Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Lesson in Grace, Forgiveness, and the Imperfections of Man

The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is.
--Oscar Wilde

It is part of the human condition to strive for perfection. We all seek it. We all fall short. In most aspects of life, to achieve perfection is impossible. In baseball, it has occurred 20 times, at least according to the record books. But for anyone who watched the end of last Wednesday night’s game involving the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland Indians, perfection has happened 21 times. Armando Galaragga, an otherwise mediocre starting pitcher for the Tigers, pitched what amounted to a 28-out perfect game. In that there are only 27 outs in a nine inning game, this was no easy feat. But in the permanent archives of baseball history, Galaragga pitched a 1-hit shutout. Impressive, but not perfect.

James Joyce, the famous author, once wrote, “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” Jim Joyce, the first-base umpire who blew the call that should have been the 27th and final out in the ninth inning, recognized his namesake’s wisdom the hard way. Joyce (the umpire) ruled that Jason Donald of the Indians beat out a ground ball that had been hit between the first and second baseman. The replay clearly showed that Donald was out – by nearly two feet – after Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded the ball and threw to Galarraga covering first. Galarraga and Cabrera clenched their fists and smiled at each other, about to celebrate Galarraga’s feat as the 21st pitcher in baseball history to throw a perfect game – 27 up and 27 down, no hits, no walks, no errors – when suddenly they realized that Joyce called the runner safe. “Why is he safe?” asked Rod Allen, a Detroit television announcer. Then the replays, in slow motion from several different angles, made certain what everyone thought had been obvious to the naked eye – the umpire got it wrong. Donald was clearly out. Galarraga had indeed pitched a perfect game, but the umpire, the other James Joyce, flubbed it. “Jim Joyce – no,” Allen said in a tone of astonished disappointment.

On watching the replays, my first reaction was anger. How could the umpire have made such a terrible mistake? This was an error of historic proportions. But then the camera focused on Joyce, who stood alone, stoic and emotionless, the most unpopular man in the world at that given moment. The home faithful at Comerica Park in Detroit were not pleased with this man in black, who appeared to represent in human form all of the Satanic forces of the universe. Joyce may have been the only person in that stadium, at that moment, unaware of what the replays showed, though you can be certain he was replaying it in his mind over-and-over, convincing himself he had made the right call, hoping for vindication. I suddenly felt sorrow and pity for Joyce, who I knew would soon be the subject of ridicule and hate-filled diatribes, as the lynch mob mentality of angry sports fans, combined with the media-induced dissections of his every move would dominate the airwaves for the next 24 hours. He made a mistake, a costly mistake in the confines of a potentially historic baseball game, but he had not done so intentionally. He had tried to make the right call, courageously ruling the runner safe knowing that his call would end Galarraga’s strive for perfection.

Immediately following the game, before Joyce had a chance to leave the field, angry members of the Detroit Tigers, led by manager Jim Leyland, all of whom by now had seen the replay, confronted Joyce and lit into him. Joyce stood there, stone faced and silent, as he listened to the manager and several players vent their frustration. Joyce took the abuse gracefully, offering nothing in response. One player absent from this confrontation was Armando Galarraga, who offered not one critical word about the seeming unfairness of it all.

After the game, when Joyce had an opportunity to see the replays, he was emotionally distraught and visibly upset. “I just missed the damn call,” he said. “This isn’t ‘a’ call. This is a history call. And I kicked the [expletive] out of it.” Joyce is a veteran umpire with a stellar reputation, one of the best in the business. 99% of the time, he and most other major league umpires get the calls right. But to error is human, and umpiring, like baseball, is a human endeavor. Mistakes are made all the time in life. A person’s character is defined, however, not by the mistakes we make, but by what we do after making them. When told afterward that Joyce felt terrible about the missed call, Galarraga said that he wanted to tell Joyce not to worry about it, that people make mistakes. Joyce, for his part, sought out Galarraga after the game in the Tigers’ clubhouse and apologized.

