by Greg Mackie
I love great forgiveness stories, and recently I saw a remarkable demonstration of forgiveness that touched my heart. It is a story about a Major League baseball pitcher who threw a perfect game, an umpire whose inexplicable mistake took that perfect game away, and the deeper, truer perfection that revealed itself in what followed. As the umpire faced angry condemnation for robbing a young pitcher of a glorious moment, many people-including the pitcher himself-chose to do what A Course in Miracles calls the “one perfect thing” : they chose to forgive. In my mind, that choice made this a truly perfect game.
On Wednesday, June 2, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was on his way to a historic accomplishment as he pitched against the Cleveland Indians. He was one out away from pitching a perfect game, a game in which not only does no opposing player get a hit, but no opposing player even reaches base. This is an extremely rare accomplishment; there have been only twenty perfect games in Major League history (though strangely, two of them have occurred this year). No Detroit Tiger has ever achieved the feat. So Galarraga was one out away from doing something that he would tell his grandchildren about. The home fans were one out away from witnessing something they might never see again in their lifetimes. It was a big moment.
The crowd cheered in anticipation as Galarraga pitched to Indians hitter Jason Donald. Donald hit a weak grounder fielded by the first baseman, and the crowd erupted. It would be a routine play for the final out. Galarraga ran to cover first, the first baseman threw him the ball, the runner was beat easily. Game over; perfect game; Galarraga began raising his arms in triumph.
But no! Amazingly, inexplicably, first base umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, and all hell broke loose. The crowd booed lustily. Tigers players barked at Joyce. Tigers manager Jim Leyland was livid. Only Galarraga kept his cool, though you could see a wistful smile on his face. He got the final out for a one-hit shutout, but there would be no history this night- at least not the history people expected. As the game ended, Detroit players moved in to confront Joyce. Leyland went toe to toe with him and gave him some choice words. The chorus of boos continued. As Joyce left the field, he was probably counting himself fortunate that he escaped with his life.
Then, a remarkable series of events began to unfold. Joyce originally thought he got the call right, but because of the reaction he got, the first thing he did when he arrived at his locker room was watch the replay. When he did, his heart sank. It was obvious to him that he blew the call. He was devastated. Here he was, a highly respected Major League umpire for twenty-two years, a man who had umpired two World Series, eleven other playoff series, and two All-Star Games. But now, in the biggest moment of his entire career, he had completely botched the call and cost a young pitcher a perfect game.
In a press conference after the game, he did something that professional baseball umpires rarely do: He unabashedly admitted his mistake. His voice breaking, he expressed his deep regret for his mistake and apologized to everyone for what he had done. A few excerpts:
I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought [the runner] beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay….This is a history call, and I kicked [expletive] out of it. And there’s nobody that feels worse than I do….I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his ass off all night….I missed it. I missed it….It’s probably the most important call of my career, and I missed it.
[About the reactions of Detroit players, Leyland, and Galarraga]: I don’t blame them….I would have done the same thing.…I had to give Jim Leyland his say….I have nothing against Jim Leyland at all. If I were Galarraga, I would have been the first one standing there. But he didn’t say a word. Not a word.
This was the first remarkable event: a baseball umpire swallowing his pride and humbly, regretfully admitting his mistake. But this set off a chain of events that is even more remarkable. Reporter Michael Rosenberg informed Galarraga that Joyce felt terrible about taking away his perfect game, and “he was really beating himself up over it.” Galarraga said to Rosenberg, “Tell him no problem.” But then Galarraga had another idea: “I can go tell him. I should probably talk to him. It will be better.” And that’s exactly what Galarraga did. He went to Joyce’s locker room, forgave him, and gave him a hug.
Later, Galarraga told reporters that while he was sad about not getting the perfect game as far as the official scorecard was concerned, he knew that he really did it, so it didn’t really matter. And he had nothing but kind things to say about the umpire whose mistake seemingly robbed him of his moment of glory:
He really feels bad. He probably feels more bad than me. Nobody is perfect. I give a lot of credit to that guy. [An apology] doesn’t happen. He apologized. He feels really bad. Nobody is perfect. What am I gonna do? His eyes were watering and he didn’t have to say much. His body language said a lot.
The chain of forgiveness continued as Leyland and Tigers players were interviewed after the game. Leyland acknowledged that “emotions were running high for everybody” as the game concluded, but with a little time to cool off and reflect, he realized that what happened was just another day in the life. He praised Joyce’s long career in the Major Leagues, and philosophically cast the incident as simply a matter of people being human:
That’s the nature of the business, that’s just the way it is. The players are human, the umpires are human, the managers are human, the writers are human. We all make mistakes. It’s a crying shame. Jimmy’s a real good umpire, has been for a long time
Many of the players, too, let cooler heads prevail in the wake of Joyce’s apology. For instance, Tigers catcher Gerald Laird, who had angrily confronted Joyce at the conclusion of the game, apologized for his conduct as well:
We probably were a little bit out of line, I’d say. At the time, I’m sure he thought he made the right call….I’ve got all the respect in the world for Jim Joyce. He’s a great umpire. He’s always been. I’ve always had a good relationship with him. I think it’s just more the heat of the moment. That’s why we were getting on him. You just want it so bad, something of that caliber for your teammate.
