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Perfection Lost, Grace Found

Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga walks away from first base umpire Jim Joyce, who called Cleveland Indian Jason Donald safe Wednesday. The highly contested call resulted in Galarraga's loss of a perfect game. (AP)
Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga walks away from first base umpire Jim Joyce, who called Cleveland Indian Jason Donald safe Wednesday. The highly contested call resulted in Galarraga's loss of a perfect game. (AP)

On Wednesday night in Detroit, on what should have been the final out of a baseball game involving the Tigers and the Cleveland Indians, umpire Jim Joyce made a bad call. In fact, it was a really bad call, and almost everybody in the ballpark knew it, and after the game, when he’d had a chance to watch the replay in the clubhouse, Joyce knew it, too. When questioned about his decision, he acknowledged that he’d had a fine angle on the play.

“I just missed it,” he said.

Joyce’s blunder mattered more than somewhat because had he called Cleveland’s Jason Donald out at first base — as he acknowledged he should have done — Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga would have been credited with a perfect game — the first ever tossed by a member of the Tigers.

Instead of celebrating that distinction, Galarraga returned to the mound and finished his job. He got the next hitter on a routine groundball. And while players and fans roared for justice and, in some magnificently stupid cases, threatened Joyce, Galarraga — who had never before displayed the mastery apparent on Wednesday night and probably never will again — demonstrated something more important and perhaps more rare: grace under pressure.

In the news conference that followed the game, Galarraga said, “We’re all human. We all make mistakes,” though he also admitted that he’d hoped for more from a big league umpire.

The pitcher had every right to that expectation, as Joyce was the first to acknowledge. But he didn’t get what he was entitled to expect, which happens a lot in this sweet, old world, and instead of kicking his glove across the infield or surrendering his concentration in the inevitable wash of disappointment and walking the next seven batters or vowing revenge against the arbitrary gods of baseball, Galarraga retained his composure, finished his day’s work, and, a little later on, accepted Joyce’s apology.

Presenting professional athletes as role models is a risky proposition. There’s plenty of evidence for that.

But it’s appropriate to acknowledge admirable behavior under difficult circumstances, wherever it surfaces. Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge had that in mind when he was asked about the perfect game that wasn’t.

“What sets that apart from anything that’s happened in a long time in our sport is the absolute sportsmanship of it,” he said. “Galarraga and Joyce are two true gentlemen, period, in the way that they handled themselves. People will always remember that. I’ll never forget it.”

This program aired on June 4, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield has been the host of Only A Game since the program began in 1993.

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