him ownership of something that so very few had ever done.
Instead, the arms of the stoic umpire spread like wings of defiance, and while history would be made in that moment, it wasn’t the kind that anyone was hoping for.
On June 3rd, 2010, Armando Galarraga was a 28 year old starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, making only his fourth start of the season. He wasn’t what many would consider a “front line” starter, managing to compile a 4.62 career ERA before the start of that season, without overwhelming stuff or much of what scouts call a “prospect pedigree” to go with him, he was your typical back of the rotation starter.
On that same day, Jim Joyce was a 55 year old umpire, in the midst of his 23rd season in Major League Baseball. To that point, he had overseen two All-Star games, two World Series, and twelve other postseason series. He maintained a solid reputation for his accuracy, and was a widely respected umpire among the players. His station was first base for the game in question, and it was his arms that swatted away history from the young man who held the ball in his mitt.
What followed was almost anticlimactic by comparison. Galarraga shot a sly grin to Joyce, who stood chomping on what could only be described as a boulder of gum, staring straight ahead, into the void. Tigers manager Jim Leyland made a half-hearted jog to the umpire, knowing there was no undoing what had just happened, but couldn’t bear to let his kid stand out there by himself, having to face down another hitter, knowing what was just taken from him. Like so many managers before, the trip was for naught, and the game continued on. The final out was made, and what was supposed to be a magical moment, was instead reduced to…. a complete game shutout.
Baseball is full of what many of us would call “teachable moments”. Usually, these lessons are meant to instill a sense of purpose in a situation that otherwise seems pointlessly unfair, or to help give a proverbial “pat on the back” after something that just simply doesn’t have an explanation or reassurance other than “that just sucks”. It’s a sport built on failure, and a game where everything can be executed correctly, down to astonishing precision, and yet still yield a losing result. It’s cruel, it’s painful…. and it’s life.
This particular moment was one of the most teachable in recent memory, because of how many things it taught us. In just one moment of blatant imperfection, so many infallible lessons were taught.
It’s that moment of realization. History literally slipped past the young pitchers grasp. His page in the history books evaporating before his very eyes, and he seems to show immediate forgiveness. The tell is in his smile. The wry grin that spreads across his face, not only knowing what just happened, but comprehending instantly that it was done, and all he could do was look at the farcical humor of it all. He knew it was no good to stamp his feet, to shout at the man who had just clearly made a mistake that will forever stain an otherwise respected career. What’s done was done, and the game wasn’t over.
Life just isn’t fair sometimes. Control what you can, laugh at what you can’t.
This came later. After the dust of the game had settled, and Joyce was able to look at the film, he saw his mistake. He faced the media later and summed up the moment in the most blunt way possible:
“…No I did not get the call correct. I kicked the shit out of it…. I had great positioning on it, I just missed the call, I missed it from here to the wall…There’s nobody that feels worse than I do..”– Jim Joyce
Unsuccessfully fighting back tears at various points during the interview, Joyce did what so many in his profession, and (let’s face it) in many professions simply don’t: He answered for his mistake, publicly. In a profession that demands the appearance of objective perfection, and a culture of arrogant insistence of it, he admitted he was wrong.
We all make mistakes. Sometimes answering for them is ultimately the best way to confront and learn from them.
It was the next day when arguably the most important moment of this saga came to pass. Two important baseball traditions played a role in setting this up. First, umpire crews rotate positions each game of a given series. If you work third base for game one, you rotate to second for game two, and for the purposes of our story, if you work first base, then you rotate to home plate for the next game. Before the start of each game, that home plate umpire receives the lineup card from each team. That card is presented usually by the manager, or occasionally by someone of ceremonial importance, selected by the manager.
With Joyce rotating from first to home, it seemed only humanly appropriate, that Armando Galarraga bring the card out to the clearly emotional umpire.
What followed was one of the most human moments in a game that has so few of them, and a world in so much need of it.
It has become a recent topic of discussion for the league to revisit this moment, reverse the call by Joyce and grant Galarraga a perfect game. It would seem objectively fair, it’s clear that Joyce missed the call, has admitted to it, and it makes sense to right such a clear wrong for a player that really doesn’t have a whole lot else to hang his career on. This would be sure ticket to the history books for the pitcher, completing such a rare feat and being put in such elite company.
But….. I say we don’t.
What happened in this moment, and the days that followed seems just too important to be undone. We live in a world that inherently cruel, unjust, and painfully objective in the way it works. We see enough stomping and screaming, pig headed insistence and blind arrogance in the world today in the name of each others own personal truths, and advancing our own agendas. To see such class, accountability, and grace in one moment is something to draw from. It’s a template for those who come next, that it’s okay to know when the situation calls for cooler heads, to know when you’re wrong, and when to forgive. In a world that lacks so much of these pillars of goodness in people, it’s the very absence of perfection that makes this moment worthy of remembrance exactly the way it is.
A perfect game will be duplicated. In fact, should the call get overturned, it would be the THIRD perfect game that season. The truth is, there will be other perfect games (in fact, there have been three more, all in 2012), and that list will continue to grow. It is an astounding accomplishment, there is no doubt about that.
But please, let’s leave this one be. There will never be another situation like this, handled by two people more perfectly equipped to handle it the way they did.