Imperfect: How a Blown Call has Defined Our Generation

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Imperfect: How a Blown Call has Defined Our Generation
Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga smiles as he walks away from first… (Sancya/AP )

Just five games into his 2012 return to the major leagues, Armando Galarraga has been designated for assignment by the struggling Houston Astros and faces an uncertain future. For Galarraga, it is the most recent in a series of setbacks that have brought on the realization that his job as a professional athlete is in jeopardy.

In a career that has been defined by spectacular ups and downs - Galarraga was once a promising young arm set to emerge as a solid starter behind superstar Justin Verlander in Detroit - he looked to add another winning chapter when he toed the rubber for the Astros on July 28, 2012. After toiling in the high minors for more than a year, he reveled in the sights and sounds of a big league ballpark, seeing it with a fresh set of eyes belonging to a more seasoned, mature and smarter pitcher than we’d seen in the past.

Of course, there’s nothing like witnessing the birth of your first child less than 24-hours earlier to provide a new perspective on life, but after driving to Houston from his home in Austin, Texas, Galarraga gave up three runs on five hits as the Astros lost to the Pirates. Unfortunately, a lack of success and inability to command his once-devastating sinker has left Galarraga in an all too familiar situation – fighting to get back into the major leagues.

Even at such an obvious and imposing juncture, it is unlikely that anything Armando Galarraga does during his playing days, good or bad, will eclipse his infamously imperfect moment on June 2, 2010. He had already been optioned to the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate in Toledo in March and, back with the Tigers in late May, aimed to prove he belonged with the best players in the world. Still, no one could have expected the kind of dominating performance he would deliver against the Cleveland Indians that day.

Perfection, in life and sports, is fleeting. In baseball it is defined as twenty-seven up, twenty-seven down. No hits, no walks, no errors—nothing but two men and a glorified game of catch while mystified batters shake their heads as they return to a silent dugout. As fate would have it, Armando Galarraga would, on that day, retire all twenty-seven men he faced, but because of a blown call by first base umpire Jim Joyce, would have to face a twenty-eighth.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Umpire Jim Joyce made headlines again on August 20, 2012, after he saved the life of an Arizona Diamondbacks employee by administering CPR to the woman who was in cardiac arrest at Chase Field.

In a moment that is sealed in the annals of baseball lore, Galarraga stared in towards the Tigers dugout, knowing full well that his one brush with sports immortality had been whisked away by the fickle baseball gods. The look on his face as he pondered his flirtation with perfection was an impressive mix of the incredulous and the dignified, but he, as professionals always do, composed himself, settled in and recorded the final out.

As a reflection of society, baseball is fraught with cheaters, liars, criminals and those wise enough to know how to use the rules to their advantage. The mind reels at the thought of lesser men who have been elevated to baseball super-stardom and with what degree of class they might have responded in that same situation. An incredible, nearly unfathomable amount of self-discipline and character was no doubt required for Galarraga to maintain that, despite the historic circumstances and despite everything he’d been through to get on the mound that day, the twenty-eighth batter was just another out.

There was a time, not very long ago, when perfection was considered an honorable goal. Unrelenting focus and dedication were considered the trademarks of this country and the immovable force propelling it into the twentieth century. But anti-heroes and everyday people have replaced Superman in the national conscience over the course of several generations as they settled into an uncomfortable reality: true, sustained perfection is impossible. Instead, the one constant, unwavering trait that supersedes all else in the hearts and minds of sports fans is the lust for justice.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Armando Galarrage walked of the mound for the Houston Astros for the final time on August 19, 2012.

It is entirely possible that Armando Galarraga’s imperfect game will be viewed by future generations as a harbinger of instant replay, a pivotal moment when baseball decided to abandon the human element and rely on systematic automation to dictate its game. Since the underlying goal is to satisfy baseball’s authenticity — to always get the call right — it would seem to be adequate evidence to support this paradigm shift.

Yet it is even more likely that Armando Galarraga is perhaps more widely known for his distinguished and proud response to injustice than he ever would have been had he joined the ranks of Len Barker, Tom Browning and Dallas Braedon. A perfect game is a remarkable performance, but if Joyce made the correct call, Galarraga would be just another pitcher who pitched one exceptional game, his memory eventually lost to all but the most ardent fans.

Instead we are left with the image of a professional athlete who understood the unusual gift he was given. With the eyes of the sporting world fixed on his every move Armando Galarraga gave sports fans something even more spectacular: he reacted like a champion, he overcame adversity, persisted and succeeded. He provided onlookers with an all-too-rare glimpse of honor and integrity.

Whether he throws another pitch in a big league game or not, Armando Galarraga has come to represent a throwback to the baseball characters once adored by a nation. Surrounded by superstars with million-dollar contracts and only a faint concept of loyalty, Galarraga is continuing his fight, but has already won over the hearts of many with his enduring performance on that cloudy afternoon in Detroit. Despite the gravity of the misjudgment, it was a class act by a classy player that represents the kind of honest, driven effort given by millions of Americans every day who all seek the same goal.

It was an impressive pitching feat that no one saw coming. It was an even more impressive response that few could have imagined and in the days, weeks and months that have followed, it has become something even better…

Perfect.

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