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The Tigers' Armando Galarraga had retired 26 straight batters. Then Cleveland's Jason Donald hit a grounder to first-baseman Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera tossed to Galarraga, who beat Donald in a routine race to the bag. Galarraga raised his arms in triumph. The young pitcher had just thrown only the 21st perfect game in Major League history and first ever perfecto in 100-plus years of Detroit Tigers' baseball.
That's what Galarraga thought, anyway. Umpire Jim Joyce? Not so much. He called Donald safe, touching off a firestorm that will change the sport. Probably soon. Joyce's stupendously bad call feels like a tipping point, as though baseball will at last implement a comprehensive instant replay.
The best we can hope for is a system that keeps the home-plate umpire in charge of balls and strikes, and only uses a replay official to overrule obviously bad calls on the field. Sort of like the system in college football. The worst scenario would be something like the NFL's use of limited challenges—as though the idea were to get only some of the calls right. Besides, do we need to see Bobby Cox and Joe Torre tossing those little red "challenge flag" beanbags? Worse, can you imagine if Detroit manager Jim Leyland had already used all his challenges by the 9th inning and had no way to overturn Joyce's call? He'd probably get fired.
The best solution would be nothing changes. This may be an unpopular opinion around the Galarraga house, but Joyce's catastrophically blown call is the most interesting thing to happen in baseball so far this year. Whatever your reaction to it, and your opinion on what the game's reaction should be, says loads about who you are as a sports fan.
One of the remarkable things about baseball is how enmeshed umpires are in the game. In most sports, referees mainly serve to stop the action, usually when someone messes up. In baseball, officials drive the game. There is no such thing as a strike or a ball until an umpire calls it so. Which brings us to the Zen koan of the Galarraga saga: Was the runner out? The ball beat him to the bag, clearly. Or was he safe because that's how the umpire called it?
One of the reasons that people watch sports is because the games are metaphors societies use to exemplify whatever values they happen to find important. An ancient spectator at the Roman Coliseum, for instance, likely valued dying bravely much more than your average 21st century baseball fan does. Fans sympathize with Galarraga because we value the huge skill and dedication it takes to even reach the big leagues, let alone to throw 26 consecutive outs in a big league game. But there were other values exemplified last night, values beyond the skill of a pitcher and his team.
After the replays showed what happened, Joyce apologized profusely for the blown call. He was clearly shaken. Galarraga, to his enormous credit, forgave Joyce and couldn't have been more gracious in doing so. The men at the eye of the storm stayed calm, comporting themselves with nothing but dignity and mutual respect. That show of sportsmanship was possible only because baseball (for the moment) is officiated by human beings, and those darn humans have an awful habit of being imperfect.
In baseball, you can do everything right and still have it all go wrong because of somebody else's mistake. Kind of like life. A truly gentlemanly reaction like Galarraga's shows how baseball, with all its human foibles in place, can teach us to take life's little disasters with equanimity and grace. So, in a way, Galarraga threw a perfect game after all.