The play was routine: breaking ball to the outside and a weak grounder off the end of the bat. The otherwise defensively challenged first baseman scuttled to his left. He moved with a sense of urgency and purpose that comes only when a player knows what’s at stake, and what a misstep could cost his teammate. History hung in the balance, and his throw to the covering pitcher was true. The bag was tapped, and the elated pitcher presented 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 so few had ever done: pitching the perfect game.
Instead, the arms of the stoic umpire spread like wings of defiance. While history would be made in that moment, it wasn’t in a way anyone wanted.
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, compiling a 4.62 career ERA before the start of that season. Without overwhelming stats or what scouts call a “prospect pedigree,” 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. He had overseen two All-Star Games, two World Series, and twelve other postseason series. He maintained a solid reputation for accuracy, and was widely respected among the players. First base was his station for the game in question, and it was his arms that swatted history away from the young man who held the ball in his mitt.
What followed was almost anticlimactic. 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. He knew there was no undoing what had just happened, but he couldn’t bear to let his kid stand out there by himself, having to face down another hitter, knowing what had just been taken from him. Like so many manager trips before this one, Leyland’s effort was for naught, and the game continued. The final out was made, and what should have been a magical moment was instead reduced to . . . a complete game shutout.
Baseball is full of what many call “teachable moments.” Usually these lessons are meant to assign purpose to a situation that seems pointlessly unfair, or to give a proverbial pat on the back after something that elicits no better response than “that just sucks.” It’s a sport built on failure—on a game where everything can be executed correctly, and with astonishing precision, yet still yield a loss. 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 much it educated. Just one moment of blatant imperfection taught so many incontrovertible lessons.
It was a moment of realization. Glory slipped past the young pitcher’s grasp. His page in the history books evaporated before his very eyes—yet he seemed to show immediate forgiveness. The tell was in his smile. The wry grin that spread across his face showed that he not only knew what just happened, but comprehended instantly that it was done. All he could do was look at the farcical humor of it all. He knew it was no good to stamp his feet or shout at the man whose mistake would forever stain his otherwise respected umpire career. What was 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.
After the dust of the game settled, and Joyce looked 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 during the interview, Joyce did what so many in his profession, as well as most other professions, never do: he answered for his mistake. Publicly. In a profession that demands the appearance of objective perfection, and in a culture of arrogant insistence upon it, he admitted he was wrong.
We all make mistakes. Sometimes answering for them is the best way to confront and learn from them.
It was the next day when the arguably pivotal moment of this saga came to pass. Two important baseball traditions played a role. 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. As in the case of our chastened umpire, if you work first base, you rotate to home plate for the next game. Second, before the start of each game, that home plate umpire receives the lineup card from each team. That card is usually presented by the manager, or occasionally by someone of ceremonial importance who the manager selects.
With Joyce rotating from first to home, it was only 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, in a world that needs so many.
It has recently been popularly suggested that the league revisit this moment, reverse the call by Joyce, and grant Galarraga a perfect game. This seems objectively fair: Joyce clearly missed the call, and he admitted to it. It makes sense to right such a clear wrong for a player who doesn’t have much else to hang his career on. This would be a sure ticket to the history books for the pitcher, who would be in elite company for completing such a rare feat.
But . . . I say we don’t.
What happened in that moment, and in the days that followed, is just too important to be undone. To see such class, accountability, and grace in a single moment is something to draw inspiration from. It’s a template for the next generation: that it’s okay to know when a situation calls for cooler heads, when you’re wrong, and when to forgive. In a population that lacks so many of these pillars of virtue, it’s the very absence of perfection that makes this moment worth remembering exactly the way it is.
A perfect game will be duplicated. In fact, should the call ever get overturned, it would be the THIRD perfect game that season. Not only that: three more have happened since, all in the 2012 season. That list will continue to grow.
Pitching the perfect game is an astounding accomplishment, no doubt. But please, let’s leave this one be. There will never be another situation like this, involving two people more perfectly equipped to handle it with grace.