Suddenly, a lot of writers, baseball players and commentators are calling for Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to step in and reverse umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call that cost Armando Galarraga a history-making perfect game on what should have been the last play of the game. Disturbingly, it seems that the Commissioner might be listening. The argument: the Commissioner has broad power to take action “in the best interest of baseball.”
The problem with this argument: it wouldn’t be in the best interests of baseball, or the principles of ethics, either.
This the a classic Conservative-Liberal divide that occurs whenever following the rules leads to an obviously unfair or offensive result. Conservatives say, “Those are the rules; live with the results. The important thing is to have clear rules.” Liberals say, “Forget the rules; it’s the results that count.” Both approaches are flawed, but the Liberal approach is flawed worse.
A sport, like any system or activity governed by rules and laws, has to have integrity and continuity, or it cannot be trusted. When a call is made on the field, right or wrong, and the game goes forward, it is in the books. Never before, since the beginnings of organized baseball, has a judgment call by an umpire been reversed after a game. When a rule is broken or misinterpreted by an umpire, it’s a different story. Then a game might be replayed to preserve the integrity of the game, by making sure the rules are followed, and followed correctly.
As B.B.C. Sports blogger Craig Calcaterra points out, another game taking place on the same night as Galarraga’s perfect game was decided on a mistaken call by the umpires on the final play. How could Selig justify reversing the Joyce call and not that one? Commentators appear to be arguing for a special “reverse a bad call when it ruins a perfect game” rule, admittedly something that might only be needed every 150 years or so. But why is this situation so special? The run erroneously allowed to score in the Seattle-Minnesota game might end up deciding who wins the American League Central Division, which in the grand scheme of things is more important than any individual achievement, even a perfect game.
What if Joyce’s call had come in the fourth inning, rather than the ninth? Would that justify over-turning the result? Why not? Why should when the perfect game-ruining call occurs matter? What if the base-runner who reached erroneously stole second and third and scored on a passed ball? Would Selig void the run? The stolen bases? What if the only thing stopping the perfect game had been two egregiously blown calls? Would that warrant overturning the game in the interest of fairness? Why not? Why should the umpires being more inept work to Galarraga’s disadvantage?
Once rules are abandoned to make convenient fixes, there is never finality, and trust in a system is permanently damaged. It is far better for fans to leave a game angry about a blown call than it is for fans to leave the ballpark never to be certain whether the results of a given game may be overturned by media pressure, a public outcry, and a misguided use of power. This was, in fact, the much misunderstood message the U.S. Supreme Court sent in its ruling in Bush v. Gore in 2000. Once the Florida Supreme Court over-rode the Florida election rules mid-process, there was no clear road map, no uniform standards for hand-counting ballots, and no clear end in sight to the election. The laws were inadequate for the situation, so the solution was to accept the results and try to fix the process later, using what was learned. What Major League Baseball learned from Galarraga’s misfortune and Joyce’s error is that it is time for an Instant Replay system.
I am afraid that it is quite possible that Commissioner Selig, whose judgment is uniformly wretched, will be tempted to yield to pressure and try to retroactively erase what happened on the field, which will mean, among other things, that the at-bat of Cleveland’s Trevor Crowe, who was the Indians’ 28th and final batter in the game, somehow disappears from the record books, along with the pitches Galarraga threw to him. I hope someone gives Bud this to read, from the memoirs of the late wild man/promoter/ club owner Bill Veeck. When Veeck, as a publicity stunt, signed a midget to a contract with his team, the St. Louis Browns, and sent him to bat in an official game, Major League Baseball tried to have Eddie Gaedel’s major league career (he walked on four pitches) erased from the record books as a “travesty to the game.” Veeck was outraged:
“…Harridge dutifully decreed that Gaedel’s appearance be stricken from all official records. This I wouldn’t stand for. I had promised Eddie that he would live forever in the record books, which are cast in bronze, carved in marble and encased in cement. Immortality I had promised him, and immortality he would have. I reminded Harridge that Gaedel had a legal contract and had been permitted to bat in an official game presided over by the league’s own umpires. If Gaedel hadn’t batted, I pointed out, it would also mean that Bobby Cain hadn’t thrown the pitches and that Swift hadn’t caught them. It would mean that Delsing had come in to run for no one, and that Saucier had been deprived of a time at bat. It would mean, in short, that the continuity of baseball was no longer intact, and the integrity of its records had been compromised. If Desecration was the game they wanted to play, then I held a pretty strong hand myself.”
Exactly. Whether it is the vaudeville slapstick of Eddie Gaedel, with 1/8 on the back of his uniform, coming up to the plate, or Armando Galarraga losing his perfect game to a good umpire’s worst moment, it happened, and the integrity of the game of baseball requires that it be accepted, and final.
The task ahead should be to make certain it never happens again.
Update: Well, I owe Bud an apology. He did the right thing, and refused to change the results of the game or over-rule Joyce. As is frequently the case when someone does the right thing, he is now being attacked. I think the clincher for Bud when he learned that Keith Olbermann had called for him to over-turn the umpire’s decision. Then he had to know it was a terrible idea.