That Guy Salute: Jim Joyce, Umpire of Baseball’s Credibility
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 3, 2010
Over the next few days, you’re going to hear a whole lot of hubbub about a controversial call that took place in last night’s game between the Tigers and Indians. Facing catcher Jason Donald with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one retired batter away from a perfect game, a feat to ensure his place in baseball immortality. As Donald grounded sharply to first and Galarraga rushed to cover the bag and take infielder Miguel Cabrera’s throw for the sure put-out, the accomplishment looked to be in the books. But umpire Jim Joyce ruled Donald to have beaten the throw, granting him a base hit to ruin the perfecto. Showers of boos rained from the Comerica Park stands as what at first looked to be a questionable ruling turned out, upon replay, to be just a straight-up blown call, as the ball clearly beat Donald by a good half-step. Tigers color man Rod Allen (always one of MLB broadcasting’s more entertaining figures) memorably lamented upon review: “Oh! my! goodness! Jim Joyce, nooooo!!!!”
Instantaneously, Jim Joyce reached such a level of infamy that quizzes like “Detroit Tiger Fans Worst Umpire,” “The Worst Umpire in the World,” and my personal favorite, “Perfect Games that Jim Joyce Has Blown,” all popped up on Sporcle within about a half-hour, and the comparisons to Don Denkinger ran so rampant that the Denk briefly became a trending Twitter topic. And as much as we’d like to defend his ruling–that it was a bang-bang play, that Donald wasn’t that far off, that maybe it was close enough to a tie and the tie always goes to the runner–there’s really no sugarcoating it: Dude blew the call. But while Joyce may have destroyed what should have been a career-making night for Armando Galarraga, he ended up saving (whether consciously or not) something much more important: The integrity of the Major League Baseball perfect game.
I was talking with my friend about Phillies ace Roy Halladay’s perfect game the other day, and as we were remarking about how incredible it was, his non-baseball-fan girlfriend chimed in, confused: “So wait, a perfect game…that’s when nobody scores on the other team?” As we tried to explain to her what a perfect game meant, and how significant the accomplishment was, I told her about how baseball had been around for almost a century and a half, and how in all that time, only 20 of them had ever been thrown. As I was saying the words, I was even thinking to myself Really? Twenty times in over 140 years? How is that possible? Baseball has been around for so long that most of the notable single-game accomplishments have happened enough to lose a good deal of their sparkle, but the perfect game–which fans have gone decades, even generations at a time without ever witnessing–still holds that rarefied air in baseball lore.
But as fun as it was for me as a baseball fan and a Phillies fan especially to see Doc Halladay go 27 up, 27 down, it was still cheapened significantly by the events of earlier in the month. Wait a minute, a perfect game? Didn’t we just have one of those a few weeks ago? Sure enough, young Oakland Athletics pitching upstart Dallas Braden hurled the season’s first perfecto that Mother’s Day, an accomplishment that was already not as climactic as it could’ve been because it wasn’t that far away from Mark Buehrle’s flawless outing late last season. The accomplishment wasn’t any less, technically speaking, but as fans, we couldn’t help but be a little less jazzed with Halladay’s accomplishment, having already gone 12 rounds of the whole SportsCenter/PTI/1st&Ten ESPN blitz with Braden seemingly days earlier. Plus, if Braden–a career sub-.500 pitcher before and after the perfecto–could get it done, then did it really even mean that much when a Cy Young winner like Halladay echoed the performance? It was still awesome, but it just didn’t feel historic the way it probably should have.
Enter Armando Galarraga. I checked the Tigers/Indians box score in the 7th inning, and as I scrolled down to the pitching lines, I thought to myself “Huh, that’s a lot of zeros next to Galarraga’s name. Good for him.” Then I thought about it for a second–just how many zeroes was that, exactly? I checked the box score more closely, combing for any sign of life from the Indians’ offense. No. It couldn’t be. Not again. Not with Armando freakin’ Galarraga, the ex-sophomore slumper who wasn’t even in the Tigers’ rotation at the beginning of the year. I was furious. I had an IM conversation with a co-worker where I (half-heartedly) threatened to give up on the entire rest of the baseball season if Galarraga sealed the deal. That would have been three perfect games in the space of the month, which not only would have further tarnished Halladay and Braden’s gems, but it would have crushed whatever remaining aura the Perfect Game had left as an accomplishment. When I was talking with my parents after the Doc perfecto, we discussed how we’d always remember watching it, and how we’d pass the memory to future generations. Suddenly, the idea of doing that sounded about as exciting as telling my future kids the tale of the time I saw Hot Tub Time Machine in the theaters.
Now I know what people are saying, that with baseball culture putting steroids to rest that the days of the hitter are waning and that we’re entering a new renaissance of the pitcher, as evidenced not just by the two recently-thrown perfect games, but things like Ubaldo Jimenez’s sub-1.00 ERA, Max Scherzer’s 14-strikeout performance in less than six innings of work, the anonymous dominance of the entire St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff, stuff like that. And that’s all fair enough. But even a general trend like that wouldn’t come close to explaining an anomoly as unlikely as all this. When something happens just 18 times over the space of 141 years–roughly once every eight years–and then happens three times in the space of a month, then I’m sorry, it’s just not the same accomplishment that it once was, and might never be again. You remember that scene in Casino where Robert DeNiro gets pissed off at an employee for not sensing that something was up when three jackpots go off on his floor on the same day, telling him the odds of that happening legit were so ridiculously low that the whole thing had to be crooked? That’s how I felt. The Perfect Game suddenly felt crooked to me.
Did Jim Joyce have all of this in the back of his head as he saw Jason Donald racing against Miguel Cabrera’s toss to first base? Maybe, maybe not. But whether or not he realized it as he was doing it, the credibility of one of Major League Baseball’s proudest feats laid in the balance with his call. That elite group of 20 pitchers–not all of whom were Hall of Famers, certainly, but many of whom were, and the great majority of which were at least among the better hurlers of their time–must have been rooting (some from hospitals, some from the Great Beyond) for Donald to be safe, knowing that if this scrub had become the third pitcher in a month to go perfect, then the achievement that some of them had hung their entire careers on was now basically just a fluke, little more notable than making an unassisted triple play or hitting for the cycle. Is that fair to all those pitchers? No. Is it fair what ended up happening to Armando Galarraga? Absolutely not. But I do wonder if even Galarraga himself sort of realized how lucky he was to have been in that situation at all, as his reaction to Joyce’s call was not the guttural fury of a righteous man outraged at being wronged, but rather the mischievous smile of a crook that knows he’s been caught and is ready to accept the penalty.
So kudos to you, Jim Joyce, Dark Knight of baseball umpiring. Your call was not the right one, and you will surely be forever hunted for your error, but your call was nonetheless the one that baseball needed and deserved. In time, we will thank you for the sacrifices that you have made in order to preserve the sport’s good name.