Jim Joyce picked the worst possible time to be human.
Don Denkinger, move over—we’re seating a second at your table.
Armando Galarraga lost a perfect game but gained the respect of the entire country. Hell, the world.
At the precise moment when most mortal men would have collapsed or thrown a temper tantrum, Galarraga stood holding what should have been a baseball headed for the Hall of Fame this morning and smiled.
Joyce, the first base umpire in last night’s Tigers game that now has its eternal place in history, made a call that he probably nails 99,999 times out of a 100 grand.
This was the 100,000th.
It’s tragedy of the highest order when the sole individual charged with getting a call of the highest magnitude right, is also the last one to find out that he blew it.
It’s cruel irony, too. Shakespeare couldn’t have thought this one up.
Joyce took what was, in his words, “the biggest call of my career” (22 years), and again in his words, “kicked the **** out of it.”
Joyce called Jason Donald of the Cleveland Indians, the 27th batter of a bourgeoning perfect game, safe at first base on one of those “bang-bang” plays on which video replays, by far, vindicate the umpires.
Except this time.
It was a bang-bang play that went BOOM! in Joyce’s face.
We learned some things last night.
One is, the only thing that is more newsworthy than a perfect game is a perfect game denied.
The shame of what Joyce did last night is that it was, for an umpire, a relatively routine play. You see that first baseman-to-the-pitcher play inumerable times on any given day throughout MLB.
If the call in question had been a flare to the outfield, and the decision at hand was whether the fielder caught or trapped the ball, that’d be one thing.
But Joyce, as he said so well, kicked the **** out of a routine call. At the doorstep of history.
The aforementioned Denkinger, in case you forgot or are too young to know, blew a similarly routine call at first base in Game Six of the 1985 World Series. Denkinger called Kansas City’s Jorge Orta safe when Orta was clearly out, triggering a ninth inning rally that enabled the Royals to overtake the St. Louis Cardinals and live to play a Game Seven, which the Royals won.
Yes, Denkinger’s gaffe came in the World Series, and Joyce’s blunder occured in a game played on June 2nd.
But perfect games happen, by average, once every five years in major league history—this season being an anomaly. Galarraga’s gem would have been the third perfecto twirled in 23 days, which is mind-boggling.
So Don Denkinger and Jim Joyce now sit at the same table.
Both were well-vested, respected umpires at the time of their brain freeze. They are the Bill Buckners of umpiring.
Joyce, like Denkinger, now has to work the rest of his career with Armando Galarraga grafted onto his hip, and King Kong on his back.
There’s not much to be happy about this morning if you’re a Tigers fan, or a fan of justice for that matter.
But there’s this.
At least Jim Joyce didn’t hide. At least he didn’t take the attitude too often chosen by his brethren—that smarmy, arrogant “he’s safe because I said so!” thing.
Hey, at least he talked to reporters.
And he apologized to Galarraga afterward, who said the umpire had “watery eyes” when he did so.
You think umpires apologize to players everyday?
This is a play, in Detroit, that we’ll look at for years and cringe every time. It joins the Larry Bird steal of Isiah Thomas’s pass in Detroit sports history—a play that even today, some 23 years later, I hope turns out differently when I see it.
They’ll queue up the tape of last night’s play and run it, and a tiny piece of us will hope that Jim Joyce, this time, gets the call right. For years.
I still watch Buckner in the 1986 World Series and hope that he fields the ball cleanly.
It’s irrational. But that’s how it goes with these kinds of things in sports.
Galarraga stood as tall as a Redwood last night.
There was the smile after Joyce made the call. There was the calm, casual manner in which he handled post-game interviews. There was the acknowledgement that we’re all human. There was nothing but grace and class, at a time when no one would have faulted him for being too broken up to speak.
“He never said a word to me,” Joyce said of Galarraga, and you can bet he said it with awe and respect.
Can you imagine if Joyce had done that to Jack Morris? Or Bob Gibson? Or Don Drysdale?
They’d be preparing a funeral and calling in prosecutors this morning.
Yet this is also the beauty of baseball, in a horrific way.
When Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, a famous lead in the papers the next day read, “The imperfect man pitched a perfect game yesterday.”
Galarraga was in the minor leagues less than a month ago. He was less-than-spectacular in his last start, nearly two weeks ago. Yet after seven innings last night, he had thrown 64 pitches, only 14 of which were balls.
Fourteen balls in seven innings? Are you kidding me?
Another thing we learned last night is that a guy can channel Willie Mays and it gets forgotten about in a matter of minutes.
Austin Jackson made the play that we SHOULD be talking about today, and until time ends.
Cleveland’s Mark Grudzielanek shot a rocket out to deep left center to lead off the ninth inning. Correction: he hit the ball to Highland Park.
Yet Jackson ran it down. He ran and ran and ran, fully aware of the impact if the baseball touched the grass. The ball was in the air longer than Magic Johnson’s TV show was on it.
Jackson wouldn’t be denied. He made the catch, his back to the diamond, a la Mays in the 1954 World Series against Vic Wertz—of the Indians, by the way.
Fox Sports Detroit’s Mario Impemba got as excited as I’ve ever heard him, calling Jackson’s perfect game-saving (for the moment) catch.
“He….MAAAKES the CATCH!!!” Impemba screamed. You could hardly blame him.
Jackson saved the baby from the burning building, only to hand it off to a fireman, who promptly dropped the infant on his head, killing him instantly.
Jackson made the play of his life. He won’t make a better one, and he’s just a rookie. I don’t know if there’s another player alive who could make that play.
Too bad it just got buried in the Jim Joyce avalanche.
The catcalls are out now for instant replay in baseball, beyond its current use for home runs. Jason Stark of ESPN.com, who I respect, is calling for an NFL-like system whereby managers would each get one challenge per game.
What’s less reasonable is the call for Commissioner Bud Selig to be heard, specifically that he should utilize some sort of power that I’m not even sure that he has, and reverse Joyce’s call.
So what do you do with the at-bat of Trevor Crowe, the next hitter after Donald? Erase it?
Reversing Joyce’s call is Adam’s apple; it’s tempting, but shouldn’t be consumed.
MLB would be making a colossal mistake if they did that. It would be Pandora’s Box times a million.
Where would it end? How could you justify reversing Call A but not Call B?
Besides, Galarraga and his teammates, to a man, know that he threw a perfect game. It won’t go down in history as one, but the kid did it.
I tell you, it’s a hell of a story for him to tell someday, isn’t it?