Baseball’s Imperfect Game

A LESSON IN SPORTS AND IN LIFE

They call it a “perfect game.” It’s baseball’s Holy Grail, and it’s happened only 21 times in major league history, the last time in 2012, courtesy of Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners. It’s called the “perfect game” because you can’t pitch a game any better than 27 up and 27 down.

But this article is not about the “perfect game,” but about an imperfect one that is in some ways better than what we call “perfect.”

Seven years ago this week, Detroit Tigers journeyman pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from his “perfect game.” Galarraga had retired 26 batters when the Cleveland Indians’ Jason Donald stepped into the batter’s box. Donald then sliced a grounder to the right side of the infield, forcing first baseman Miguel Cabrera to field the ball. Cabrera threw the ball to Galarraga, who ran over to cover first. Everyone in the ballpark knew Donald was out by a half step.

Everyone except umpire Jim Joyce. Joyce called Donald safe. The blown call ended Galarraga’s bid for what then would have been major league baseball’s 21st perfect game.

Detroit manager Jim Leyland leapt out of the dugout to protest, but—as all baseball fans know— the gesture was nothing more than theater: The only thing rarer than a perfect game is a reversed call. Jason Donald remained on first. Galarraga composed himself and disposed of the next batter. Twenty-eight up, 27 down. Galarraga ended up one out shy of the record book.

Seven years ago, this was the biggest story in sports, and it spilled over into the regular news cycle, with the major networks telling the story. But perhaps the biggest part of the story was what happened off the field.

Immediately after the game, Galarraga celebrated his team’s win. It is worth noting that Galarraga had been—at best—a journeyman pitcher, whose career record then was 21-18.  He was not destined for the Hall of Fame—unless there’s one somewhere for good sportsmanship.  He earned that spot on this day, because when reporters pounded him with questions, wanting him to criticize the umpire or call for instant replays, he brushed the questions aside by observing humbly and thankfully (and truthfully) that this was the best game he had pitched in his career. No blame. No recriminations. Just character and grace.

But what about the umpire, Jim Joyce? He watched a replay immediately after the game and quickly admitted he had blown the call. No excuses. He immediately, emotionally, and publicly apologized to Galarraga. Again: character and grace.

The next day came perhaps the best moment of all: Joyce was scheduled to be the umpire behind the plate. It is the duty of each team to bring the starting lineup out to the home plate umpire. Usually the manager or a coach or the team captain performs the duty. On this day, Galarraga himself emerged from the Detroit dugout. He shook hands with Joyce, who was so choked up he could not speak. With head bowed, Joyce accepted the lineup card. And with his lip trembling, he gently touched Galarraga on the arm. There were a few boos from the watching crowd, but there were also a lot of cheers.

It was a very human moment. If you are a baseball fan, it’s one of those moments that make you fall for the game all over again. But even if you are not a baseball fan, it was hard not to see the forgiveness, the love, in this special moment.

Sometimes, stories with dramatic moments like such as this end badly, with lives and careers wrecked. This story is different in that way, too. Galarraga soldiered on as a journeyman pitcher, never achieving greatness, but having a fairly long career by the standards of professional athletes. He bounced around in Major League Baseball for a few more years, and then played overseas for a few years more, finally retiring in 2015. Jim Joyce, who at the time of the blown call was one of major league baseball’s most respected umpires, also umped a few years more, hanging up his chest protector in January of this year.

And a strange thing happened between Galarraga and Joyce. They became friends, even writing a book together called—appropriately—“Nobody’s Perfect.”

Here’s one more point to consider: Galarraga’s game has gone down in baseball history not as a “perfect game” but as “The Imperfect Game.” Sometimes it’s called “The Galarraga Game.”

It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened to Galarraga if he in fact had pitched that perfect game. After all, how many of the 21 pitchers who have pitched perfect games can you name? There’s Don Larsen’s in the 1956 World Series, the only perfect game ever pitched in World Series play. But can you name another? Anyone?

Anyone?

We impose words like “perfect” on games and on life because we have only a very vague sense of what true perfection really is. Armando Galarrago and baseball fans everywhere learned seven years ago that there was certainly something better than a “perfect game”: a game that transcended human definitions of “perfect” to achieve something more. Outside of baseball, we do not lament busted games, but busted lives, and a broken world, a world that does not conform to our understanding of perfection, and we ask “why?”

Oh, there’s no doubt that we live in a broken world. It is not what it was, and not what it will be.  But I sometimes wonder if God is asking us to give up our vague and likely flawed definition of “perfect” so He can give us something more, something better. Andrew Peterson wrote a song (“Don’t You Want to Thank Someone”) in which he wondered if it were not a better thing

To be more than merely innocent
But to be broken then redeemed by love.

Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce and their “imperfect game” suggest the answer to that question is “yes.”

[Editor’s note: This article is adapted from one that ran in WORLD in 2010.]

Image courtesy of Dmytro Aksonov at iStock by Getty Images.

Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.


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  • Charles S. Frisinger

    Great story about two giants in the sports world. This is an example that should be demonstrated in any realm of life.

  • John Andrew

    That’s one great story! And it’s one of the stories that happen in and around baseball that makes fans for life out of some of us. More than that, though, the way you framed the question at the end makes me add that yes, God does sometimes give us a foreshadowing of Heaven by showing us something imperfect. A rose, or a snow-peaked mountain range, or a baby in Mama’s arms, perfect as they are, are but foreshadowings of the perfect things to come. And we who are straining to hear God’s still, soft voice, are among the few traveling that narrow road, who will one day gaze upon such beauty as we can only imagine now. Oh, how I find myself longing for that day!
    Very well done, Warren!