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.