Ethics Hero: Umpire Jim Joyce

The irony is that a less honest and courageous umpire would have made the correct call.

Jim Joyce was the umpire at first base last night in Detroit’s game against the Cleveland Indians. It was the ninth inning, and incredibly, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was on the verge of becoming only the 21st pitcher in baseball history to throw a perfect game—27 consecutive outs, no hits, runs, walks or errors. (More amazing still, it would be baseball’s third perfect game this season.)  A perfect game is one of baseball’s highest achievements, ensuring the pitcher who throws one of baseball immortality, and special mention in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Joyce, one of the game’s most experienced and respected umpires, knew all of this, and as he watched the first two outs in the ninth being made by the Indians’ batters—the first on an incredible play by Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson—he also knew something else. If the final play came down to a close call at first base, he would call it as he saw it, no matter how close it was. One of the supposed “unwritten laws” of baseball is that the hit that breaks up a no-hitter or a perfect game should be “clean,” or beyond controversy. Several no-hitters in baseball history have been the beneficiary of this non-rule, when official scorers have ruled what would normally be a late inning scratch hit a fielders’ error in order to preserve the pitchers’ masterpiece. The practice is cowardly and a disgrace to the game, an act that mars a no-hitter more than a hit would. Joyce rejected this mindset, and rightly so. If he had to make the call on a close play at first that ended Galarraga’s masterpiece, he would. That was his job. He easily could have made up his mind that if the play was close, he would give the call to Detroit and let Galarraga have his moment of history, but like the scorers’ leniency, to do so would breach the game’s integrity. And the score was only 3-0: the Indians still had a reasonable chance of tying the game or winning it. To make up his mind that he would favor the perfect game over his duty of objectivity would have been wrong…but a lot of umpires probably would have done it, if they were at first base.

It was a close play. Cleveland’s Jason Donald hit a slow grounder to first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who fielded the ball and threw to Galarraga, covering first. Jim Joyce saw Donald’s foot come down on the base a split second before Galarraga had the ball in his glove, and immediately signaled safe, signaling that the perfect game had been destroyed at the last possible moment. It was a professional, courageous, honest call.

And it was absolutely wrong. The instant replay showed beyond question that Donald had been beaten by the throw. Armando Galarraga had lost his chance at immortality because of Jim Joyce’s mistake.

I don’t believe an umpire of less integrity would have made that mistake, because he would have already have decided that he wasn’t going to be the one to make a controversial call in such a game. Joyce did everything an ethical decision-maker is supposed to do, and didn’t allow himself to be distracted or swayed  by the fact that everyone in the stadium wanted him to do one thing: signal that Donald was out. He blew the call, but he blew it the right way.

Then Joyce did the hardest thing of all. As soon as he saw the replay, he admitted his mistake,  went to the Tigers locker room, and apologized to Galarraga. That was also the ethical response, though it couldn’t have been an easy one.

Today Jim Joyce’s reputation as an umpire is shattered, as bloggers, sportswriters and commentators excoriate him as if he set out to rob Galarraga of his greatest triumph. The fact is that close plays like the one Joyce missed are called wrongly many times every season, and there are egregiously blown calls in virtually every major league game. Many of them change the outcome of the games. Making a split-second determination of what occurs involving multiple moving bodies, gloves and balls is difficult, and mistakes are inevitable. All an umpire can do is resolve to be diligent, alert, objective and fair, to call the plays as he sees them regardless of the circumstances or what the fans would like the result to be, and when he makes the inevitable bad call, take responsibility and admit it.

Ethics doesn’t require that we be infallible, only that we fail the right way. Jim Joyce did that, at the worst possible time, and accepted responsibility for his failure. We should follow his example, not condemn him.

Rudyard Kipling would have loved Jim Joyce.

57 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Umpire Jim Joyce

  1. Jonathan,

    Arguing for the sake of arguing is a bit redundant in my opinion.

    If you want to question the integrity of baseball, then I suggest you look at boxing first and foremost. Boxing is ripe with questionable ethics and integrity that has followed that sports through the years.

    Jack will agree to disagree with your notion, but you need to chill out with coming up a reply to validate your argument.

