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. Great piece, Jack.

    I’m not a baseball fan, and I didn’t see the play, but that does not matter. You are exactly correct.

    College basketball is my obsession, and in that game there are many calls that wind up being “replay incompetence.” Fans will never understand or accept that it is impossible for a human being to get every call right, but that’s why they are named “calls.”

    That description implies judgment, and sometimes, our judgment fails us. Our senses report conflicting or inaccurate data, and when that’s all we have to go on, error is sometimes inevitable.

    But honest errors are superior to dishonest prejudgments every time.

    • Thanks, Glenn. And it sure seems to me that basketball refs are especially prone to tilt their calls to the situation. It is to some extent the nature of the sport, I know, but this has always bothered me.

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  3. If what you say is true, it sounds like Joyce had made up his mind beforehand to call the player safe. Is that ethical? IMO, umpires have entirely too much power. This could be resolved if MLB gave in to modern technology and used the replay in such cases. I hope this incident pushes things in that direction.

      • Maybe not directly, but it certainly sounds like, if you were the first base umpire, you would be out to make a point about this and would lean towards calling the runner safe. I would not be at all surprised if that’s what happened here.

        • If you have integrity, you don’t have to keep saying to yourself, “I’m going to act with integrity.” As a good umpire with integrity, Joyce decided to call the play like he would in a 10-0 blow-out or in the third inning. And that’s the right way to be.

  4. Yeah, I agree as well. This was a very thoughtful piece, and a clear counterpoint to the initial reaction of last night’s game.

    Funny thing…the more I read this morning, the more I see people starting to agree with you.

    Good work. I’ve never visited before, but I’ll be back.


  5. The game was 3 – 0 at the time…not 1 – 0 as you stated. Still…he made the wrong call and admitted it…it is very unfortunate.

  6. I find it interesting that next to Joyce and Galarraga, Joe West’s name is most common in most of the comments fields. People really hate that guy and want him to take note of Joyce as a role model.

    Joe: Your name is out there. And not in a good way.

    I wonder if Joe had been at the base if anyone would have thought the call was anything but an intentional attention grab.

  7. Jim Joyce will go down as the most controversial umpires by stopping a perfect game by Armando Galarraga. Apologies or hugs wont cut it, it is my belief that Jim Joyce didn’t want a perfect game he wanted to show partiality and he needs to be fired from his duties.

    • Ridiculous. There is nothing in Jim Joyce’s professional or personal background that would suggest such a thing, and it is irresponsible and unfair to make an accusation like that based on nothing. Why in the world would an umpire want to rob himself of the experience of being part of history? Why would be want to sully his reputation and put himself through a lifetime of abuse by vindictive, mean-spirited people—like you? Why, if this is what he “wanted,’ is he so clearly remorseful now? Your comment manages to be grossly unfair, cruel, and silly simultaneously. Congratulations; that’s not easy to do.

      • Look at the facts. The umpire had cost the pitcher and robbed him of a perfect game. Take a look at baseball as a whole do you really think there is integrity. I like for you to tell me where there is integrity in baseball, I am all ears.

        • 1) Honest mistakes do not undermine integrity, nor are they inconsistent with it. It was an honest mistake. 2) Integrity has to be maintained in human maters and activities. Enforcing rules on all participants equally is integrity. 3) No pitcher who has lost a game, a shutout, a no-hitter or had his era spoiled by an umpires mistake has ever had a judgment call reversed, because those are the rules. We can count on them. That’s why the umpires have to be especially careful, skillful and diligent: there’s no fixing an error. 4) The rules are written down, available to all, and followed in every game, with set processes of appeal, objectively considered. 5) Even when integrity isn’t perfect, it is a crucial ideal to seek.

          Ignore integrity, and you have pro wrestling.

      • Covering up integrities is very easy in baseball, you don’t have to look to far. In the public eye there is scrutiny all the time and for you Jack Marshall to deny there is integrity is intellectually dishonest.

  8. I am a huge baseball fan. And, as a yoga teacher, I am a huge fan of people who live their humanness with integrity. Your final few sentences say it all. The most important thing is to evaluate our actions, take responsibility and promptly admit our wrongs. Joyce is my hero! Thanks so much for writing this piece. P.S. Aside from Rudyard Kipling, there’s a guy named Bill Wilson who also would’ve loved Jim Joyce.

