Thursday, June 3, 2010

Joyce's Boner





Before I kissed a girl or had my first serious relationship, baseball was my first love. I remember the day I got my first baseball mitt , a Mississippi red clay tanned Rawlings Reggie Jackson edition outfielder's glove. I ran down to my friend Wayne's house and then to the vacant lot across the street from my grandfather's foam green stucco Victorian era mansion that was by then past its heyday of the early 1850's. We played baseball in that vacant lot every spring, summer, and sometimes fall if the weather cooperated from 4th grade until our freshman year of high school, plucking thorny seeds from our hands and legs, breaking side-view mirrors on parked cars, and frequently losing the rubber baseball or tennis ball that we used to play with on the roof of the house across the street when one of us cracked a mammoth homer to straight-away center, making sure to touch all of the bases before we set out on the unenviable mission of ringing the doorbell and asking for access to Bronzeville's version of the Wrigleyville rooftop seats.

Out there in the sandlot on 45th and Berkeley we were the players, coaches, and umpires and that is why this morning I harbor a feeling of deep empathy with both Detroit Tiger's pitcher Armando Galarraga and umpire Jim Joyce.

One out away from the 3rd perfect game in the last 2 months and the 21st ever such feat in the storied history of Major League Baseball, Indians shortstop Jason Donald hit a sharp groundball to Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera ranging to his right. He steadied himself and tossed the ball to Galarraga covering 1st. On a bang-bang play, first base umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe. Galarraga looked at Joyce in stunned disbelief, as if Ashton Kutcher had just walked on the field and executed the Punk of the century. Cabrera, hands on top of his head, could not believe that Donald had been called safe. Donald, hands on top of his head, could not believe that he had been called safe. Tiger's manager Jim Leyland came out and briefly discussed the call with Joyce before returning to the dugout. The 21st Perfect Game in Major League Baseball history was not in the stars for the Tigers and the Detroit faithful.

Galarraga retired the next batter that he faced and the Tigers won 3-0. During the post game handshakes Leyland engaged in a lively dispute of the call with Joyce before being escorted off the field by bench coach Gene Lamont. After the game, Joyce approached Galarraga in the locker room to apologize for what he had by then determined was an incorrect call. “It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the shit out of it,” Joyce said, looking and sounding distraught as he paced in the umpires’ locker room. “I just cost that kid a perfect game.” Later on, and certainly after a few Pall Mall's, Jim Leyland relented a bit from his emphatic disagreement with Joyce immediately after the conclusion of the game. “The players are human, the umpires are human, the managers are human,” Leyland said.

In the aftermath of Joyce's blown call, many have called for the expansion of instant replay in baseball beyond it's current usage for disputed home runs and fan interference. They argue that the technology is in place to remove the element of human error from the game and to permanently prevent egregious mistakes such as the one that cost Galarraga a Perfect Game last night from ever happening again.

I would argue that the element of human error is what makes baseball as appealing a sport as it is and has been for nearly 200 years. It is the interaction between all of the elements necessary for a game to occur and the apparent humanity of all these elements that makes every person in the stands, at home, and on fields from rural Iowa to inner city Chicago feel that they could pick up a glove, ball, and bat and someday play at the highest level with the greatest talent in the world. One could argue that the same sentiments do not apply to professional football, basketball, hockey, and auto racing. Using this one unfortunate call and the well-spring of emotions surrounding it in this, the immediate aftermath of the crisis, to expand instant replay in baseball would open up a veritable Pandora's Box, ruining a game already marred by steroid investigations, complaints about the lengths of games, and declining attendance.

Where would the replays stop? At fair and foul ball calls? Safe and out calls? Balls and strikes? Could there possibly be a day in baseball when umpires are replaced by strategically placed cameras and sensors that use lasers to electronically define the strike zone? Do you go back in history and retroactively correct the Don Denkinger missed call or the fan interference that was not called on the Derek Jeter homerun against the Baltimore Orioles in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series? Could baseball without umpires, errors, disputed calls, and Bobby Cox getting tossed from a game in the bottom of the 1st inning still be considered baseball? That is a hypothetical that gives me goose bumps to even consider. It is the human element of the game, the mimicking of life between the white lines, that has allowed America's passtime to endure from the past to the present and future generations. Baseball isn't rocket science, brain surgery, or even deep sea oil drilling - all occupations where you'd certainly want to limit the element of human error. When you take human error out of the game of baseball, you are taking away an essential portion of the appeal of the game. There will be bad calls on the diamond in the future (just asks the Minnesota Twins after their loss late lastnight in Seattle) just as there will be bad calls by all of us in life but that shouldn't dissuade from enjoying the game just as one personal misstep shouldn't permanently alter the path on our life's journey.

Lost in all the rancor surrounding "Joyce's Boner" is the hustle of Indians shortstop Jason Donald. Surely feeling the pressure of the moment, it would have been easy for Donald to acquiesce to the historic moment and hotdog it down to first, silently reserving himself and his teammates to a place in baseball lore. This would've been the very behavior that baseball purist simultaneously expect and loathe from today's players. Instead, Donald busted his tail down the line, ensuring that if it was in the cards for him to be the 27th out on Galarraga's perfect night, it would've been a feat well earned by his opponent. Donald's hustle put the ball firmly in Joyce's court and Joyce, concretely, dropped the ball. Some may feel that Jim Joyce's incorrect call sullied the integrity of the game (and they have the right to their opinion. In the same vein, Donald's sprint to 1st showed that this same integrity is alive and well in the players that play the game "the right way".

As my late grandfather used to say, "Whether you like it or not, you have to take the bitter if you also want the sweet".

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