Yeah, we can close the ballparks now.

UPDATED below.

Well, it’s official: as of today, June 3, 2010, I am finished with baseball. For good. Now, I haven’t been much of a baseball fan for a number of years, owing to a number of circumstances: my team (the Pirates) has sucked for so long that a baby born during the Pirates’ last winning season is probably out of high school now; few games are televised off cable anymore; the steroid era has made the game a hell of a lot less interesting; the game seems to take longer and longer and longer to play each year, with the World Series games often ending well after midnight.

But even so, there’s always been a part of me willing to claim to be a baseball fan “in waiting”, a fan in hibernation, perhaps, waiting for a time when the game would capture my interest again. I came to love baseball deeply in the late 80s and early 90s, when I took delight not just in the game’s slower general pace but in the way the game’s dramatic moments seem to last forever. It’s not like football, when there’s the snap and then the play’s going to run. No, in baseball, you have crucial situations where one guy is staring down another guy…and then, only then, the pitch….

No more of that, though. Baseball has, in my mind, killed itself.

In Detroit last night, a Tigers pitcher named Armando Galarraga took a perfect game into the top of the ninth. Perfect games are extremely rare; even though there have been two in the last month, in all of baseball history there have only been twenty of them. A perfect game is a game in which a pitcher never allows a single batter to reach base in any way: 27 guys come to the plate, 27 guys go down. No hits, no walks, nobody reaching base on an error or a passed ball, nobody reaching because they got hit by the pitch. Nobody goes to base. That’s a perfect game.

Galarraga takes his perfect game to the ninth, and gets the first two outs. One more out, and the game’s over and Galarraga is a part of baseball history. The hitter swings, putting the ball on the ground; the ball is fielded and thrown to the waiting first baseman, clearly in time for the out. Third out. Game over. Perfect game.

Except that the first base umpire called the runner safe.

In the history of bad sports officiating calls, this one will almost certainly rank in the top five, if not take the top spot outright. It was painfully obvious to everyone that the runner was out. Painfully so. The replay showed it. Everybody in the stadium knew it. The perfect game was ruined. After the game the umpire didn’t do any of the usual things officials do in these situations, talking about how it’s all “judgment calls” and how sometimes we get ’em wrong but we try real hard and it’s a shame and all but there it is. No, the umpire admitted that he’d blown it and proceeded to look so sad about it all that he almost seemed ready to sharpen a bat to a fine point that he might throw himself upon it.

The solution, of course, was as painfully obvious as the fact that the runner was out at first. All that needed done was for the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, to simply come out this morning and say: “The runner was out, and the game will be recorded in the books as having ended thusly. Therefore, Galarraga will be recognized officially as having thrown a perfect game.” Obvious. The right thing to do. No other course of action would suffice. This was an absolute slam-dunk of a decision.

And Selig didn’t make it. He said some mealy-mouthed bullshit about judgment calls and how sometimes we get ’em wrong but we try real hard and it’s a shame. And he’ll get some people together to look real hard at the rules. It’s every Person In Power’s favorite way of looking like they’re doing something about a problem when they really intend to do nothing about it at all: Appoint a commission! Form an investigative body! Discuss the rules!

But don’t fix what actually got broken in this case.

If the blown call had been the first or second out, Selig would have a strong case for not changing the call: We have no way of knowing what would have happened had the call gone correctly; maybe the next guy gets a hit. But in this case, it was the third out. We know exactly what would have happened had the call been made correctly: Galarraga’s teammates would have mobbed him on the mound in celebration of the completion of a perfect game.

I heard some people on the radio talking about how this put Selig in a very difficult position, and I was thinking, “No, it doesn’t. Never has the right thing to do been more clear!” Apparently it wasn’t, though. I heard someone else talk about the “integrity of the game”, which would be somehow violated if Selig overturned the on-field result.

“Integrity of the game”. That’s rich. Baseball, of all the major sports, is the one with the least amount of integrity, after its long history. The Black Sox. Owners treating players like indentured servants. Collusion to keep blacks out of the game. Collusion against free agent players. Drug abuse. Steroid abuse. Doing nothing to enhance the game’s popularity even as its popularity decreases a little more every single year. Time was when the World Series was a big deal; the teevee networks not airing it would schedule re-runs so as to not get crappy ratings for new episodes airing during the Series, and the Series used to start on a Saturday night, so if it went to six or seven games it would span two weekends, for even better ratings. Now, ratings are so far down that networks put whatever they want up against the Series and the Series itself starts on Wednesday, so that only one weekend is upset by it.

“Integrity of the game”. Nonsense. Baseball has zero integrity left to defend. Bud Selig was actually presented a gift-wrapped opportunity for baseball to be seen doing the right thing, for once. It would have been a unique situation, and baseball would look great in doing so. Instead…he’ll appoint a blue-ribbon commission to study the feasibility of possibly increasing the role of instant replay use in the officiating of baseball. Big whoop.

