Sunday, June 06, 2010


I was thinking about writing a post with various thoughts to mark the one-third point of the baseball season, but I'd rather focus on two recent events: Armando Galarraga’s “perfect game” and the retirement of Ken Griffey Jr. (Post about Griffey to appear sometime in the coming days.)

Unless you’re entirely indifferent to both baseball and all mainstream news organizations, you know that Galarraga got the first 26 Cleveland Indians out last Wednesday night. The 27th batter, Jason Donald, grounded to first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who fielded the ball and tossed it to Galarraga at the bag. Replays showed that Galarraga was there a half-step before Donald, but umpire Jim “I just cost that kid a perfect game” Joyce called the runner safe. Joyce, checking the replay, admitted he blew the call almost as soon as the game was over.

Three things to cover here: What to do about the call, how the participants reacted, and the weirdly amazing pitching so far this baseball season.

The day after the game, on the New York Times’ baseball blog, Tyler Kepner wrote:
[T]he notion that Galarraga should be retroactively awarded a perfect game is misguided. It was not a perfect game. The game continued after Joyce awarded Jason Donald first base. A perfect game is defined as a full game in which nobody on a team reaches base. It’s simple. And it didn’t happen.
The first three comments below Kepner’s post all strongly disagreed with him. I was the sixth reader to leave feedback on the post, and this is the relevant part of what I said:
To the other commenters so far, would this mean going back to other games throughout history and making sure that an umpiring error never resulted in other perfect games being lost? Because this happened on the last play of the game, it stands out, but it seems reasonable to think it's happened before, in the middle of games. Changing it retroactively seems supremely silly.
So, that’s how I feel about the idea, since discarded, that baseball might award the perfect game after the fact.

Another commenter on the post (228 comments followed mine) made an interesting point: “From now on, in any perfect game situation, there will be enormous pressure on umpires on close calls in the final inning to err on the side of the perfect game and avoid a Joyce-like backlash.” Of course, you could say that this pressure has always been there. But this person’s idea of what to do about it, which involves some kind of 24-hour rule change that would allow this result to be altered while keeping most (but not all) future results from such alteration, is ridiculous.

But even more compelling than the incident itself was the way the participants handled it. Are you sitting down? They handled it with dignity. I know! Not only did Joyce immediately accept accountability (which wouldn’t be newsworthy in a perfect, or even much less imperfect world), but Galarraga, who had been unfairly denied a career-defining accomplishment, accepted the outcome with what appeared to be a genuine combination of levelheadedness and good humor. As another Times commenter put it: “I think we got something better than a perfect game -- an example of perfect sportsmanship and stoicism in the face of great disappointment. To me, that's more stunning than a perfect game would have been.” It’s 2010, and I have to agree.

(As for what this all means about instant replay in baseball, etc., I remain a staunch traditionalist. Bruce Weber recently wrote, “Umpires have been ingrained in major-league baseball since the inception of the National League in 1876, somewhere approaching 200,000 games ago, and it’s likely that the umps have botched a call or two in every one of them since then,” and that the sport has survived just fine despite this. I reviewed Weber’s book about umpires here.)

What Joyce’s call kept from happening, astonishingly enough, was the third perfect game in less than a month. There have only been 20 such games in the history of the sport, and two of those came in the 19th century. There has been a trend toward more of them, with seven thrown between 1881 and 1981, and 11 since then. But still: three in a month? This is in addition to several other pitching achievements so far this year. I won’t bore you with all of them, but here’s the most exciting: The Rockies’ 26-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez is 10-1 with an ERA of 0.78. He’s given up one home run in 80+ innings. He’s on pace for 30 wins, which almost certainly won’t happen (if it does, watch out), but he doesn’t have to get that many to hold everyone’s attention through the summer. Of the 552 times a pitcher has won 23 or more games in a season, only six of those have occurred since 1990.

Getting back to perfect games: Who was the worst pitcher to throw one? Charlie Robertson was pretty undistinguished. So was Don Larsen, except for his World Series perfect game, still the only one in postseason history. They’re challenged by Len Barker, but I’d say it comes down to those three.

The most efficient perfect game? The one thrown by Addie Joss, who needed just 74 pitches to finish off the White Sox, 1-0, on October 2, 1908. His opponent in that game, Ed Walsh, wasn’t too shabby either -- nine innings pitched, one run (unearned), one walk, and 15 strikeouts. That’s a pretty great story, throwing 15 K’s and losing that way. Not as great as Galarraga’s story, though -- which will be recounted among fans for far longer, and with more affection, than most perfect games.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

“From now on, in any perfect game situation, there will be enormous pressure on umpires on close calls in the final inning to err on the side of the perfect game and avoid a Joyce-like backlash.”

From now on? What I found most incredible about the call was that it's basically an unwritten rule that when a pitcher is working on a historic game (either a no hitter or a perfect game), he's going to get every close call, and some not-so-close ones. It's expected. In part because no umpire wants to be the guy to break up a no hitter/perfect game (I believe Ron Luciano admitted this in one of his books), but also because umpires are fans of the game, and they enjoy a no hitter as much as anyone else.

But whenever I hear about no hitter/perfect game scandals -- and they do pop up every once in a while -- I think about Pedro Martinez, who threw a perfect game through 9 innings before giving up a hit in the 10th.

Even more heart breaking, back in the 1950s, Harvey Haddix threw a perfect game through an incredible 12 innings. A runner reached base in the 13th, followed by an intentional walk, followed by a home run. Haddix threw a perfect game through 12 innings, and lost.

And yes, the way they acted afterward was incredible. They threw the quote out on Sportscenter that adversity doesn't create character, it reveals it. And then they showed Gallarraga taking out the lineup card the next day, handing it to Joyce (who was calling the game behind home plate), and Joyce started bawling. I actually teared up at that one.

5:10 AM  

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