Four years later -- to the day -- it's still nearly impossible for me to listen to Jim Joyce's postgame interview after missing the call that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga his perfect game.
Go ahead. Give it a try.
Jim Joyce, on the day that call was made, had been a major league umpire for 21 years. He had umped two All-Star Games, two World Series and 14 postseason series. An ESPN Magazine poll of players named him the best umpire in baseball by a rather wide margin. He was at the absolute top of his profession.
And then he made the biggest mistake an umpire could make, at the worst possible time, calling Jason Donald of the Indians safe on a close play at first base, when it was clear to everyone else that Galarraga had beaten him to the bag.
It was a nightmare for everyone involved. But in the wake of the call, a most unexpected thing happened: The story turned into a heartwarming one. Joyce apologized, Galarraga accepted his apology and the two men met at home plate the next day, embracing as Joyce wept. Even the Tigers fans, having seen how devastated Joyce was by the call, gave him an ovation. The two even ended up writing a book together.
That there was some sort of positive resolution there was nice, because if you watch the play again, you remember how painful it was. To hear the broadcasters, you would think they were watching a cute animal drowned.
Most of all: That game changed baseball history. It's easy to argue we don't have instant replay today without that game, and that call.
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Baseball history has been founded in antipathy toward umpires. "Kill the umpire!" "The ump's blind!" "You're missin' a great game, ump!" Even Norman Rockwell loved to make fun of umpires. If you take a step back and think about it, it's sort of absurd that baseball has ever allowed players and managers to come out and scream in the face of its officials if they disagree with a call, resolved merely with an ejection and everyone moving on the next day like nothing ever happened, the coyote and the sheepdog punching their time cards out. No other sport does this: If an NBA coach or player went after a ref like in baseball, it'd be considered a national scandal.
In baseball, it has always been understood that umpires are noble dopes. President Harry Truman once said, ""I couldn't see well enough to play when I was a boy, so they gave me a special job -- they made me an umpire." We abuse umpires. This has always been integral to the game. It's a part of its soul. Johnny Evers said, "my favorite umpire is a dead one." He's in the Hall of Fame.
This began to change a bit in the 1980s. I'd attribute it to two people: Don Denkinger and Ron Luciano. Denkinger famously missed that key call in the 1985 World Series and suffered such unremitting invective from fans that the FBI was called in. Luciano was one of the most beloved umpires in the game who, after he retired, wrote five extremely entertaining books about the game, humanizing both himself and umpiring as a profession. He let you know how tough it could be, in light, funny detail. Here's this, from The Umpire Strikes Back.
The umpires have kept this game honest for 100 years. We're the only segment of the game that has never been touched by scandal. We gotta be too dumb to cheat. We must have integrity, because we sure don't have a normal family life. We certainly aren't properly paid. We have no health care, no job security, no tenure. Our pension plan is a joke. We take more abuse than any living group of humans, and can't give back any. If we're fired without notice, our only recourse is to appeal to the league president. And he's the guy that fires you. That's gotta be unconstitutional."
(Luciano suffered from lifelong depression and killed himself in 1995.)
As the years went along, and technology improved, umpires were less hated for their theoretical incompetence and more for their increasing irrelevance. The problem with missing a call was less that the umpire was stupid or blind -- two epithets tossed out more in bemusement than fury -- but that the umpire was a human being. Expecting him to get every call correct was unreasonable: You were angry when a call was missed, less toward the individual and more toward the idea that a call had to be missed at all.
But there was still a sense, among those against an instant replay system like in other sports, particularly football, that this was how baseball was supposed to be. Missing calls was that "human element" that made the game whole, that gave it life, that kept it tied to the past. Missed calls were just part of the baseball experience, the same way that screaming in the face of the umpires who had missed them was. If you had instant replay, whom would you yell at? Harry Wendelstadt once said, "If they did get a machine to replace us, you know what would happen to it? Why, the players would bust it to pieces every time it ruled against them. They'd clobber it with a bat." The battle between those who played the game and those who regulated was essential. The conflict was eternal. The coyote and the sheepdog punch in, spend three hours fighting, then punch out. Instant replay felt like an encroachment on that. It felt unhuman.
Until, I'd argue, that day four years ago, when instant replay suddenly felt... humane.
The drama of the moment overwhelmed any argument that replay wasn't inevitable. For the first time, people realized that instant replay would not just make life more just for the players and the managers... it would make it more just for the umpires. Here was Jim Joyce, a terrific umpire, making a massive, mortifying mistake for the whole world to see, even though he was staring right at the play. If he could miss that call, any call could be missed any time.
And he was devastated by it. Of all people to miss the call, it had to be him. If Angel Hernandez misses that call and is all Angel Hernandez about it -- scowling for the camera, picking fights with every fan at Comerica Field -- the impact would have been far different. But it wasn't Angel Hernandez: It was Jim Joyce. To hear the anguish in his voice, it made the mistake real... human. And it made it obvious that it was something no one wanted to see happen again. If you could relieve Joyce of that pain, wouldn't you have to do it?
It turned out, we could. We're still ironing out the kinks in this replay system; this first year has been beta mode. But never again will we ever have to hear Joyce's pain postgame. Never again can someone get it so wrong. We didn't get replay until this year. But it started that second, four years ago today.
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