By Thomas Boswell
Friday, June 4, 2010; A01
Baseball umpire Jim Joyce made a hideously incorrect ruling Wednesday night that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga one of the rarest achievements in the sport: a perfect game. But 15 hours later, when Galarraga made his way to home plate before Thursday afternoon's game to present his team's lineup card to Joyce, the umpire's reception was just as clear-cut.
The fans in Detroit cheered, and baseball and sport had one of its most inspiring and least expected moments.
What next? World peace?
Galarraga appeared to have completed the 21st perfect game in major league history, when he stepped on first base well before Cleveland Indians runner Jason Donald for what would have been the game's final out. But Joyce ruled Donald safe, a call he admitted was a mistake after viewing television replays following the game.
When that admission and the courage to make it was acknowledged with cheers Thursday afternoon, Joyce's face stayed firm, but the tears of gratitude rolled at the Tigers' magnanimity. After the ump wiped his eyes, Galarraga gave him a slap on the back, and Joyce smacked him back, dugout gestures of respect, unmistakable. Hard men, tough game, we play again today. Joyce, you work the plate; just get all 300 calls right.
Fans of the recession-scalded Motor City brought themselves to cheer for a man who admitted his mistake, which had denied one of their own a perfect game, a feat accomplished just 20 times since 1858. And, everywhere, observers shook their heads that a thing that was so sad and screwed up late Wednesday night could, simply by good will and compassion, be turned into something sparklingly fresh, unexpectedly strong and best-of-baseball by Thursday afternoon.
In fairy tales, human decency transforms bad into good. Don't bet too much on that formula working tomorrow. But it did for one day. In an age of stage-managed news-conference remorse and corporate shirking of responsibility, the Galarraga Imperfecto now shines with a fresh-scrubbed sense of honor. Sometimes, maybe we can tell the difference between what matters and what doesn't.
Handed a baseball disaster Wednesday night, everyone showed the absolute best in themselves. In a kind of cascade effect, one person saw unexpected virtue in another and decided, "Well, I guess I can suck it up and do the right thing, too, if he can."
As soon as Joyce saw the replay of his horrible "safe" call at first base, which was wrong by two feet, the respected 22-year big league ump took full responsibility and even sought out Galarraga to apologize personally.
"I just missed the damn call. . . . This isn't 'a' call. This is a history call. And I kicked the [expletive] out of it," said Joyce, whose postgame stand-up accountability could be taped and delivered to BP headquarters. "I take pride in this job, and I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his [butt] off all night."
Joyce also sought out Galarraga to apologize.
"I give a lot of credit to that guy. . . . You don't see an umpire, after the game, say, 'I'm sorry.' Nobody's perfect," said Galarraga, who for one night actually was.
A mass of Tigers gave Joyce a long face full of curses after his blunder, but he stood through it, still believing he had been correct, but ejecting no one, letting Tigers Manager Jim Leyland, a genius of baseball blue, give him his best shots.
"If I had been Galarraga, I would have been the first one standing there [screaming]. I would have said something immediately," Joyce said. "He didn't say a word, not one word."
Just as Joyce was impressed with Galarraga, Leyland was surprised at Joyce, an umpire he already thought was usually one of the best.
"The guy had every bit of integrity. He faced the music. He stood there and took it," Leyland said. "If he would have been defiant and said, 'No, I got it right,' then looked at it afterward and said, 'Well, yeah, I missed it,' that's one thing. But this guy was a mess. I mean, a freaking mess. There was nothing phony about it. My heart goes out to him."
Detroit knows people make mistakes, have hard times and need a hand up. But even Leyland didn't know what to expect when he cooked up the idea of Galarraga's symbolic lineup card gesture of conciliation.
"This is a day for Detroit to shine . . . for Tiger fans to show what they are all about," Leyland said. "I don't know that they will, but I hope they do."
And, mostly, they did.
Sometimes, common sense can win. Obviously, Galarraga pitched a perfect game in every sense that holds any sane meaning. With a night's sleep, the whole sport seemed to realize that, whether his name is on a list or not, Galarraga not only had retired the 27 consecutive hitters that constitute a perfect game; he got a 28th consecutive out, too. So, thanks in a perverse way to Joyce, it will be Galarraga, along with Harvey Haddix, the man who pitched 12 perfect innings before losing in the 13th in 1959, who will rank behind only Don Larsen's World Series masterpiece when perfect games are discussed -- even though neither Galarraga nor Haddix technically has a perfect game at all.
Perhaps only one person in baseball was flummoxed and indecisive: the commissioner. Impromptu polls showed overwhelming public support that Bud Selig simply use his "best interests of baseball" powers to reverse Joyce's call and make a one-time-only, unique-circumstance, no-precedent decision.
Instead, his office released a statement that was so muddled -- about studying the state of umpiring and future uses of instant replay -- that MLB "sources" had to leak what the release actually meant: Selig wouldn't overturn the call.
Fortunately, baseball had so many stand-up guys jump forward so fast that no intercession from a supreme being was necessary.
After Joyce realized the magnitude of his mistake -- "I missed it from here to the wall," he said -- he thought of Don Denkinger, whose blown call in the 1985 World Series, on a similar flip-to-the-pitcher-play may be the most notorious ever.
"I worked with Don Denkinger. I know what he went through," Joyce said. "I don't know what to say."
But, apparently, almost everyone else did.
"I cannot believe the outpouring of support I've gotten," Joyce said before Thursday's game. "I can't thank the people enough. I'm a big boy. I can handle this."
There's a rumor going around that everybody makes mistakes. But it's what you do after you make them that matters most.
Perhaps it is equally true that how we react to the mistakes of others, especially when they hurt us, reveals us like an open book.
Or, as a different Jim Joyce, the writer James Joyce, put it: "A man's errors are his portals of discovery."