A hot Memorial Day found us along the Hudson, walking atop the angled faux brick pier at 70th Street that juts toward New Jersey. The pier is ugly, but the spot is beautiful, especially as one remembers that it would have offered a perfect view of US Airways Flight 1549’s emergency landing a year and a half ago. It was the event that gave us Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a rare hero of our times. He paid the ultimate price, ranging from VIP attendance at the Obama inauguration to serving as grand marshal of the Rose Parade, an interview with Katie Couric thrown in between.
Not a few days later the nation found itself introduced to a more unlikely — and reluctant-hero: a Major League Baseball umpire who blew a call as badly as a call can be blown, at the worst possible moment, depriving a deserving pitcher and the baseball universe alike of an ultimate achievement, a perfect game. How did Jim Joyce manage it? Simply by admitting he was wrong, by taking full responsibility, by extending a genuine apology to the wronged pitcher, and, however shaken and distraught, by showing up the next day for work again. It certainly didn’t hurt his cause when it turned out that he’s highly regarded by major league insiders. When you see Yankee maestro Mariano Rivera rise to call him “the best baseball has and a great guy,” you can consider the case closed. Besides, he’s not likely to cash in on his celebrity, either, if only out of the sense of shame that will never leave him.
Oddly, the pitcher who threw the stolen perfect game, Armando Galarraga, was no more eager to exploit his sudden fame and victimization. He didn’t even argue the blown call, for crying out loud. So much for all those Venezuelan hotheads we hear about, whether Ozzie Guillen or Hugo Chavez (who actually behaved in response). Baseball can be the cruelest sport, but it also has its own logic and rewards. The game Galarraga threw says much about him: 88 pitches, 24 of them first strikes, only three strikeouts, in a mere hour and forty-four minutes. It was a work of pitching art for art’s sake. It will forever hang in baseball’s museum.
In no other sport do the breaks even out as much. Recall the happy relief on Galarraga’s face after his center fielder’s brilliant chase down of a towering drive for the final inning’s first out. Yet surely in the back of his mind he knew some variation of what the late commissioner Bart Giamatti said, that baseball “is designed to break your heart.” Of course, no one wants the breakage to occur just two batters later.
Congratulations are owed current Commissioner Bud Selig, for resisting the public and political outcry and refusing to overturn Joyce’s blown call. That meant ignoring Rep. John Dingell’s efforts to introduce a congressional resolution demanding MLB overturn the call. The House brute should have heeded Hugo Chavez’s words: “The umpire was wrong…but, well, the umpire is the umpire.”
That’s also why the moment Joyce made his bad call, the perfect game was no more, and there could be no going back. A bubble that bursts can’t by definition be reinflated. One can regret the hastiness with which Joyce made his decision and wonder if he sensed what was at stake — as the hitter who was called safe later put it, “given the circumstances, I thought for sure I’d be called out.” So did everyone else. Except the guy who mattered. That’s baseball. Luckily, as we know, it offers other consolations.