There is much to be said for “perfection” in any human endeavor. Yet we learn at our mother’s knee that we can hardly aspire to attain that august level of conduct. We are frail humans and we make mistakes.
So it is in our lovely game of baseball. And so it is that once in a while we are reminded of the human frailty of both players and umpires. The other night in Detroit was, as it is now common to say, a “teachable moment.”
The game in Detroit was proceeding normally and, as often happens, the excitement and drama of the game slowly built as the young Detroit pitcher, Armando Galarraga, continued, inning after inning, to retire every opposing Cleveland Indians hitter.
For eight innings no one reached base. Perfection. And in baseball a “perfect game” is rare, though we have seen two this season. Galarraga was well on his way to being the third and the season is not yet half over. Then the baseball gods turned things upside down. In the ninth inning, after two were out, the 27th and final batter hit a routine ground ball to the infield and hustled toward first base. In a close play, the umpire ruled -- wrongly, according to the television replay -- the runner safe. And then all hell broke loose. But the umpire, Jim Joyce, stood by his call and the game ended when the next hitter was retired.
As soon as Joyce saw the replay in the umpires’ room after the game he knew he had made a tragic error. But right then, the wonderful side of baseball began to emerge. Joyce, a senior umpire, stood before the press and cameras and admitted his mistake. He did not find an excuse. He did not try to shift the blame. He acknowledged his bad call and said he was very sorry for the young pitcher who lost a small slice of baseball immortality.
The next day, the Detroit manager, Jim Leyland, continued to show the luminous side of baseball when he had his players stand in front of the dugout and applaud the umpires when the men in blue came onto the field. How good is that? Then Leyland had the young Mr. Galarraga carry the lineup card out to the home plate umpire, Mr. Joyce, who seemed to shed a tear at the elegance and magnanimous reactions of the Detroit team.
But it is Leyland who stands so tall. It is Leyland whom we must salute. And it is Leyland who provided the appropriate coda.
There is clamor in the press and on the sports talk shows insisting the baseball commissioner should reverse the bad call and award the perfect game to Galarraga. With respect, those people are missing the lesson being taught by Leyland and his players. The old time manager has already sent the correct message by reminding us that umpires are part of the game in which errors occur.
Hits, runs and errors. That is the line score of our games. We accept mistakes and move on to the next game. We know better than to worship perfection. For us, mere mortals, we can live and even salute the error of an umpire. Indeed, as the Detroit team and Leyland have so wonderfully demonstrated, we accept the failures of our fellow game participants because we know how professional they are and how hard they work to try to be perfect.
We who love the game also love its imperfections and failures, because we understand the importance of redeeming our failures by better performance. We may be odd to be willing to confess error and to admit mistakes. But the humanity of our effort can, as Leyland has shown, provide lessons about civility that extend beyond our little game.
We also recall the motherly admonition, “Just do better the next time.”
Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries and from 1989-92 served as the Commissioner of Baseball.
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