In Praise of an Imperfect Umpire
I’ve become a fan of Jim Joyce.
He’s the major league umpire who blew the call Wednesday on what would have been the final out of the perfect game that Armando Galarraga was pitching for the Detroit Tigers against the Cleveland Indians.
Like a lot of baseball fans, I was watching the game at the time, and, no question, Joyce blew the call. First baseman Miguel Cabrera went far to his right to snag the grounder hit by Indians shortstop Jason Donald and threw to Galarraga covering first. As replays showed from every angle, the ball was in Galarraga’s mitt while Donald was still half a step from the bag.
But Joyce called him safe. So much for what would have been only the 21st perfect game in baseball history.
I’m not in Joyce’s corner because he made an error. I’m in his corner because I make errors all the time, just not in front of, ultimately, the entire baseball universe. I feel a kinship with him.
And, if you think about it, you and I are a lot more like Joyce than we’re like Galarraga or the two pitchers who threw perfect games earlier this season, Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden. After all, how often is any of us perfect?
It’s odd, but no one seems to know exactly how many games have been played during the history of Major League Baseball. Estimates range from 193,000 to more than 350,000.
Let’s say the lowest number, 193,000, is correct. That means more than 386,000 starting pitchers on the home and visiting teams have had a chance to get every batter out in every inning without letting anyone on base through a hit, walk, error, passed ball, wild pitch or hit batsman — more than 386,000 opportunities to pitch a perfect game.
Yet, despite all those chances and the greatness of some of those who have taken the mound to try (such as Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn and Carl Hubbell), only 20 pitchers have been perfect. The others haven’t been.
It’s probably the same in life.
When was the last time you turned in a perfect day at work? When was the last day I had a perfect day as a husband or father? Or as a driver?
The uproar over Joyce’s error has a lot to do with the respect that baseball players and fans give to umpires. They’re expected to be perfect in a way that’s not expected of those playing the game — inhumanly perfect.
For instance, if, instead of scooping up Donald’s grounder, Cabrera had booted it, I doubt that as much acrimony would have been aimed at him as has been targeted at Joyce.
It would have been an error, listed as such in the box score. Sad, but part of the game. Cabrera would have apologized to Galarraga, and he would have felt bad. Any player would feel bad to ruin a guy’s perfect game. But people make mistakes.
It’s been clear ever since the controversial play that Joyce has felt terrible about blowing the call. What’s been achingly evident is how much he loves the game and how well he knows that his mistake tainted what would have been a golden baseball moment.
What’s also been evident has been Joyce’s character. From the moment the play was completed and fans were booing and Tiger manager Jim Leyland was in his face, Joyce has been steadfast and honorable.
Rather than trying to duck controversy after the game, he looked at the replays, recognized his error and admitted it — and he has faced a deluge of criticism with composure and courage.
On Thursday, he was back on the field at Comerica Park for another Tigers-Indians game, with tears in his eyes, facing the boos of Detroit fans and umpiring behind the plate.
For the pregame meeting at home plate, Leyland sent Galarraga with the Tigers lineup card for the day, and, there, in the awkward way of men, the pitcher and the umpire consoled each other.
A gracious Galarraga gave Joyce a soft pat on the back. Joyce responded with a brotherly slap to Galarraga’s shoulder.
Jim Joyce has shown grace under pressure.
You could complain that he brought all this on himself. But that doesn’t matter, really.
At this terrible moment in his baseball life, Joyce has been steadfast — and deeply human.
I have come to admire him a great deal. I only hope that, when next I make a mistake, I can be as strong and gallant.
Patrick T. Reardon, the author of three books, contributed a chapter to the 2004 book “Diamond Presence: Twelve Stories of Finding God at the Old Ball Park.”