“I take pride in this job, and I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his ass off all night.” He did not blame the Tigers for being upset at him after the game. “If I had been Galarraga,” Joyce said, “I would have been the first one standing there [screaming]. I would have said something immediately. He didn’t say a word, not one word.” No one felt worse about his mistake than Joyce himself. Galarraga was impressed with Joyce’s humility and sense of integrity. “I give a lot of credit to that guy,” the Venezuelan pitcher said in broken English. “In my heart, I have no problem with him.” He noted the rarity of an umpire apologizing to a player for a blown call after a game. “Nobody’s perfect,” Galarraga said, as he pardoned Joyce of his sin.

Perhaps it was the obvious pain that Joyce displayed for his own mistake after the game Wednesday night, and the knowledge that Joyce’s career will be forever marred by his unforgivable call, which permitted Galarraga, the Tigers and their fans, to offer remission. Joyce was the scheduled home plate umpire the next day, when the Tigers and Indians had a day game. Jim Leyland, in an act of grace and mercy, sent Galarraga to home plate before the game to hand the official lineup card to Joyce. The two men stood together and shook hands. Tiger fans stood and cheered, offering their own form of compassion and forgiveness. Joyce was overcome with emotion; his eyes swelled, he put his hands to his face and rubbed away his tears. Galarraga patted Joyce on the back, and Joyce returned the gesture. It was a small act of contrition by men not accustomed to such acts of solace and humility.

Many people are predictably calling for baseball to institute a new instant replay rule so that such mistakes are prevented in the future. Why should the umpire be the only person in the stadium who is not allowed to see a replay? Why not get the call right? Maybe it will happen. Maybe it is a good idea. The Cardinals were victims of a blown call in game six of the 1985 World Series that led to their loss in the bottom of the ninth and eventual implosion in game seven. Had there then been an instant replay rule, Don Denkinger, the umpire who blew that call, may have rectified the mistake and prevented an injustice. But then again, there is something charming about baseball’s reliance on human beings to make the right calls; had Galarraga been awarded a perfect game following an instant replay review, it would have been fair and just, but it would have deprived us of the acts of human grace, redemption, and forgiveness displayed after the game and by the Tigers and their fans the next day. Perhaps something greater would have been lost, something larger than baseball and record books.

Bad calls have always been part of the game; umpires are rarely the object of our affections. When one side agrees with a call, the other side usually does not. Fans and players are an impossible lot to please. Baseball is a game of imperfection, full of gaffes and brain cramps, fielding errors, running errors, and mental errors. The players, like the umpires, are human and imperfect. But, as Ross Douthat of the New York Times noted, “baseball is also a game where history matters, and where continuity – those mystic chords of memory, connecting the Tiger fans who watched Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline and Mickey Lolich to the Tiger fans watching Armando Galarraga last night – matters even more.” We sometimes get carried away with analogies to history and the metaphysical significance of the game’s outcomes, but “baseball’s past is real, those mystic chords are real, and a hundred years and counting of bad calls are part of the sport’s history, part of the legacy of glories and grievances that one generation hands down to the next.”

That umpires are human and infallible, and have always been thus, is one of the charming attributes of the national pastime. Call me old school, but I like that the outcomes of games are sometimes determined by a bad call and not by a video machine. It is not always fair, but then life is not fair, and the lessons learned from baseball’s little injustices are often worth the pain and despair. It is not fair that Galarraga will not get credit for a perfect game. But what happened is far more memorable and extraordinary, something that will be talked about for a long time to come.

Best of all, Joyce’s blunder on Wednesday night brought out the best in those most impacted by its unfairness. And it allowed Joe Posnanski, a nationally acclaimed sportswriter, to pen these words:

Galarraga pitched a perfect game on Wednesday night in Detroit. I’ll always believe that. I think most baseball fans will always believe that. But, more than anything it seems that Galarraga will always believe it. The way he handled himself after the game, well, that was something better than perfection. Dallas Braden’s perfect game [earlier this season] was thrilling. Roy Halladay’s perfect game was art. But Armando Galarraga’s perfect game was a lesson in grace.

And when my young daughters ask, “Why didn’t he get mad and scream about how he was robbed,” I think I will tell them this: I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s because Armando Galarraga understands something that is very hard to understand, something we all struggle with, something I hope you learn as you grow older: In the end, nobody’s perfect. We just do the best we can.

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