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Friday, June 4, 2010

Off-Topic Commentary: Armando Galarraga

For whatever reason, I have been on a baseball addiction lately. No doubt it's just another phase. Sports always come in phases for me. In elementary school, I watched baseball to see superhumans knock home runs out of the park. In junior high school, I couldn't get enough basketball. Watching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant tear up the court in between renditions of that catchy NBA on NBC theme was my ideal weekend. In high school, I sat in awe watching professional tennis players hitting drop shots with such grace that no one in my backyard courts could come close to imitating. Now that I'm in college, it's back to baseball again. Go figure.

Detroit is a big-time sports town. The fans here in Michigan have always shown high enthusiasm for our home teams and also demonstrate wide knowledge and passion for their favorite sports. While we haven't always been blessed with winning seasons, (I'm looking at you, Lions.) every pro and college sporting event I've attended are always filled with fans who scream their hearts out as if their heroes are always in grasp of championship honors. It's a special kind of pride.

But the biggest fans can also have the biggest tempers. If something doesn't go their way, things often become ugly. On Wednesday June 2nd, an event happened at Comerica Park that fans in attendance and fans watching at home will never forget. And if it wasn't for the actions of a certain individual, it could have also turned into one of the ugliest messes that Comerica Park has ever seen.

I wasn't watching when it happened. I was at a bar with friends when my father sent me a text message informing me of the final result of the second game of the Detroit Tigers vs. Cleveland Indians series. He knew that I tried to watch as many games as possible so it soon became a habit to keep me updated on things as they occur. Here is what I read:

Tigers won 3-1 galla got rob of a no hitter by a bad call from the ump all the tigers were screaming at him

It took a few moments to sink in. He was referring to one of the Tigers' starting pitchers; Armando Galarraga. Until June 2nd, Galarraga hadn't proved himself as anything more than a talented athlete that only produced decent results. On this day, he was having the game of his career. He found himself at the top of the ninth inning without walking any batters or allowing any hits. The rabid Detroit fans were growing excited and nervous as they knew they were very close to witnessing history. If he succeeded in getting just three more outs, Galarraga would become only the twenty-second pitcher in MLB history and the first Detroit Tiger to achieve a perfect game.

The first batter of the inning hit a long ball to left-center field. It appeared certain that the ball would sail over the fielders' heads and allow the runner to cover at least one base. Knowing what was at stake, center fielder Austin Jackson hustled over to the drop point and just barely made the catch. Thunderous applause from the crowd and a sigh of relief from Galarraga.

The second batter grounded out to the shortstop. Easy play.

Then came the third batter. He hit a chopper towards the gap in first and second base. First baseman Miguel Cabrera leaves his position to go after the bouncing ball. Galarraga runs over to the base to make the catch. The batter runs his arse off to beat the throw. Cabrera makes the historic throw to Galarraga who catches it on base just a split second before the batter reaches it.

First base umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe.

The fans and both teams stood in shock and disbelief.

In a span of approximately five seconds after the call was made, Galarraga smiled in triumpth, then his jaw dropped, then he smiled again. It wasn't an evil smile. It wasn't a sarcastic smile. It was a smile that translated "Wow. That was close. Can you believe it? Oh well. Still one more out to go."

The next batter grounded out. The game was over.

Galarraga did not say a word to Joyce or even approach him after the call was made. His teammates did that for him. Every one of them got in Joyce's face; most notably Miguel Cabrera, catcher Gerald Laird and manager Jim Leyland. Joyce ignored all of their protests and left the park to a round of cussing and boos. Galarraga left to a huge ovation and was still smiling.

Fans at home saw the replay of the moment that will live in infamy. The runner clearly did not beat the throw. Jim Joyce made the wrong call and cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game and a place in the record books.

The bar I was located at had several televisions all broadcasting different local sports channels (i.e. Fox Sports Seattle, Milwaukee, etc.). Just minutes after I had received the text message, footage of the infamous call began to appear on all the networks along with each city's featured TV journalists discussing and debating the issue. It was the talk of the sports world.

The next morning, I read the local press to learn the aftermath of last night's drama. Jim Joyce saw the replay and admitted that he had made a mistake. He did not make excuses either. He insisted that his point-of-view was perfect. He just missed the call.

Meanwhile, sports talk show hosts criticized the MLB and its commissioner Bud Selig for their refusal to implement instant replays as an option to challenge questionable calls. They insisted that the situation could have been easily avoided and the majority believed Selig should use his authority to reverse the fateful decision and award Galarraga his perfect game.

Speaking of which...where was Galarraga during all this chaos? Still smiling evidently. He knew in his heart that he had pitched a perfect game and that was enough for him. In fact, he seemed more concerned about the animosity Jim Joyce would face rather than whether or not the call would be reversed.

Jim Joyce had a reputation for being among the best major league umpires. He made very few bad calls and countless good (and even great) calls. Unfortunately for Joyce, the good calls are almost always taken for granted. Armando Galarraga understood this better than anyone. When questioned if he had ever talked to Joyce after the game, Galarraga said he had given him a hug.

"Nobody's perfect," he said.

Considering what was at stake, Galarraga had every right to hold contempt for Joyce. His quick forgiveness and good nature regarding the situation seemed to trigger a ripple effect among fans and peers. Gerald Laird admitted that his actions were out of line and were driven by motivation to give his teammate his due credit. Jim Leyland went on record to praise Joyce as a great umpire and expressed hope that the fans will show proper respect to him, less than twelve hours after screaming in his face.

Leyland got his wish. The next afternoon following the incident, the Tigers were scheduled to finish off the series with the Indians. Joyce (who decided to work even after he was offered the day off) and his fellow umpires took to the field accompanied by polite applause. There were boos too, of course. But they were not nearly as loud as you'd expect from a Detroit crowd. Galarraga was given the duty of delivering the lineup card to Joyce where the two had another chance to embrace, this time in public. A teary-eyed Joyce put on his face mask and got ready for work. Galarraga went back to the dugout still smiling. Miguel Cabrera and Gerald Laird also made sure to give Joyce a pat on the back.

The Tigers performed exceptionally well and won the game 12-6.

A fan sign at Comerica Park read: "Congrats Armando for the first twenty-eight out perfect game."

They say that time heals all wounds. In my lifetime, I had never seen a wound this big get bandaged up and cured so quickly. You can argue that the situation isn't really cured and that the MLB still has to answer for their blunders but you would be missing the point. In the grand scheme of things, Galarraga's denial into the MLB book of records was really not that big of a deal. Throughout all this drama, he had his heart in the right place even in the heat of the moment where Comerica Park fell silent.

Galarraga handled the situation as perfect as anyone can ask for, which in my opinion is far more important than any perfect game of baseball.

Rating for Armando Galarraga: 10

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