Thursday, June 03, 2010

Perfection

Are you going on to perfection ? Jonathan Wesley

Perfectio vera in coelestibus St. Jerome


I had never heard of Armando Galarraga prior to last night.I was surfing
around the cable when I noticed a note crawling across the bottom of a
screen on one of the sports networks which reported that said Galarraga
had been "perfect through six" in a game he was pitching in Detroit
against the Cleveland Indians. What this meant was that he had retired
the first 18 men in order in the baseball game and if he could get the
next nine men out he would have pitched a "perfect" game. It would have
been the 2oth such game in major league history, a history which goes
back about 135 years. It is quite a rare event, although, oddly, two of
the 19 pitched in the last 135 years had taken place within the last
three weeks. Only once before, 1880, had two such games been pitched in
one season and never before had three been pitched in one year.

In this era of instant communication, the sports network ESPN switched
from their regular programming over to Detroit after the 7th inning was
completed with the perfect game still intact, so that fans could see
history made. I was gratified that the switch was made and, along with a
couple of million of my close friends settled in to see what would
happen.

Perfection. It is impossible to say that something is perfect. Let me
retract that last sentence. It is impossible to say with absolute
certainty that something is perfect unless we have a previously agreed
upon definition by which to judge the effort. There is no reason why we
should, as a society, have settled upon a perfect game in baseball being
the retirement of 27 batters in a row. We could have said that no one
pitched a perfect game unless they struck out all 27 batters. We could
go further than that and decreed that a game was only perfect if every
batter struck out on three pitches , or, if every batter struck out on
three pitches AND if none of the three strikes per batter was on a foul
ball.

I was holding the channel changer in my hand as the ninth inning started
for Mr. Galarraga. The first batter, the immortal Mark Grudzielanek
swung and hit a deep fly in the gap between left and centerfield. The
ball was hit so hard and placed so perfectly that I actually had my
thumb on the power button of the remote so that I could turn the game
off when the ball hopped off of the wall for a double. A funny thing
happened though. The Detroit Centerfielder, a fellow named Austin
Jackson running full stride caught the ball over his shoulder, his face
to the wall. A catch that more than one commentator has likened to
Willie Mays famous 1954 World Series catch. It was not simply a great
baseball play, it was a remarkable example of human athleticism. I was
stunned. I moved my thumb off of the power button and threw down the
control. This was going to be a perfect game, I was sure.

The next batter grounded out on a routine play, leaving only one batter
to be disposed of. That hitter was Jason Donald. I did not know much
about Jason, but I knew that he was batting in the number nine spot in
the Indian lineup, so by definition, I knew that he was the Indians
weakest hitter participating in that game. Young Donald proceeded to hit
a ball in the no man's land between First and second base. Miguel
Cabrrera, the Tiger first baseman ran toward it and it was obvious would
have to throw to the pitcher Galarraga coming over to cover first base.
In baseball, this is known as a 3-1 play and it is practiced constantly.
Woe to the pitcher who does not get over in time to cover. I frankly
thought that Cabrerra was too far over to get the runner, and I also had
my doubts that Galarraga would beat Donald to the bag. No one wants to
be the last out in a perfect game and see themselves on videotape
forever after failing to do their job ,so Donald was running like the
wind .

Cabrerra gloved the ball (ironically, the second baseman was directly
behind him, if Cabrerra had covered first himself the play would not
have been all that close, but Cabrerra did exactly what he was supposed
to be doing) and threw to the pitcher who was almost to the bag. I
leaned toward the screen and saw, in this order, the ball hit the
pitcher's glove, the pitcher's foot scrape over the top of first base
followed by the runners foot hitting the bag. To my shock, the umpire,
James Joyce (oh, ok, he goes by Jim, but for literary reasons I'm going
to call him by his given name)called the runner safe. Ah ha, I thought,
when the pitcher swept his foot across the bag, he must not made
contact. Oh well, at least it's the pitcher's own fault. Several replays
later it was clear that the bag had been touched by the pitcher. After
the game, James Joyce, probably drinking Jameson's deep into the night,
stated that he thought that the runner had "beaten the throw". This was
simply a blown call, a mistake, the reason why we put erasers on
pencils, the reason why we say (and you knew this was coming) "nobody is
perfect" .

Back to perfection. Under the definition I gave you for a perfect game,
Galarraga was perfect. 27 men came up, 27 men made outs. My definition
was flawed. A man is not out, no matter what, unless an umpire says that
he is out Galarraga had achieved perfection, he had just not been given
credit for it, and never will be in the record books. Forever after the
cold box score will say that Armando Galarraga pitched a magnificent one
hitter on the night of June 2, 2010 in the city of Detroit, Michigan.
Millions who saw it both live and on television will know that he was
wronged and, in a lesser way, the millions watching were themselves
wronged, cheated out of seeing something that happens so infrequently.

Many a fielder's error has destroyed a perfect game. Last night an
umpire's error did so. Umpires, like all of us make mistakes. At least I
think we all do. Ironically, the original James Joyce's did not fully
agree with me. Joyce said that " A man of genius makes no mistakes, his
errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery." The umpire
James Joyce was more forthright about mistakes. "It was the biggest call
of my career and I kicked the shit out of it" he said last night. Indeed
he did, but you have to admire someone who would be so honest and you
have to hope that some of the great sympathy we feel for Galarraga, we
also feel for the umpire Joyce because really, it is a equal tragedy
for both men. Both men were doing the best they could, both were trying
to make their way on to perfection. I think that perhaps both of them
are closer to perfection now than they ever were.

We will hear in coming days, the appeal made again to allow use of
instant replay to be for these situations. I have always opposed that.
Baseball is a human game. Human beings are not about always "getting it
right". There is still room, even need, for catharsis in today's world
(Aristotle would have opposed instant replay).These small tragedies are
the things in life that remind us of what it means to be humans. If we
wanted to always "get it right" we could just program all of the players
and play the games on a computer like the kids do in their E.A. games.
Why bother with going through all the motions, to heck with hot dogs and
cracker jacks and seventh inning stretches ? To heck with stories about
real human beings like Galarraga and Joyce. To heck with cheering for
your flawed hero or booing an umpire. The spirit of Galarraga and Joyce
is what is needed in today's world. Much more than perfection.