Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | June 3, 2010

The Perfect Game*

There have been 20 perfect games thrown in the history of Major League Baseball, though amazingly three of those twenty have taken place within the last ten months, and two of them within the last four weeks. There have never been three perfect games thrown in a single season (there have only been two in the same year twice — 1880 and 2010), and in fact there have only been three whole decades wherein three perfect games were thrown — the 60s, the 80s, and the 90s (four were thrown in the 90s).

Enter Armando Galarraga tonight. I’ve written about Galarraga frequently as of late as part of a series of articles that have been related to the shifts in Detroit’s rotation due to the designation and later trade of Dontrelle Willis. At this stage in his career he has not yet shown that he is much better than a AAAA pitcher, yet he is a solid fifth starter to carry so long as he can provide a quality start here or there and avoid starts that end in complete disaster. Last night was far from a disaster. It was even a far cry from a quality start. Last night, Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game*.

How did he do it? How did a pitcher who entered play with a career FIP of 5.19 (xFIP 4.77), an excessive home run rate, and a recent penchant for getting hit very hard (Line drive percentage of 21.5% in 2009-10 over 155.2 IP) create a night of perfection*? Well, he started by bringing extra velocity to Comerica Park on the way in. His fastball averages 91 MPH and his slider 85.5 MPH normally, but tonight he brought a fastball that averaged 92.8 and topped out at 95 to team with a slider that ran in at 86.4 and topped out at 89 (!). He also got some exceptional help from his defense, most notably Austin Jackson’s amazing catch to make the first out in the ninth inning, a catch that was reminiscent of Willie Mays catch in the 1954 World Series off of Vic Wertz. Finally, he effectively pitched to contact, striking out only three batters and barely inducing any swings and misses beyond that, but forcing more ground balls than fly balls.

Put it all in a pot, mix it up, and you get a perfect game*, wherein Galarraga retired every batter that he faced, creating a very memorable night for the second smallest crowd to attend a game at Comerica Park this year (17,738, which topped only the crowd for the April 12 loss to Kansas City) and a game that will never be forgotten in the annals of baseball history. He was masterful.

So why is Galarraga not being credited with throwing the 21st perfect game in history and instead has to live with the ignominy of the perfect game*? It is simple. With two outs in the top of the 9th inning and the perfect game one out away, Cleveland Indians shortstop Jason Donald grounded a ball near the hole on the right side. It was fielded by Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who fired a perfect strike to first base where Galarraga had gone to cover. Galarraga beat Donald by a full step and maybe more. And first base Umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe, thus attaching the asterisk to the perfect game*, and lumping Galarraga in with Ron Robinson and not Roy Halladay. When Galarraga quickly and easily dispatched of the next hitter, a few Tigers — notably Gerald Laird and Jim Leyland — Screamed at Joyce as a crowd of Tiger players began to surround him. Finally the crowds were dispersed, and Galarraga went to the locker room, perfect game* in hand. He was robbed of the asterisk-free real thing by Jim Joyce.

For his part, Joyce took sole ownership of his blunder after having seen a replay in the locker room immediately after the game. He apologized profusely to Galarraga, and seemed to almost be on the brink of tears for his error. There is no doubt that his sleep will be restless for some time, and that he is both truly sorry for what happened as well as devoid of any malicious intent in what he did. This does not remove the asterisk, nor does it reinstate the moment of jubilation that all Tigers fans and many general baseball fans would have had for clinching what would’ve been the first perfect game in the history of a franchise that now instead has to live with not only being the only franchise with two perfect games spoiled in the 27th at-bat, but also the only franchise with three perfect games spoiled in the 27th at-bat (Tommy Bridges 1932, Milt Wilcox 1983 were the others). However, it is difficult to be angry with Joyce on this day. As Galarraga so ironically put it: “Nobody’s perfect.” Joyce’s particular brand of imperfection is much easier to swallow on account of his sincere contrition.

And what of Major League Baseball? This episode has reopened the case for instant replay en masse, and has jolted and shifted the opinions of many who were not previously in the pro-replay camp (yours truly included). The MLB, which declined comment last night, needs to make a statement soon — Even if it is a hokey PR statement — Just to save some face for the game at this point. It also really needs to get aggressive about a progressive and forward-thinking replay system that would stop another heist like this from recurring, as well as stopping episodes of good people like Jim Joyce being forced to hold post-game press conferences where you can see their very soul shatter under the weight of their errors and the burden of the questioning. Uncharacteristically I do not have many ideas about what would be a suitable replay system, but the administrators and executives in the MLB offices get paid sizable sums of money to think of reasonable solutions and they ought to be able to find one that fits here.

Anything that could or would be done, including the oft-repeated suggestion of Bud Selig invoking the “best interest of baseball” clause to overturn Joyce’s call and eliminate the asterisk from Galarraga’s perfect game*, would be a case of too little, too late for this irreparable situation. Certainly, it would give credit to Galarraga for what he deserves. It would also give the Tigers organization an opportunity to reap extra profit by selling the league sanctioned perfect game memorabilia at a high cost and profit. However, by robbing us all of the post-game celebration, the high fives, the “do you remember where you were at this moment?” jubilee, the 24-hour perfect game coverage on ESPN, Fox Sports and MLB Network, and the MLB radio (as well as local Detroit radio) bumpers of Dan Dickerson’s call of the final out of the perfect game, we have been robbed of the perfect game’s soul. A decree from the commissioner’s office cannot restore the soul that was robbed from us.

And so a day later all that is left is emptiness, a sense of loss, a sense of a great moment being stolen away from all baseball fans, but Tigers fans in particular. There is someone to blame but when that person brings himself to near groveling in his apology and appears as broken and distraught as anyone, it seems inhumane to continue to cast blame on him. Being wronged but with no satisfaction in pointing fingers, all that is left is to fall back on the old axiom that “the truth will set you free”. And in this case, the truth is that Armando Galarraga retired every batter he faced on June 2nd, 2010. The truth is that he threw a perfect game. And the truth loathes the asterisk.

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