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Perfect Sportsmanship

Baseball experiences one of its greatest moments.

By 6.4.10

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If Major League Baseball ever gets a Hall of Shame, umpire Jim Joyce's blown call on Wednesday night will earn him a spot somewhere between Bill Buckner and Fred Merkle (or maybe just below them, depending on how many Red Sox fans are involved in the rankings). And yet, in the aftermath of Joyce's Imperfect Call, Joyce and pitcher Armando Galarraga, whose perfect game Joyce ruined, have turned an outrageously bad call into one of baseball's finest moments.

You probably know the story by now. Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from pitching only the 21st perfect game in major league history when Cleveland Indians batter Jason Donald smacked a grounder between first and second. Detroit's first baseman fielded it and threw to Galarraga, who had moved to cover first. Joyce, the first base umpire, called Donald safe, though replays show Galarraga clearly beating him to the bag. Oops? You might say that.

Within hours someone had already created the website FireJimJoyce.com. Ah, the mob speaketh.

Thank the designers of modern ballparks that this incident didn't wind up with Joyce carried out of Comerica Park and tossed into the Detroit River. When Merkle infamously walked away from second base in 1908, Giants fans stormed the field. Legend has it that a fan wrested the game ball from Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers and threw it into the crowd to keep Evers from tagging Merkle out. In 1990, seven people were killed in riots in Detroit after the Pistons won the NBA championship. Things have gotten better in Detroit since then, but still, worry lingers.

But by the next game, even Detroit fans seemed to have forgiven Joyce. How could they not? Immediately after plucking immortality from Galarraga's grasp, Joyce admitted his mistake. What's more, he personally apologized to Galarraga. "I just cost that kid a perfect game," he later told the media.

"I," he said. As an umpire, Joyce is in the position of ultimate authority on a baseball diamond. What he says goes. He can toss a player or a manager, and his rulings, right or wrong, can determine the outcome of the game. He has the power of on-field life or death. He is the King, he can use the royal "we" and hide behind his authority. "I" made a mistake, he said. Our government could learn a thing or two from Jim Joyce.

Jim Joyce's professional character was defined by that blown call. Sure, he messed up, but the question is: why? "I thought he beat the throw," he said. "I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay." A lesser man would've called the runner out no matter what. Whether out of empathy for a pitcher who was so close to perfection or from a desire to avoid the inevitable hatred that would follow, a lesser man would simply have said "out!" even if he believed in his heart the runner was safe. Joyce called it as he saw it, knowing full well the consequences.

He then made the decision to face those consequences in the most direct way. He had the option of not calling the next day's game in Detroit. But he said that if he didn't, he couldn't live with himself. He stepped onto that field knowing that thousands of Detroit fans had two of the three necessary prerequisites for murder -- motive and will -- and he was the most hated man in all of Michigan.

But Joyce didn't get booed. He got applauded. "When I walked out of that tunnel, and I got the reception that I did from the Tiger fans, I, ah, I had to wipe the eyes. It shows me a lot of class, you know…. The sportsmanship has been just unbelievable on everybody's part."

The displays of first-rate sportsmanship began with Galarraga the moment he lost his perfect game. There was no tantrum, no shouting, not even a scowl. He… smiled. He smiled as if to say, "Eh, that's life."

After the game, he said this about Joyce to Fox Sports Detroit:

He really feel bad. He probably feel more bad than me. Nobody's perfect, everybody's human. I understand. I give a lot of credit to the guy saying, "Hey, I need to talk to you because I really say I'm sorry." That don't happen. You don't see an umpire after the game say "I'm sorry."

Forgiveness? From a professional athlete? To an umpire? We don't even forgive the clerk at Starbucks for putting too much milk in our lattes! Where's the sense of entitlement, the rage, the desire to make one's self look bigger by humiliating the other guy? That attitude might infuse much of professional sports -- much of humanity these days, for that matter -- but it doesn't motivate Armando Galarraga.

How is this not one of baseball's most beautiful moments? Yes, it should have been a perfect game officially as well as in fact. But the little cloud Jim Joyce conjured over first base on Wednesday night was lined with this silver: It gave us one of baseball's greatest displays of sportsmanship.

The tender and graceful performances by Joyce and Galarraga in the day following the blown call were powerful enough to change hate into respect. Thursday evening, the last post on FireJimJoyce.com was this:

You know, after hearing all the talk from both the pitcher and umpire Jim Joyce today, I have only one thought: They are both classier than I am.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.