Thursday, June 2, 2011

June 2, 2010: Perfectly wrong

DETROIT - The fans were standing and cheering. The players were at the edge of their dugout, trying not to look excited. The 28-year-old with only 20 Major League victories peered in for the final sign, took a deep breath, and threw.

A soft grounder to the right of first. The first baseman fields it and flips it toward the bag. Pitcher, batter, and ball seem to be arriving at the same time, but then the ball wins the race. The pitcher catches the ball and steps on first in one motion, beating the runner by half a step. He begins to celebrate, looking at the umpire, who signals ... safe.

The crowd is stunned. Everybody watching is stunned. Everybody watching on TV, everybody who saw the play live, saw that the batter was out. Even the batter seemed resigned to his fate. But the call stood.

Detroit's manager, a grumpy-looking old man who has been around the block a time or twelve, comes out to argue, not because the call has a bearing on who will win or lose, but because of what that call meant to the pitcher. His closing words to the umpire: "You just cost that kid a perfect game."

See, that's why there was such outrage. Armando Galarraga had retired the first 26 batters he faced, and when the 27th one hit a weak grounder to first, it seemed like he had become the third pitcher in a month to throw a perfect game. Except umpire Jim Joyce called him safe. And the call stood.

Immediately after the game, Joyce saw the replay, and felt sick to his stomach. He had blown it. He faced the media after the game and admitted that he had blown the call. He went to the Tigers' clubhouse in tears and asked for forgiveness. He asked the league if they could overturn his call, but the answer was no. And so the call stood.

Galarraga immediately forgave Joyce. He understood - every umpire makes a bad call once in a while. He was took missing out on a perfect game in stride. In fact, he became much more famous and got much more attention for having a perfect game taken away from him than Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay got for completing their games earlier that season. At the end of the 2010 season, if you had asked baseball fans to remember key moments from the season, more would have pointed to Galarraga's near-miss than Braden's or Halladay's moments in the sun.

It was tough to knock Nile Kinnick from the top spot for June 2. After all, here was a guy who gave up a professional football career to fight - and eventually die - for his country. But what cost Kinnick, in my mind, was simply time. He died in 1943, and unfortunately, he is mostly known around the country now simply as the namesake for Iowa's football stadium. Kinnick's story is a great one, one that shouldn't be forgotten. But it's no longer the most memorable moment from June 2.

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