One Mistake Away from Perfect

If you are a baseball fan, then you probably have already heard about what happened at the end of the Detroit Tigers game last night. Armando Gallaraga, the Tigers’ pitcher, was one out away from throwing a perfect game—no hits, no walks, 27 batters producing 27 outs. It is the pinnacle of pitching achievements. For perspective, there have been 20 perfect games thrown in the modern baseball era (which conservatively estimating must be over 16K games). It is an incredible accomplishment.

On what would have been the 27th out, a ground ball was hit to the right of the Tigers’ first baseman, Miguel Cabera. He made a very nice play to field it, and then threw it to Gallaraga as he came over to cover first. Although it seemed clear (and replays definitely confirmed it) that the runner was out, the umpire, to everyone’s surprise, called him safe.

I was driving home from church, so I was listening on the radio and the announcers were parked between stunned and irritated. I got home right after the play, so I ran in the house to check it out on TV. Two of my sons and my wife were already up in arms about the call, assuring me that the runner was out. The TV announcers were also stunned by the call. Replays showed that the players and trainers in the Indians’ dugout were all shocked. Even the guy who was called safe looked amazed at the call!

It could probably go without saying that the fans in the stadium were extremely unhappy. The boos were pouring down (no doubt intensified by the booze that was pouring all night long!). Tigers’ players and coaches were at various stages of anger. It was a bad scene at the end of an incredible pitching performance by Gallaraga, who himself seemed to be caught between joy over pitching so well and disbelief that the last out of a perfect game was botched. I felt badly for Gallaraga, but was truly impressed by his post-game interviews. He was clearly disappointed—a perfect game has never been thrown by a Tiger pitcher so it would have been a record book accomplishment.

The Tigers’ skipper, Jim Leyland, was very hot at the end of the game, doing what has come to be expected of the skipper’s role—serve as spokesman for his players. Leyland doesn’t pop often, but when he does it’s usually with some intensity. He was pretty ticked, but I think he also knew he needed to step up so that his players would back away. After the game, he was far more subdued. He still thought it was a bad call, but he qualified his criticism in two ways: (1) we have the luxury of replays which the umpire did not, and (2) this stuff happens in baseball because players and umpires are only human and they have to make calls in the heat of the moment.

For his part, the umpire, once he saw a replay, owned up to his error very clearly and contritely. I was impressed. No qualifications (that I’ve seen or heard). Just a simple, heartfelt acknowledgement that, though at the time he thought he made the right call, the replay is clear that he made the wrong one. He was very clear that he felt very badly about this, and he went directly to Gallaraga to apologize (reportedly with teary eyes). He didn’t dodge or minimize the fact that his error had a terrible consequence for Gallaraga. To use the vernacular, he manned up. It was good to see.

So, some reflections on this:

  • This is a case where, if it were possible, seeking help with the call, once it was clear that there was debate about it, would have been good. I am not sure if the vantage point of the other infield umps would have been able to help, but conferring in a tough spot is almost always a good idea.
  • It is good to remember that sometimes people make the wrong call without intention to do so and without ill motive. IOW, they make a call on the spot as they see it from their vantage point because they have to make a call. They don’t have the luxury of replays. As Leyland said, this is a good umpire who made a costly bad call. Now, I am sure that Leyland would also acknowledge that there are bad umpires who regularly make bad calls. There is a difference, though, between making a bad call and being a bad umpire. And it takes it to another whole level to assume that a bad call was made for sinister reasons—as if this ump were deliberately trying to rob Gallaraga of his perfect game. I am sure there are some conspiracy theorists who think that, but since it would be virtually impossible to prove either way, I’ll leave that to them.
  • If, like this umpire, we find ourselves in the position where we have clearly made an error in judgment, then we should own up to it just as clearly. In situations like this nobody wants to hear explanations that try to dodge or minimize the gravity of the mistake. Everybody knows that umpires are limited to their vantage point, subject to human error, under a lot of pressure to make a quick call in intense situations, etc. All of that is a given, but they are professionals who are expected to do their job carefully and well in spite of these things—perhaps even because of these very things. I am sure he had reasons for making the call he did, but offering them up only sounds like excuse-making. Just own the bad call and apologize for it. And make sure your apology acknowledges the seriousness of the error and the deep regret you have for making it. This umpire earned my respect and has my sympathy because I am sure he’s going to get hammered over this for a long time. Not from me, and, because he owned up, I bet not from Gallaraga or Leyland either.

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