Occasionally there are moments in baseball that rise above the game itself. Moments that remind us of the struggles and beauty of life.
Last week Armando Galarraga, pitching for the Detroit Tigers, threw the 21st perfect game in MLB history, and amazingly the third of this young season. Roy Halladay, who recently joined the Phillies after terrorizing American League hitters for more than a decade, threw his about ten days ago. Before him was Dallas Braden who threw one for the Athletics fittingly on Mother’s Day. In attendance was his grandmother who’d raised him since his mother died when he was a teenager.
Perfect games are extremely rare. Consider, there have only been twenty. Over 2,400 games are played every season between the thirty clubs, and there have only been twenty perfectos in 120 years.
In case you’re unfamiliar, a perfect game is when the opposing batters don’t reach base: no hits, no walks, no errors, no hit batsmen, no runners reaching base on dropped third strikes. That, by the way, is one of the strangest rules in baseball. If the pitcher strikes you out and the ball gets away from the catcher—usually an offspeed pitch in the dirt like a curveball or split-finger—you as the batter can run to first base. The catcher has to retrieve the wild pitch and try to throw you out at first. Weird rule. Like something Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) would make up.
Perfect games are indeed rare, and there have only been 20, sadly not 21. Galarraga, whom I remember seeing as Mud Hen when I charted games at Fifth Third Field, didn’t pitch the 21st perfect game. Simply the 28th one-hitter in Tigers history. His game was nearly perfect, tarnished with two outs in the ninth inning by a blown call by first base umpire Jim Joyce, who was prior heralded as a fantastic umpire. Galarraga received first basemen Miguel Cabrera’s toss then clearly stepped on the bag ahead of the runner. Replays were obvious. The call wasn’t that close. Joyce flat missed it.
If you didn’t see the game, watch every out, including four in the 9th. Warning: it’s like watching a movie that ends badly. You know it’s coming but can’t look away.
Having been fully convinced at the time his call was right, Joyce later saw the replay and admitted immediately he’d gotten it wrong, profusely apologizing to Galarraga for what would be his ill-famed role in history. In owning his mistake, Joyce said to the media,
This is a history call, and I kicked the s— out of it. And there’s nobody that feels worse than I do.
Many would claim that Galarraga was robbed, but on the contrary, I think baseball was given a gift. (Like the Corvette GM awarded him.) Instead of a perfect game, baseball was given a moment of grace to be shared by all fans everywhere.
After the blown call, Galarraga retired the 28th batter easily. Fans—and sadly even Tigers players—berated Joyce. But Galarraga was not so embittered.
The following day held a moment no would could have scripted and one rarely seen in the world of sports. Before the next game Galarraga met Joyce and the other umpires at home plate to give him that game’s lineup card. Joyce futilely fought to control his tears while Galarraga smiled consolingly. (Watch the video here, clicking on “Galarraga, Joyce at the Plate.”)
Armando Galarraga will likely never sniff a perfect game again. He isn’t the caliber pitcher Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson was. But when the man who could justifiably respond with rancor opts to extend grace, he becomes greater than any who could set down 27 in a row. When we offer grace instead of retribution, we most resemble Jesus in his perfection.
For another perspective check out Donald Miller’s blog post.