The Most Perfect Game: A Modern-Day Parable of Grace, Accountability and Forgiveness

The Most Perfect Game: A Modern-Day Parable of Grace, Accountability and Forgiveness

There are three things of which I am certain about Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Armando Galarraga’s one-hit shutout of the Cleveland Indians earlier this month:

1) By getting every batter he faced “out,” he actually threw not only a no-hitter, but also a perfect game.

2) Baseball Commissioner Bug Selig has no intention of validating this feat by overruling umpire Jim Joyce’s incorrect call on what should have been the game’s final play.

3) I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To be clear, I’m one of many who feel Galarraga’s extraordinary performance deserves to be formally acknowledged – only not in the manner I’d originally thought.

Like most observers, my initial reaction to Joyce’s inexplicable blunder was a cross between indignation and utter disbelief. What in heaven’s name was he thinking? How could he possibly call Jason Donald of the Indians “safe” at first base when nobody in the world – and I do mean nobody – saw it that way? Sure, it’s only a game, but in its context, something had to be done to rectify the glaring injustice that had played out before thousands of stunned Tigers faithful.

Replay after instant replay – shot from every conceivable angle – were nothing if not definitive. Donald was clearly “out,” the last of twenty-seven consecutive batters retired by Galarraga. Somewhat in a state of shock, I watched the so-called highlights over and over. And I’m glad I did, because the final image was worth far more than a thousand words.

Captured in near-poetic slow motion, was Galarraga’s response to Joyce’s unfathomable lapse in judgment. He didn’t launch an avalanche of expletives toward the man who’d just erased his place in baseball history – he simply smiled. Then, after his manager and teammates finished their (understandably) animated conversations with Joyce, he calmly retired the next hitter – the twenty-eighth and final batter he would face. Yet, remarkable as Galarraga’s demeanor was, it merely served as an appetizer for the human drama that was about to unfold.

Following the game’s chaotic finish, Joyce, one of the most highly respected and well-liked men in his profession, left the field feeling confident he’d made the correct decision. Nonetheless, given the controversy swirling around him, he immediately asked to see a replay of the call in question upon entering the umpires’ locker room. There, he discovered – during what must have felt like an out of body experience – everyone else had, indeed, been right about the play, and he was incontrovertibly wrong.

Shaken nearly to the point of inconsolability, Joyce took full responsibility for his grievous error, telling reporters, “I just cost that kid a perfect game.” He then proceeded to ask Tigers officials for permission to apologize to Galarraga, in person – a gesture that was both delivered and received with equal parts grace and humility. And if those moments didn’t make a case for renewed optimism of the human condition, the following day’s emotional, pre-game lineup exchange at home plate between Galarraga and a still teary-eyed Joyce certainly did.

Many who support the decision to uphold Joyce’s incorrect call, and thus deprive Galarraga of the 21st perfect game in more than a century of Major League Baseball, claim that an overrule, after the game had officially ended, would be, in a word, unprecedented. Paradoxically, that observation also forms the basis of the argument for retroactively legitimizing Galarraga’s masterpiece. The very fact that the game ended in a manner like no other is, by definition, unprecedented, and therefore worthy of unique consideration.

If we’re lucky, however, the heated debate over the record books will be soon be overshadowed by lessons learned from this modern day parable of grace, accountability and forgiveness.

In a world where the concept of personal or corporate accountability is considered oxymoronic, Joyce’s unflinching acceptance of his role in last week’s fiasco was a sight to behold. To call his heartfelt, straightforward acknowledgment of his mistake “a breath of fresh air” would qualify as understatement of the highest order. Similarly, the poise demonstrated by Galarraga, coupled with his unforgettable expression of unconditional forgiveness, carry value that can never be matched by athletic achievement alone. And for those fans that vehemently disagree with Commissioner Selig’s verdict on the game, his decision affords them an opportunity to flex their own forgiveness muscles.

The irony in all of this is that, if with two outs in the ninth inning, Jason Donald had been retired without incident, Armando Galarraga’s would have joined an elite, yet all but forgotten list of players – as even the most ardent followers of the game struggle to name even one third of those who’ve pitched the ultimate game. And, more importantly, we wouldn’t have had the privilege of watching two men redefine the definition of perfection.

In the end, perhaps the most fitting tribute to what took place at Comerica Park last week would be for Baseball’s Hall of Fame to recognize the breadth of this story by including it alongside the sport’s twenty other flawless pitching performances. The exhibit could be called: The Most Perfect Game.

That day, of course, may never come for Armando Galarraga, but he seems to be at peace, stating he knows he pitched a perfect game, and has the DVD to prove it. And when he tells the full story of that once-in-a-lifetime evening to his children, they’ll no doubt feel very proud of him.

The rest of us should also tell this story to our children. And if they take its life lessons to heart, chances are they’ll make us very proud, too.