The chain of forgiveness continued even further as the next day came. The incident had become a topic of national conversation, and many people extended words of encouragement and comfort to Joyce. Before the next day’s game, Joyce told reporters that while yes, there were some people who shamelessly attacked his character and even had harsh words for his family, he was deeply moved by all the heartfelt support he received from so many:
I cannot believe the outpouring of support I’ve gotten, not only from my fellow umpires but all my friends, my family and, frankly, you guys [the press]. I can’t thank you enough. I can’t thank the people enough.
The final gesture of forgiveness (at least so far) happened at the game itself. It was the final game of the Tigers-Indians series, and Joyce was scheduled to be the home plate umpire. This would put Joyce right in the line of fire of angry Tigers fans, so Major League Baseball gave him the option of skipping that final game to stay out of harm’s way. He refused to do so. What would happen? How would the crowd react? Would Joyce be safe?
Leyland saw an opportunity to defuse the crowd’s anger. What was needed was a public gesture to show everyone that all was forgiven, and Leyland had just the thing. Normally, before the game starts, each team’s manager brings out the day’s lineup card to the home plate umpire. But on this day, Leyland sent out Armando Galarraga to do the honors. The crowd cheered as the hero of the previous night emerged. Galarraga handed the lineup card to Joyce, the two shook hands, and Joyce, fighting back tears, gave Galarraga a heartfelt clap on the shoulder. And so the entire incident came to a beautiful closure. (I wish I could say the entire crowd cheered, but alas, this was not the case. While some people cheered the reconciliation, there were quite a few boos when Joyce was introduced.)
What a wonderful story! I doubt that anyone involved was a Course student, but to me what these men did was such a beautiful demonstration of the power of forgiveness. It all started with Joyce’s humble apology. Since umpires are almost universally hated by baseball fans, they tend to develop thick skins and bristly egos. Major League umpires usually don’t talk to the press at all, and when they do, they usually circle the wagons and defend themselves against the abuse that is so often heaped on them. But Joyce set aside his ego and humbly admitted his error. He expressed his genuine remorse at what his blown call cost a young pitcher who may never get close to a perfect game ever again.
That humility, it seems to me, is what really opened up the floodgates. Galarraga, who never did display any anger toward Joyce, at least not openly, made the first move in response. By our usual standards, Galarraga had every right to condemn Joyce. He was the wronged party, and on an earthly level, he was really and truly robbed. But his response to the man who robbed him was to forgive. As Joyce was beating himself up over hurting Galarraga, Galarraga’s response was literally, “No problem.” It wasn’t a big deal. He reached out to a man in pain over hurting him, and gave that man a hug. The message was clear: You didn’t really hurt me. It was only an innocent mistake. It’s nothing.
While obviously I don’t know exactly what transpired in everyone’s minds, I get the sense that Galarraga’s response to Joyce’s apology gave everyone a kind of permission to respond the same way. I can imagine people thinking, “Man, if the guy who got robbed of a perfect game can forgive the guy who robbed him, how can I be any less forgiving?” And so the kind and forgiving words kept coming: from Leyland, from Tigers players, and even from fans touched by Joyce’s anguish and Galarraga’s kind response. As the Course says, when miracles are extended to others, “a strong chain of Atonement is welded” . Once forgiveness gets started, like the Energizer bunny it just keeps going and going and going.
The result, in my mind, was a game far more perfect than a pitcher’s great athletic feat could ever be. The Course tells us that in truth, perfection in this world has nothing to do with a baseball pitcher not letting anyone reach base. “Here [in this world], where the laws of God do not prevail in perfect form, can [each person] yet do one perfect thing and make one perfect choice” (T-25.VI.5:1). That one perfect thing, that one perfect choice, is to forgive. And that’s what so many people chose to do in response to Joyce’s unfortunate error. (Granted, I’m sure they didn’t forgive perfectly, as the Course calls upon us to do ultimately. But they’re at least moving in the right direction.)
There is a movement afoot now to get Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig to overturn Joyce’s call and give Galarraga an official perfect game. As of this writing, the word is that Selig will not overturn it. While many disagree with his decision, and from a purely athletic standpoint a good argument could be made for overturning the call, to me something feels appropriate about letting the call stand. After all, everyone knows that, whether it is “official” or not, Galarraga did throw a perfect game. And his place in history is assured; the “perfect game that wasn’t” will forever be part of baseball lore. He’ll take a place alongside players like Harvey Haddix, who threw a perfect game for twelve innings, only to lose in the thirteenth because his own team didn’t score any runs.
More to the point for me, though, letting the call stand highlights the fact that the call doesn’t really matter. Again, to me, this “almost” perfect game is actually a far greater accomplishment than the twenty perfect games that preceded it. Galarraga will have something much better to tell his grandchildren about. This game was a truly perfect game, for in the end, those who participated in it demonstrated true perfection: the power of forgiveness.