Armando Galarraga threw a perfect game last night, but instead of being on that list, Bud Selig apparently thinks that being on the “Close but no cigar” list is just fine. Galarraga deserves better than to be remembered in the same way that Harvey Haddix is remembered.

Bud Selig didn’t preserve the integrity of the game. All he did was chicken out when he had a chance to do good. But the owners love Selig, because he’s pretty much totally in their bag. And baseball will continue to become more and more irrelevant.

So yeah: I’m done with baseball. For good. Even when the Pirates stop sucking.

UPDATE 6-4-10:

A couple of readers comment to say, basically, that Selig changing the call would set precedent for all manner of calls being changed after the fact. To which I say, simply: nonsense.

Mary opines:

As for Selig — I think I agree with him. Sure, this particular time it’s the last out of the game. But what if next time it is, as you say, the first out in the inning, or occurs earlier? If we wash out that blown call for Galaragga, but we can’t do it for the next guy, to whom it happens just slightly earlier, how fair is that? I mean, I know it has happened to some other guys. I’ve seen near-perfect no-hitters where the only guy on base got there by taking a few “balls” that were clearly strikes. Galaragga’s fame is already greater, and will certainly outlive, that of all those other pitchers who were robbed at earlier points in the game. He’s lucky and unlucky at the same time.

How fair is what? If there’s a blown call ruining a perfect game in the 8th inning, someday, then, as I note in my original post, the call should stand, for a very simple reason: There is no way of knowing what would have happened otherwise.

This type of “What might have been” thinking is a big part of sports fandom, and it’s present for every team or athlete who almost wins. Take Don Denkinger’s famous blown call in the 1985 World Series. Leading the Series three games to two, the Cardinals took a 1-0 lead into the 9th inning, but Don Denkinger called a Royals batter safe when he was clearly out. The Royals went on to score twice in the inning, winning 2-1; they won the Series in Game Seven. Is that case analogous?

No, it isn’t. Not even close. Why? Because there was still game play to come after the blown call. The hitter’s safe instead of out, but maybe the Cardinals get a double play and get out of the inning and win the Series. Or maybe the Cardinals manage to put a run or two up in the bottom of the ninth. Or maybe the Cardinals win Game Seven. Denkinger’s gaffe was terrible — probably the most famous blown call in baseball history until the other night — but there’s no logical way in which it can be said to have literally decided the World Series.

Or in football, take the questionable officiating in Super Bowl XL, when the Steelers beat the Seahawks 21-10. Ben Roethlisberger was judged to have scored a rushing touchdown even though most folks believe the replays clearly show he was down before he broke the plane of the goal line with the ball, and Seattle was assessed a couple of odd penalties later on in the game which on replay seemed to not have happened at all. Should those calls be reversed after the game? No, because there’s no convincing argument to be made that those plays determined the outcome. Maybe after the bad TD by Big Ben, Seattle finds a way to score more than just 10 points in the game. Maybe some Seattle played forces a turnover or makes a big play. You just don’t know, and that’s why those calls shouldn’t be changed. They can be bitched about, sure, but 99 percent of the time, when you get screwed by the umpires or the refs, you still have your chance to win afterwards.

The Galarraga perfect game isn’t like either of those, or many of the other sucky instances of bad officiating in sports history (like the Buffalo Sabres and “No goal”). In this case, there is no question about what would have happened had the right call been applied. None. Zero.

If some pitcher has a perfect game going through seven innings, and then the first guy in the 8th gets to base on an identical call, if you freeze the action right there, you don’t know if the pitcher is going to retire the remaining six hitters, or if he’s about to give up some hits, or if he’s about to implode and load the bases and end up losing the game. This is a very strong distinction here. The game wouldn’t have ended had the call been made correctly in the 8th.

As for the fact that Galarraga’s fame is greater now, well, I can’t speak for him, but…so what? When it’s perfectly possible to give him something that he earned by right and should have had, saying “Wow, sucks to be you, but you’re a part of lore now!” is a pretty crappy consolation prize. And we’re not talking about balls and strikes here, which has always been a floating concept anyway in baseball. We’re talking safe versus out.

Tosy and Cosh says:

I’m with Mary – the minute, in any sport, the commissioner can unilaterally change calls we don’t like, after the fact – for any reason – it’s all over and the floodgates start. Before long they’ll be a similar situation and the expectation will be that we change what happened. Umpires make wrong calls all the time – either we review after or we don’t; we don’t get to choose when we want to because it makes a good story.

I’m sorry, but this is, from my POV, as wrong as it is possible to be. Why would there be an opening of floodgates? There aren’t any floodgates to open here.

