The Imperfect Game

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The Lesson of Jim Joyce. June 2, 2010.

There was something beautiful lost in the Jim Joyce fiasco, something that I hope I remember for as long as I remember the blown call. Yes, it’s hard to think about beautiful things when you have just watched one of the most absurd injustices in the history of baseball. But I’m a father of two young kids. And fathers find themselves looking for lessons. And there was something beautiful in the Jim Joyce fiasco.

Of course, that’s not what I was thinking about at all when I watched the play… and watched it, and watched it, and watched it again. The question that echoed in my mind time after time: What was happening in Jim Joyce’s mind in that instant, that awful instant, when he both wrecked baseball history and made it? He seemed to be in position. He seemed to be looking hard at the play. He had trained hard to make calls like this, and he has made calls like this thousands of times, the vast majority of them right. Look for the ball. Observe the base. Listen for the sounds. Jim Joyce has been umpiring major league baseball games for almost 25 years. This was all second nature to him, like heights to a telephone repair person, like turbulence to a pilot.

So what happened in his mind in that instant… when Jason Donald squibbed a ground ball off the end of his bat, when first baseman Miguel Cabrera went to his right to field the ball, when Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga raced for the bag, when a crowd of Detroit baseball fans reached into their pockets to make sure they still had the ticket stub, the ticket stub they planned to put in a frame when they got home. This, after all, was the 27th out of a perfect game. The bizarre rash of perfect games may temporarily reduce our wonder — three perfectos in a month? — but, yeah, this was going to be the first perfect game in the 110-year history of Detroit Tigers’ baseball. This was going to the greatest individual baseball moment in the life of a 28-year-old pitcher from Venezuela named Armando Galarraga. This was going to be an “I remember EXACTLY where I was” moment for hundreds of thousands of people, millions even.

This was going to be one of the great moments in the umpiring life of Jim Joyce. He knew that — knew it early in the game. He knew that someday, after retirement, people would ask him to name his biggest moments as an umpire. And, he would talk about the playoff games, the World Series, the great players he saw play. And he would talk about the time he was the first base umpire when Armando Galarraga threw his perfect game.

So what happened? Did Jim Joyce choke? Did he blink? Did he over-think it? Did he second guess himself? What?

The play wasn’t even that close. That’s the hell of it. Twenty-six up, twenty-six down, two outs in the ninth. Everybody understood the moment. When the ball was hit, that beautiful expectation — I’m about to see history! – built up in the chest. Cabrera backhanded the ball. He turned and fired overhand to first. Galarraga caught it and felt for the bag, Donald reached for the base with his left leg.

The explosion! He was out! Perfect game! Live, full speed, Donald was out. He looked out enough that the Tigers television announcer shouted “He’s out!” He looked out enough that it seemed, for just a nanosecond, like Joyce was about to punch him out, end the game, set off the perfect game celebration. He looked out enough that when Joyce spread out his arms in the safe call, it was so unexpected that the overpowering thought, was, “Wait. Safe? What? Did Galarraga miss the bag? Did the television camera have a bad angle? Was he bobbling the ball? Did an umpire just call that guy safe with one out to go in a perfect game?”

Vin Scully, in his classic final inning call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, talked at one point about how “a lot of people in the ballpark now are starting to see the pitches with their hearts.” And so, maybe live, with a perfect game on the line, with emotions running hot, maybe that’s what happened. Maybe people were just seeing it with their hearts. Maybe Jason Donald really was safe. Maybe.

Only then, the replays came. And, in the crisp pixels of high-definition television, the story unfolded. There were no maybes left. Galarraga did not miss the bag — in slow motion he seemed to stomp on it. The ball did seem to move in Galarraga’s glove slightly, but not enough to change the action. And Jason Donald did not come close to beating the throw. Donald was out, and way out. A few headlines would label the call, “Questionable.” It was not questionable. It was wrong. There was no mystery. There was no haze. There was no second opinion. There was no doubt.

There was only the harsh of reality: Jason Donald was out but he was not out. Galarraga had thrown a perfect game that would never be recorded. Jim Joyce had just made the call that would splatter his Wikipedia page and mark his baseball legacy forever. Twitter was about to light up like the Vegas strip at dusk.

“The imperfect man pitched the perfect game,” Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News wrote the day Don Larsen threw his World Series perfect game.

“The imperfect ump glitched the perfect game,” sportswriters and bloggers everywhere wrote on Wednesday night, or something like it, as everyone tried to get their heads around what had just happened. Within minutes of the game ending, the “We need replay in baseball” stories began to appear. A few minutes later, people wanted Bud Selig to descend from the heavens and overturn the call… maybe fix a few other missed calls and baseball injustices while he’s at it. Before long, people undoubtedly would demand that scientists begin working hard on time machines so we could go back to that instant before Jim Joyce called a runner safe. Well, as Scully said, people will see things with their hearts.

So what happened in Jim Joyce’s mind in that instant? “I cost that kid a perfect game,” he would say afterward, in anguish. He would tell my friend Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press that he was “very aware” of what was going on in the game. He repeated that two-word phrase, “very aware.” We can never know what happens in another person’s mind, but it seems fair to guess that Jim Joyce understood the magnitude of his call before he ever made it. And he allowed the moment to swallow him whole. He lost touch with his instincts. Maybe there was something awkward about the way Galarraga caught the ball, reached for the bag, something that threw Joyce. Maybe he tried too hard to see something that wasn’t there. Whatever, he thought Donald beat the throw and as a major league umpire he could not call him out, give a pitcher an undeserved perfect game. So he called the batter safe. When he saw the replay, he realized that he had not protected baseball history, he had blocked it. And his heart fell into his shoes.

Of course, as a baseball fan, I will never forget Joyce’s blown call — just as baseball fans will never forget Don Denkinger’s missed call during the 1985 World Series. I have spoken at length with Don about that missed call — sat with him at his home in Arizona and listened to him relive the pain of being wrong, the fury of people who called his home and threatened him, the sadness of having a long and successful baseball career defined by one mistake made in the heat of the moment when America was watching. “The call,” he told me, “never quite goes away.” So it goes for Jim Joyce and a safe call that should have been out.

But… that something beautiful. I don’t want to forget it. As soon as Joyce made the call, the camera cut to Galarraga. And he smiled. That’s all. No argument. No theater. No wild waving of arms. No, he just smiled, a smile that seemed to say: “Are you sure? I really hope you are sure.” Nothing has ever come easily for Armando Galarraga. He signed with the Montreal Expos when he was 16 years old. He did not get out of rookie ball until he was 21. Texas got him as a throw-in when they traded Alfonso Soriano to Washington. He made one start for the Rangers and did not get out of the fifth inning. He was traded to Detroit for a minor leaguer named Michael Hernandez.

Then, he pitched well — finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting. His strength was his calm; he did not seem to get flustered, did not seem to let little things trouble him. Of course, you never know what bubbles underneath. He struggled terribly his second full season. But, even so, there always seemed something substantial about Armando Galarraga.

And in that moment when he had a perfect game so unfairly taken away from him, he smiled. In the interview after the game, he simply said that he wasn’t sure about the call but he was proud of his game. When told afterward that Joyce felt terrible about the missed call, Galarraga said that he wanted to go tell Joyce not to worry about it, that people make mistakes.

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 was thrilling. Roy Halladay’s perfect game was art. But Armando’s 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 will learn as you grow older: In the end, nobody’s perfect. We just do the best we can.

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