Commentary: Armando Galarraga, an umpire and a life lesson

The Miami HeraldJune 12, 2010 

A few words about the things we seek from baseball.

From all sports, really, but from America's pastime more than most. We seek heroes, of course, men and women who thrill us with their excellence, stun us with their prowess, whose diving catches and fadeaway jumpers jerk us to our feet, fists pumping, mouths wide and roaring.

But more than heroes, we seek examples, parables with which to teach our kids. Sports is, after all, an irresistible microcosm of life and its verities, an ongoing lesson in how to get a win and bear a loss, in the value of hard work and team work, in the importance of resilience and leadership, sacrifice and self-confidence.

These are valuable things to know. So who can blame the parent who instinctively points his children toward hardwood and grassy field, who implores them to take the lessons embodied there and apply them to school, to life and, yes, to Little League? Who can blame the parent who says, "Look, kids. Look," as verities are taught and heroes go striding past?

Unfortunately, sports heroes too often behave in ways that make you want to cover your child's eyes instead. Nothing new about that, granted: Mickey Mantle was a drunk, Ty Cobb was a bigot. But nobody knew that then.

We know so much more now, in a world where news is all access 24/7, 365. We know about Ben Roethlisberger and Kobe Bryant being accused of sexual assaults, about Barry Bonds' alleged use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs and Alex Rodriguez's and Mark McGwire's admitted use of same, about Michael Vick's dog-fighting and et cetera. We know enough, get disappointed often enough, that the very idea of seeking verities and lessons on fields of athletic competition comes to seem tawdry and naive.

You grow up. You get wise. You move on, making your peace with the fact that you will not find things worth showing your children in baseball or in sports, period. Maybe it was foolish to ever think you could.

Then you get a game like last week's between Cleveland and Detroit.

It seems Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga was on the verge of a perfect game. The perfect game -- i.e., the game where the pitcher allows no batter on base -- is perhaps the rarest occurrence in sports: there have been only 20 in the last 130 years. Galarraga needed just one more out to join that rarefied company.

Instead, he was robbed. The culprit was umpire Jim Joyce, who made what's already being called one of the worst calls of all time when he ruled Cleveland's Jason Donald safe at first. An instant replay showed Donald was, in fact, out. And just like that, Galarraga's shot at history was gone. Joyce was reported to be disconsolate after he saw the replay. "I just cost that kid a perfect game," he said.

What's remarkable, though, is what happened afterward. The umpire sought out the player and apologized, weeping. And Galarraga promptly accepted. "Nobody's perfect," he explained.

It bears repeating: As fans were dripping froth, as the Joyce family was reporting actual death threats, the embarrassed and reviled umpire owned his mistake and apologized, and the bitterly disappointed pitcher shrugged it off as one of those things. And both put it behind them and went back to work.

The game might not have been perfect, but that response surely was. You will seldom see better definitions of integrity, civility, sportsmanship. Of The Way Things Ought To Be.

And as wised up as you are to the futility of seeking verities from sport, as often as you've promised your disappointed heart you won't disappoint it again, the sheer grace of that moment gets through your defenses like a ground ball trailing fire.

Look, kids. Look.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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