Perfect in our book

Friday, June 4, 2010

WHEN APPEALS COURT Judge John Roberts, seeking confirmation to become Supreme Court chief justice, famously said that his job would be "to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat," no doubt many major league umpires scoffed inwardly. "He makes it sound so easy," they may have thought. Now we have confirmation of their intuition. How much simpler it must have been on Thursday merely to ponder Miranda warnings or same-sex marriage than to be Jim Joyce.

Mr. Joyce, for those of you who don't follow the sports pages, was a respected and relatively anonymous major league umpire until he blew a call for the ages on Wednesday night at Comerica Park in Detroit. An unheralded Detroit pitcher, Armando Galarraga, 28, was on the verge of that rarest of pitching achievements, a perfect game. He had faced 26 Indians and retired 26 Indians. The 27th -- and should-have-been final -- batter, Jason Donald, hit a ground ball to the right side of the infield. He was thrown out, the Tigers began to celebrate -- and then Mr. Joyce, almost unimaginably, signaled that the runner was safe. In fact, the throw had beaten the runner. But if the umpire calls you safe, you are safe. Mr. Galarraga shook his head, smiled gamely and returned to the mound to get one more out. He then repaired to his dugout with a one-hit shutout -- and what seemed destined to be the most famous imperfect pitching performance in history.

Now some of the most eminent students of the game, including our colleagues Dave Sheinin and Tom Boswell, are urging baseball commissioner Bud Selig to overrule the bad call and retroactively declare the game to be perfect. In an unscientific survey Thursday, some 80 percent of readers agreed. So far Mr. Selig has issued only a throat-clearing statement full of congratulations all around and a promise to "consult with all appropriate parties, including our two unions and the Special Committee for On-Field Matters." A statement, in other words, that Washingtonians could relate to, except that we'd be calling the committee the SCOFM by now.

On the other hand, Washingtonians might find the behavior of the two principals of the story startlingly and refreshingly unfamiliar. As soon as the game was over and he had a chance to see the replay, Mr. Joyce acknowledged his error and apologized, both publicly and personally to Mr. Galarraga. Mr. Galarraga, after popping a beer and briefly contemplating his bad luck, gracefully accepted Mr. Joyce's apology. "I don't blame them a bit for anything that was said," Mr. Joyce said. "I would've said it myself if I had been Galarraga. I would've been the first person in my face, and he never said a word to me." Said the pitcher: "You don't see an umpire after the game come out and say, 'Hey, let me tell you I'm sorry.' He felt really bad. He didn't even shower." In the face of such sportsmanship, Mr. Selig's deliberations seem essentially irrelevant.

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