    • Baseball has been around for a long time and there has been questionable ethics and integrity throughout the years and no one commissioner except for Mountain Landis has straighten and cleaned up baseball when Landis’ first act was to deal with the Black Sox scandal.

      For Jack Marshall to sweep everything under the rug reminds me of how baseball still has integrity issues that has not been resolved where Mountain Landis was convinced and argued that players of ones “undesirable reputation and character” had no place in baseball whether it is a hitter or an umpire or an owner.

  2. I hope he does read my blog because issues like this should be out in the open, knowing the result of this wasn’t in anyones favor.

  3. I think you’re absolutely right that he made the wrong call because he’s a good man, but I don’tthink it’s hurt his reputation. OK, maybe some Detroit fans don’t like him right now, but I think most people have a lot of respect for Joyce. He called it like he saw it — and admitted he got it wrong. Plus, the players themselves say he’s a good guy.

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  6. The umpire made a mistake. The commissioner could right the wrong. I’m more upset that he chose not to do so than I am that a human being, flawed as we all are, isn’t perfect.

    • Rene, the Commissioner cannot right the wrong. The rules don’t allow it. Baseball’s precedents when such a thing has been considered correctly show the path: fix the rule, don’t change what happened. For a while, the official stats wee going to be changed to give back Babe Ruth and others home runs the “lost” under a short-time rule in which a “walk-off” home-run only got credit for the bases needed to win the game…thus a walk-off home run with the bases loaded under today’s rules would just be a single, since that was all that was needed to end the game. The score would have to be changed, the pitchers’ ERA and other stats would have to be changed….couldn’t be done. Galarraga did what, he knows it, history will know it. Like Pittsbugh’s Harvey Haddix, who pitched a perfect game into 12 innings and finally lost, not getting credit for a perfect game or a no-hitter despite pitching the greatest one of all, Galarraga won’t be cheated where it counts…in the minds and hearts of baseball fans. Destroying baseball’s integrity isn’t necessary or wise; but then, it never is.

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  8. Attempting to make this umpire’s actions “ethical” when he screwed up is a stretch. These umpires are paid very well to get that call right. By baseball standards, this play was NOT a close call. We are left to wonder what happened. How could a “top” umpire ever get that call wrong and why are some now celebrating his mistake? Honest?,…. baloney… the call was simply unacceptable. It was so obvious, he HAD to apologise etc. A few weeks at would send the right message to the baseball officials. Don’t be so flippant and arrogant,…approach each call like your career depends on it because …it should

    • There’s nothing about that call that leads to the conclusion that it wasn’t made carefully….I’m sure that it was made unusually carefully. Good cops kill unarmed suspects when they think they see a gun. I’ve umpired some, and a call like that is NOT easy. IF anything led Joyce astray, I think the plodding way Cabrera fielded the ball had him thinking…”Oh no..this is going to be an infield hit!” (That’s what I was thinking as the play developed.) What do you mean, it’s “unacceptable”? Competent, careful professionals make terrible mistakes under pressure every day, and unless they are drunk, or not paying attention, or unprepared, none of which is true of Joyce, it has no ethical implications at all. It was a gutsy call. He would have gotten almost as much grief about it if he had been right, because so many people, and some in baseball, think umpires should help a pitcher in that situation. Of course it was an honest mistake. What else could it be? You’re just being naive to say that a “top umpire” should never make a bad call. They all do. They always will.

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  10. If you cannot distinguish between mistakes and corruption, you 1) need to stop silly comments on this topic, because you waste everyone’s time, and 2) have big problems that go far beyond baseball. The acceptance of human error is a componant of baseball’s integrity and is embodied in the rules, tradition, and the culture 0f the game. That’s not sweeping anything under the table; that is fact. You opinions have been alternately ignorant of facts or disrespectful to them. I don’t have a general policy against pathetically reasoned and articulated arguments, but I may have to install one.

  11. OK, that’s the last comment I’m taking from you. I have no idea what you are saying, and I don’t think you do either. It’s a free web, and you can utter any gibberish you want, but not here.

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