Even if you don't follow baseball, you may have heard the story.
On Wednesday, Detroit Tigers journeyman pitcher Armando Galarraga---whose 21-18 career record is hardly spectacular---was one out away from that rarest of baseball achievements: the so-called "perfect game." Twenty-seven batters up and 27 down. It has been done only 20 times in major league baseball history.
Galarraga had retired 26 batters when the Cleveland Indians' Jason Donald stepped into the batter's box. Donald then sliced a grounder to the right side of the infield, forcing first baseman Miguel Cabrera to field the ball. Cabrera threw the ball to Galarraga, who ran over to cover first. Everyone in the ballpark knew Donald was out by a half step.
Everyone except umpire Jim Joyce. Joyce called Donald safe. The blown call ended Galarraga's bid for major league baseball's 21st perfect game.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland leapt out of the dugout to protest, but---as all baseball fans know---the gesture was nothing more than theater: The only thing rarer than a perfect game is a reversed call. Jason Donald remained on first. Galarraga composed himself and disposed of the next batter. Twenty-eight up, 27 down. Galarraga ended up one out shy of the record book.
In the 24 hours following that blown call, there has been much second-guessing. Should baseball commissioner Bud Selig overturn the umpire's call? He said he would not. Should there be instant replays employed in baseball, as there are in football?
Purists---or perhaps just those who understand baseball---say no. Why? Because it diminishes the human element in this most human of sports. Baseball---unlike football and basketball---is played by men who look like the rest of us. They are not 7 feet tall. They do not weigh 300 pounds.
Part of the myth of baseball is that an ordinary man, if he works hard enough, if he has enough heart, if he studies the game deeply, can play the game as well as the man with extraordinary natural gifts, as well as any man alive, perhaps as well as any man who has ever lived. The grand slam home run. The perfect game. These are achievements that---while limited and fleeting---cannot be improved upon. And when the umpire yells, "Play Ball," the possibility of that perfection is within reach of all 18 men on the field, and they all know it. Will a million things have to go right to achieve that moment of transcendence? Of course, but one in a million times, they all do go right, and for that bright and shining moment baseball provides us with a glimpse of the good, the beautiful, and the true unlike anything seen in other sports.
But there are other moments in which we can glimpse that transcendence, and in the 24 hours following Jim Joyce's blown call, we got to see not just one but several of them, and they were moments the inhuman precision of the instant replay camera would have stolen from us. The first one came immediately after the game, when Galarraga celebrated his team's win, brushing aside questions about the blown call by observing humbly and thankfully (and truthfully) that this was the best game he had pitched in his career. No blame. No recriminations. Just character and grace.
We saw one from umpire Jim Joyce, too. He watched a replay immediately after the game and quickly admitted he had blown the call. No excuses. He immediately, emotionally, and publicly apologized to Galarraga. Again: character and grace.
The next day came perhaps the best moment of all: Joyce was scheduled to be the umpire behind the plate. It is the duty of each team to bring the starting lineup out to the home plate umpire. Usually the manager or a coach or the team captain performs the duty. On this day, Galarraga himself emerged from the Detroit dugout. He shook hands with Joyce, who was so choked up he could not speak. With head bowed, Joyce accepted the lineup card. And with his lip trembling, he gently touched Galarraga on the arm. There were a few boos from the watching crowd, but there were also a lot of cheers.
It was a very human moment. A very baseball moment.
As for Galarraga's bid for the record book, don't despair. After all, how many of the 20 pitchers who have pitched perfect games can you name? There's Don Larsen's in the 1956 World Series, the only perfect game ever pitched in World Series play. And---for a while---a few folk might be able to tell you the names of the pitchers who have made 2010 the only season in history to produce two perfect games.
Their names will soon fade, though, as have all the others. But the story of Galarraga and Joyce will, I predict, be told as long as the game is played, perhaps even as long as we imperfect human beings strive for and occasionally achieve moments of transcendence.
And that's why I love baseball.