Baseball has rarely, if ever, given us much certainty. In spite of our beliefs, we feast on baseball with a hope that between the lines something certain, something tangible will take place before our very eyes. Amidst work stoppages and steroid controversies, we do this now with more uncertainty than ever. Should this player be allowed into the Hall of Fame, should that record hold true – these are constant questions with which we grapple, and they shake us down to our subconscious. The rule of this age, to quote Heywood Broun, is “Do anything you can get away with.”
And rarely anymore, ever so rarely does baseball dazzle us with its great lessons: what we derived from Gehrig’s farewell speech, from the knowing glint in Robinson’s smile, or from the shuffle of tiny cleats after a tough loss. Amidst the discussion of umpires who let us down, or of owners who take aim at our wallets, we have lost something very dear. What baseball gives us now is married to the price of a ticket and the power of instant replay, and so the way we grew up with it might seem like an awfully distant place.
It took a painful night in Detroit to take us back to that place, if only for a moment.
Contrary to what even the most ardent Tigers fan might tell you, there was no clear villain. On this night, steeped in the tragedy of an irreversible mistake, baseball’s capacity for heroism emerged. On this night, there were only heroes.
There was Austin Jackson – not Curtis Granderson – who quietly captured the imagination of the Motor City. His robbery of Mark Grudzielanek preserved the perfecto for just one more out, and was thrilling as could be. Is it is fitting to say that Jackson’s over-the-shoulder, Wertz-to-Mays-esque catch was the save of the season? You bet.
There was Jim Leyland, one of the more respected managers around. Leyland’s affinity for burning one down at the ballpark is kind of like his reputation on the whole. He’s a throwback, and he showed it to excellence on the night of Galaragga’s bid for perfection. First he defended his pitcher to the whole crew of umps, giving fans a little bit of satisfaction on the way out. Then he acclaimed Joyce as one of the best, lamenting that the mistake had to come at his hands. The following day, he trotted out his ace to hand Joyce the lineup card. “This is a chance for the city of Detroit to shine,” he said.
Then there was Galarraga. You know the story – he was perfect. More than that, he gave us the chance to believe that he was. He made us feel the inevitable, smiling evenly when Jackson recovered that long fly ball, while not a one of us stayed in our seats. He split our hearts in two when, after the infamous call, he smiled at Joyce and toed the rubber once more. We all cried out in shock. He stood for an interview after the game, and we awaited a rebuttal. We found none. Galarraga just smiled again and tranquilly pronounced, “Nobody’s perfect.” Says you, Armando.
With a only one out on the line, Galarraga was not the one who stood to lose the most. The actor who did not perform as he should have, the Shakespearean figure of Jim Joyce, suffered the deepest tragedy. Despite the scrutiny umpires have suffered of late, Joyce was regarded as one of the best umpires in the game – then he booted a big one. As umpires go, he was Bill Buckner.
In sports, forgiveness makes for a terrific story, but it’s rarely this neat. When he handed him the lineup card the following day, Galarraga clapped the fallen ump on the back and said, “Don’t worry about it.” But Joyce’s words of apology are just as compelling because they have accountability: “I just cost the kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw until I saw the replay. It was the biggest call of my career.” After more than two decades of exceptional service, one professional refused to put himself above the game. Imagine that.
By now, fans and agnostics the world over know the perfect game that was snuffed out in a blunder. The same folks must understand what it is actually significant, and it’s not a Corvette, not crying “foul,” not instant replay, not whether Bud Selig gives the young man his official credit. Armando Galarraga’s perfect game may not be the sport’s twenty-first such feat. It may not even merit anything etched or carved or gilded. But it will be enshrined as a moment, and one of those of which we can be utterly proud, when a few heroes showed us everything that baseball can be. All on its own, there is something certain.