Until June 3, most of us had never heard of Armando Galarraga. But now, even if you are not a baseball fan, you probably know a part of his story: Galarraga is the 25-year old journeyman pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, who came within one out of accomplishing that rarest of baseball achievements, the so-called “perfect game.”
Galarraga’s career record (21-18) was underwhelming to say the least. But he came oh-so-close to doing what had been done twice during the current season and only 20 times in the 141-year history of Major League baseball.
In this midweek game, not one of the previous batters had reached first base. That’s when the 27th batter, Cleveland Indians’ infielder Jason Donald, stepped into the batter’s box. He proceeded to slice a grounder to the right side of the infield. This forced the first baseman to field the ball, throwing it to Galarraga, who was running to cover first. The Tigers and their fans started celebrating. Everyone knew Donald was out by a half step. Game over.
Everyone, that is, except umpire Jim Joyce. Joyce, inexplicably to most, called Donald safe. The first-base umpire blew the call, ending Galarraga’s bid for Major League baseball’s 21st perfect game.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland leapt out of the dugout to protest loudly, and many of the fans vainly booed the call. Such protests are mostly theater because the only thing rarer than a perfect game is a reversed call. Donald remained on first. Galarraga composed himself and disposed of the next batter. Twenty-eight up, 27 down. Galarraga ended up one out shy of the record book.
There has been a lot of second-guessing following that blown call. Should baseball commissioner Bud Selig overturn the umpire’s call? No. He said he would not.
Should baseball now implement instant replays as there are in football? Many who understand baseball at its core say no. Why? Because it diminishes the human element in this most human of sports.
Sadly, emotions stretched way beyond the lines of propriety. Galarraga and Joyce became hot topics on Twitter. At least one anti-Joyce Facebook page popped up, and a website was launched with the goal of terminating the services of Joyce as an umpire in the majors. There were reports of death threats against Joyce and some of his family, yet another example of the erosion of civil discourse in this country, even at her highest levels.
Happily there is another story to tell. Despite their rarity in professional sports, every now and again, there is a bright and shining moment that provides us with a fleeting glimpse of the all-too-rare goodness.
In the time since Joyce’s blown call, we were able to see, not just one, but several moments that the less-than-human precision of the instant replay camera would have stolen from us.
The first one came immediately after the game, when Galarraga celebrated his team’s win, brushing aside questions about the blown call by observing humbly, thankfully and truthfully that this was the best game he had pitched in his career.
I know nothing about Galarraga’s family of origin, but I am guessing that while he was still very young, he started learning the importance of a healthy self-sufficiency – that sometimes just knowing you have done well becomes its own reward. No blame. No recriminations. Just character and grace.
We saw another grace moment from umpire Joyce. After he had watched a replay immediately after the game, he quickly admitted he had blown the call. No excuses. He immediately, emotionally and publicly apologized to Galarraga. Another deeply moving symbol of character and grace.
Arguably, the best moment came the next day when Joyce was scheduled to be the umpire behind the plate. Each team is responsible for bringing the starting lineup to the home plate umpire. Usually the manager, a coach or the team captain does this.
But this time Galarraga himself emerged from the Detroit dugout. He shook hands with Joyce, who was so emotional that he couldn’t speak. With his head bowed, Joyce accepted the lineup card. And with his lip clearly trembling and tears glistening in his eyes, he gently touched Galarraga on the arm. Some in the crowd booed. Many in the crowd, touched by such an act of extravagant grace and elegance, cheered heartily for both.
It was a very human moment, but it was more than that to me. It was a moment when the membrane that separates heaven from the earth grew much thinner.
John Tadlock is retired from the Virginia Baptist Mission Board staff and is currently serving as interim pastor at Orcutt Baptist Church in Newport News, Va. He also continues to coordinate the Conflict Resolution Network on contract with the VBMB.