Published February 23, 2017
There hasn’t been a big league umpire yet—and we’re talking almost 150 years of organized ball—who’s ever been remembered by the great calls that he’s made.
From the deadball days of Bill Klem to Joe West, there isn’t a baseball arbiter who wears an iconic, praised safe/out call proudly on his sleeve.
No one has ever said to his kid, “Little Johnny, there goes so-and-so. Boy, did he make a great call in the 1955 World Series! Right on the mark, he was!”
But we know Don Denkinger.
Denkinger lived out every big league ump’s worst nightmare in the 1985 World Series, becoming known for botching a call at first base that enabled the Kansas City Royals to steal Game 6 and stay alive in the series. The Royals won the series the next night.
Mention Denkinger to any St. Louis Cardinals fan today and see what happens.
The third sentence of Denkinger’s Wikipedia page reads, “He is best remembered for an incorrect call he made at first base in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series.”
Yes, every umpire’s worst nightmare.
In Detroit, Jim Joyce’s name is mud. And, as with Denkinger, that’s a shame, because both men were longtime, well-respected umpires by their brethren, players and managers alike.
Joyce, of course, blew the call at first base that robbed Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game on June 2, 2010.
To millions of Tigers fans, it’s their Kennedy assassination. They know where they were and what they were doing when Joyce called the Indians’ Jason Donald safe when Donald was clearly out. The play would have been the 27th and final out of Galarraga’s gem.
Joyce, as I wrote the next day, picked a terrible time to be human.
Yet Joyce was steadfast immediately after making the call, as any good umpire should be. The ump was resolute; Donald was out, by God! And Joyce wasn’t conciliatory when Tigers manager Jim Leyland flew out of the dugout to join Miguel Cabrera in arguing the determination.
Joyce went nose-to-nose with Leyland, vehemently defending his call.
Of course, as soon as Joyce saw the replay of the call after the game, reality set in and his tone changed dramatically. He couldn’t be consoled.
“I kicked the bleep out of that call,” Joyce said afterward, his voice pained with emotion. “I took a perfect game away from that kid.”
Indeed he did.
The patching up between Joyce and Galarraga is almost as legendary as the call itself. The two men even collaborated on a book about that fateful night.
But it was too late, because Jim Joyce forever went down as the guy who took a perfect game away from Armando Galarraga.
Replay challenges came into MLB too late to save Joyce and Galarraga.
Again, a shame.
But it’s part of the deal when you go into umpiring.
As one of them said, “You’re expected to be perfect on Opening Day, then get better as the season goes on.”
Joyce made tens of thousands of calls in his umpiring career. Probably well over 90 percent of them could have been proven to be correct if you consulted video replay. You don’t umpire in the big leagues for 30 years, as Joyce did, by being incompetent.
But he will unquestionably be remembered for the call he made on June 2, 2010, rightly or wrongly.
Timing, they say, is everything.
The Galarraga call, had it come in, say, the third inning, would have been easier for everyone to stomach, including Joyce himself.
But with two outs in the ninth inning?
Joyce has announced his retirement. He will join John Hirschbeck, Tim Welke (a Pontiac native) and Bob Davidson in retiring from the MLB’s umpire staff this spring.
Joyce will wear the Galarraga call for the rest of his life, and it will follow him to the grave and beyond.
Again, a shame. But that’s the life of any game official in pro sports, where the stakes are the highest.
Now, unlike Denkinger’s call that aided the Royals in the World Series, Jim Joyce’s boo-boo was in the regular season and it didn’t cost the Tigers the game. But it cost a young, otherwise mediocre pitcher his place in history.
Some have said that because of the circumstances, Armando Galarraga has maybe more notoriety for not tossing an official perfect game than those who have.
That might have been true in the immediate aftermath. And Galarraga handled it with immense class. But you can’t tell me that he wouldn’t rather have an honest to goodness perfect game on his permanent record, instead of being known as the kid who was cheated out of one.
Galarraga will live with it, too, until he bids this life farewell.
But Joyce’s role as villain will ring louder and hurt more.
Jim Joyce was a fine umpire. Ask anyone in the game.
Yet he will be forever linked to the Galarraga botched call. Just as Don Denkinger is to his miscue in the 1985 World Series.
You say you want the “human element” to stay in the game? Fine.
That element comes with two edges, you know.