  9. You make a good point overall, but the problem here is that the play wasn’t really that close at all. Umpire’s make so many correct calls on bang-bang plays where the viewer has no idea if it was correct or not because it was so close, and only after slow motion replay can we determine whether or not the correct call was made.

    That wasn’t the case here. It was clear to absolutely everyone that watched, in full speed, on the first look, that the guy was out. He was out by a full stride.

    Look at the picture for yourself, it’s not even close:

    Realistically, what probably happened here is that Joyce did exactly what you give him credit for not doing, only in reverse. He probably thought to himself the same thing you did, “I hate it how the pitcher is always given the benefit of the doubt in these situations”, and decided that if there was a close play, he would call the runner safe. If not consciously, then subconsciously.

    • The photo is clear. The slow-mo is clear. It was still a very close play in real time. Plays like that are gotten wrong every single day. This wasn’t anywhere near as obvious as, for example, the Denkinger call in 1985. And it just wasn’t clear to “everyone”…the Tigers broadcasters, for example, weren’t certain until they saw the replay. Bias is tricky, though, and something like what you describe may well have happened: in being determined to call the play fairly if it went against the perfect game, Joyce may well have injected an element of bias that made him blow the call. We’ll never know. But this does happen.

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  11. Jack, you took the words right out of my mouth. I’m a fellow blogger and I feel the same way about last night. Joyce and Armando Galarraga handled the situation with humility. It’s sad and outrageous that baseball fans, sports radio, and our society in general, are going to spend all day verbally ripping an umpire over one bad call.

    marcys, I want to address the umpires “has too much power” comment. Let’s separate the good umpires like Joyce and Tim McClelland who does their jobs and own up when they make a bad call, from the bad ones who think they’re bigger than the sport like Joe West and C.B. Bucknor.

    Not all umpires abuse their power. Within that, the good umpires are never acknowledged for their work, as the bad umpires are never punished.

    Yes, MLB needs to get out of the dark ages and expand the usage of instant replay to help the umpires get the calls on the field of play correct. The overriding problem is that MLB, the players, the owners, and the umpire union are against making changes to help improve their game.

    The umpires have no more power than the owners and the players’ union. Remember, MLB flexed their power and derailed an planned walkout by the umpires around 2000. MLB is in charge of the umpires now.

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  13. I thought this was an outstanding post, mainly due to the debate it can spark. I can honestly say that when I saw this play, I immediately thought “Why would you even risk being wrong if it’s so close? Call him out!” If it’s a bang-bang play and you call him out, and he was actually barely safe, would that have been easier to live with?

    But after reading this, whether I agree with it or not, I don’t think he was out to steal the spotlight for himself, I think he has a great deal of integrity and he genuinely made the call he thought was right. It’s just really too bad it was the wrong call.

    At any rate, I was very impressed with Joyce and Galarraga in the face of all this last night and had to vent a little bit about the whole situation if you’re interested. I’ve seen more of that kind of sportsmanship and humanity in the aftermath today.

  14. Jack –

    first timer… you’re on the front page of WordPress, nice job.

    I agree 100% and you make an excellent point, and you also touch on a deeper meaning and level than our current so-called ‘leaders’ desperately need to glean from what you so eloquently wrote.

    I watched the replays over and over all night last night and my heart aches for that young pitcher. But they both, umpire and pitcher, handled it with grace and professionalism so far. Let’s hope it remains that way – after all it is just a game at the end of the day.

    Ethics, perspective, morals, conscience – these are the lessons we should be gleaning from sports, and that is their highest and noblest of purpose. Way to focus the spotlight on the positive in what could have been yet another meltdown into a gulf-oil spill of immaturity and bad behavior.

      • Hey thanks!

        I thought that my name would be linkable, Jack – it turns out that it’s not… I have an interesting take on baseball myself in one of my previous postings… check it out when you get a chance… I have put yours in my ‘favorites’… It’s right down my alley and am on a similar path, so to speak. I will read it in depth when I get a chance…!

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  16. Great piece indeed. Saw the play and the call, and it’s a bummer. But great written response to the events. Your link that was Rudyard Kipling’s name took me to a legal site that read ‘content not found’ or somesuch.

    Great work!

  17. I have to give kudos to your wonderfully written piece. I am not a baseball fan, nor do I understand all the finer points of the game, but I still enjoyed the read!

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