Baseball’s transcendent moment

Even if you don’t follow baseball, you may have heard this story.

On June 2, Detroit Tigers journeyman pitcher Armando Galarraga – whose 21-18 career record is hardly spectacular – was one out away from the rarest of baseball achievements:  the so-called “perfect game.”  Twenty-seven up, and 27 down. It has been done only 20 times in baseball history.

Galarraga had retired 26 hitters, when the Cleveland Indians’ Jason Donald stood in. Donald sliced a hit to the right side that forced first baseman Miguel Cabrera to field the ball. Cabrera threw the ball to Galarraga, who ran to cover first. Everyone in the park knew Donald was out by a half-step.

Everyone except umpire, Jim Joyce. Joyce called him safe. The blown call ended Galarraga’s bid for the 21st perfect game in baseball history.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland leapt out of the dugout to protest, but – as all baseball fans know – the gesture was nothing but theatre.  The only thing rarer than a perfect game is a reversed call. Jason Donald remained on first.

Galarraga composed himself and disposed of the next batter. Twenty-eight up, and 27 down. Galarraga ended up one out shy of the history books.

In the 24 hours following that blown call, there was much second-guessing.

Should baseball commissioner Bud Selig overturn the call? He said he would not. Should there be instant replays in baseball, as there are in football? 
Purists – or perhaps just those who understand baseball – say no.  Why?  Because it diminishes the human element in this, the most human of sports. Baseball – unlike football and basketball – is played by men who look like the rest of us. They are not seven feet tall. They do not weigh 300 pounds. 

Part of the myth of baseball is that an ordinary man, if he works hard enough, if he has enough heart, if he studies the game deeply, can play the game as well as the man with extraordinary natural gifts, as well as any man alive, perhaps as well as any man who has ever lived. The grand-slam home run. The “perfect game.”  These are achievements that – while limited and fleeting – cannot be improved upon. And when the umpire yells “Play Ball,” the possibility of that perfection is within the reach of all 18 men on the field, and they all know it. Will a million things have to go right to achieve that moment of transcendence? Of course, but one in a million times, they all do, and for that bright and shining moment, baseball provides us with a glimpse of the good, the beautiful, and the true, unlike anything seen in any other sports. 

But there are other moments in which we can glimpse that transcendence, and in the 24 hours following Jim Joyce’s blown call, we got to see not just one, but several of them, and they were moments the inhuman 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 and thankfully (and truthfully) that this was the best game he had pitched in his career. No blame. No recriminations. Just character and grace.

We saw one from umpire Jim Joyce, too. He watched a replay immediately after the game and quickly admitted he had blown the call.  No excuses. He immediately, emotionally, and publicly apologized to Galarraga. Again, character and grace.
The next day came perhaps the best moment of all:  umpire Joyce was scheduled to be behind the plate. It is the duty of each team to bring the starting line-up out to the home plate umpire. Usually, the manager or a coach – perhaps the team captain – performs this duty. On this day, Galarraga himself emerged from the Tigers dugout.  He shook hands with Joyce, who was so choked up he could not speak. With head bowed, Joyce accepted the line-up card, and with lip trembling gently touched Galarraga on the arm. There were a few boos from the watching crowd, but there were also a lot of cheers.

It was a very human moment. A very baseball moment.


As for Gallaraga’s bid for the history books: don’t despair. After all, how many of the 20 pitchers who have pitched perfect games can you name?  There’s Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, the only perfect game ever pitched in World Series play.  And – for a while – a few folk might be able to tell you the names of the pitchers who have made 2010 the only season in history to produce two perfect games.

Their names will soon fade, though, as have all the others.  But the story of Gallaraga and Joyce will, I predict, be told as long as the game is played, perhaps even as long as we, imperfect human beings, strive for and occasionally achieve moments of transcendence.

And that’s why I love baseball.

Warren Cole Smith is the associate publisher of WORLD Magazine.

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