As I explain above — several times, in fact — there are very clear differences between this spectacularly rare situation and your average, garden-variety umpire flub. This isn’t “He mighta had a perfect game!”; this was “He would have had a perfect game.” It’s a statement of fact that Galarraga would have had a perfect game if the call had been correct. If we set that as our precedent here — an absolute certainty of the correctness of the call and an absolute certainty of what would have happened in the game had the correct call been made — then I don’t see an objection. Situations where this much certainty apply are, actually, very rare in sports. There will almost certainly not be another perfect game robbed from a pitcher in the ninth inning with two outs “before long”. No one is saying we should “choose when we want to” reverse calls because it makes us feel good.

It’s not about what makes “the nicest story”. It’s about doing what’s right, and rewarding what actually happened on the field correctly. I’m not strongly in favor of Galarraga being credited with a perfect game because it’s a nice tale that gives me the warm-and-fuzzies as a sports fan. I’m strongly in favor of it because it’s what happened.

Returning to Mary, she closed out her comment with “It’s just a game.” Well, I suppose so, but whenever anyone says that, it always strikes me as a pretty cheap shot. Yeah, it is “just a game”. But we decide to care about lots of things that aren’t life and death; it’s stuff like baseball that makes our lives more than just finding food, making babies, and going to bed where the big monsters can’t get us. I’m sure that “Hey, it’s just a game!” came as little consolation to Cubs fans when Steve Bartman caught that ball. “Hey, it’s just a game!” wasn’t much fun to hear when I watched Scott Norwood’s kick sail just outside the goal posts. Michael Phelps’s achievements aren’t cheapened any in my book, just because “Hey, it’s just a bunch of guys splashing in the water!”

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5 Responses to Yeah, we can close the ballparks now.

  1. Mary says:

    Baseball is still my favorite sport, and I think this is a great baseball story. Galaragga will still go into the history books (I've actually got baseball history books), and it'll be a an even better story to read than those other 19 perfect games, because it'll be a heartbreaker, but still a triumph, the only "28 out perfect game."

    As for Selig — I think I agree with him. Sure, this particular time it's the last out of the game. But what if next time it is, as you say, the first out in the inning, or occurs earlier? If we wash out that blown call for Galaragga, but we can't do it for the next guy, to whom it happens just slightly earlier, how fair is that? I mean, I know it has happened to some other guys. I've seen near-perfect no-hitters where the only guy on base got there by taking a few "balls" that were clearly strikes. Galaragga's fame is already greater, and will certainly outlive, that of all those other pitchers who were robbed at earlier points in the game. He's lucky and unlucky at the same time.

    Besides, y'know, it's just a game, right?

  2. M. D. Jackson says:

    I do not watch baseball and have little interest in it. (My country has only one team and they are based out of the City Us Westerners Love to Hate). Nevertheless your post was so well written and precise that you made me feel your outrage and made me wish that I had been a baseball fan, despite all the game's faults.

    The decision sounds typical of management in this day and age. You have summed up not only what is wrong with baseball, but what is wrong with the way the world is being run from the boardroom to the Oval Office (or The Hill, in my country).

    No one is brave enough to make the right calls anymore because they are afraid of the Court of Public Opinon's backlash. Do something, even the right thing, and a thousand knives await you, ready to eviscerate you for your bad judgement.

    It seems to me that those in charge, of Baseball and most other things, are becoming woefully good at seeming to do something 9not specified, of course) but, in fact, doing nothing.

  3. Roger Owen Green says:

    Actually, to M.D. Jackson's point – I think the popular decision WOULD be to change the ruling. I'm really ambivalent. Obviously, I better poll the masses.

  4. Tosy And Cosh says:

    I'm with Mary – the minute, in any sport, the commissioner can unilaterally change calls we don't like, after the fact – for any reason – it's all over and the floodgates start. Before long they'll be a similar situation and the expectation will be that we change what happened. Umpires make wrong calls all the time – either we review after or we don't; we don't get to choose when we want to because it makes a good story.

  5. Mary says:

    Hey, I was a Cubs fan the year of the Bartman ball!

    And though I was heartbroken along with everyone else, I did try to keep some sense of perspective. It's still sports, not war. Threats of violence against Bartman, for instance, were totally out of place.

    If baseball is important because it's part of the stuff that makes life worth living — and I won't dispute that — then its too important to "close all the ballparks" over a blown call and a misrecorded statistic. Galaragga's achievement is, in my view, no less inspiring or historic for being mis-recorded in the record books — there are still plenty of correct accounts out there on record as well, for current fans and future historians to see, and know what he actually did.

    And the stats aren't really the point of the game — I'd go out on a limb say even the scores and wins and championships aren't the point. The point is, y'know, cheering alongside tens of thousands of people you've never met because you love your city, the hard luck stories and the Cinderella stories of the players, the circus catches, the collective "ooh" at an almost-home-run, and the collective joy of the real thing, I dunno, just the human drama of it. Since this story does not lack for drama, why should we shut down ballparks over it?

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