Saturday, June 5, 2010

Perfect

Charles Barkley famously said "I'm not a role model", continuing "just because I can dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids" That was always fine with me, I always thought athletes were admirable for their athletic feats, first and foremost. I never held them up as someone who I would like to become, save Ron LeFlore or Ali. Fortunately, that was a good choice, because a number of athletes have let us down over the years. Poor behavior is a result of poor choices. No one is perfect, but you have to do the best with what you have. Sometimes your choices is all that you have. It is a conversation that I have with my students daily, weekly, throughout the school year. I tell them, as well as my son, that your character is what you do when no one is looking.

A perfect game in baseball is a rare event to be sure. Until this season, only 18 had been thrown in the history of the Major leagues. Not surprising when you consider what has to occur for a perfect game to be recorded. A pitcher and his team have to retire all 27 batters from the opposing side, no one can reach base. There can be no hits, no walks, no errors. Twenty-seven professional baseball players try their best to get on base and no one succeeds. All of the batters take the long walk back to their dugout. The pitcher doesn't make a mistake. Rare indeed.

So when I had heard that there was a blown call that cost my Detroit Tigers a perfect game the other night, I cynically expected to watch bad behavior exhibited in the replays. See George Brett, Lou Pinella, et al. Major League Baseball players and coaches have demonstrated on countless occasions that they know how to behave poorly. Kicking dirt, throwing tantrums (and bases, and hats...), yelling, swearing, and charging have happened not on an elementary school playground, but on a professional field of play. Bad calls usually impact fairly inconsequential games, not history. However, Jack Dempsey, the 1972 USA Olympic Basketball Team, Brett Hull and the 1990 Missouri Football team might have a case for the latter.

Armando Galarraga had retired 26 batters when he faced Jason Donald in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Donald hit a ground ball that was fielded by the first baseman, which required the pitcher, Galarraga, to cover first base for the out. An easy flip of the ball, tag the base, history made. The ball was caught in time, the base tagged in time, but Jim Joyce the first base umpire, called the runner safe. Emphatically safe. History canceled. This is the point at which the fireworks could have started. Instead, Galaraga exhibited a quiet, wry, knowing smile, while Cabrera quietly put his hands on the top of his head in disbelief. Jim Leyland the Tiger's coach came out to talk to to Joyce to see if what just happened, happened. Galaraga went back to work. The next batter, the 28th, was retired routinely. Game over. Detroit fans booed, the players yelled at the ump. The city provided a police escort to the umpire team as a precaution.

This is point that the story can benefit students and gives a tear shedding example that doing the right thing matters, even when it is hard. Sure character is defined, for me, as what you do when no one is looking. What about individual character when the white hot spot light of infamy is shining your way home?

Jim Joyce reviewed the play as soon as he got to the ump quarters. The Tiger players watched the replay before they took their showers. It was clearly a bad call. It wasn't even really close.

Jim Joyce knew he blew it. He was beside himself and knew the impact of his mistake. He admitted his mistake. He owned it. No excuses, no denial, full accountability. He said "I just cost that kid a perfect game" (AP) He then apologized and gave Galarraga a sincere hug that was an unspoken request for forgiveness. Galarraga accepted it.

The next day Galarraga said that he understands how Joyce might feel, and recognizes how difficult it must be to admit a mistake of that magnitude. Predictably, there was a lot of opinions of how the Commissioner of Major League Baseball should handle the situation. should he correct it?, should he let the game stand? The two key men involved had already decided. They would use grace, humility, empathy, and perspective.

MLB baseball realized what could happen the next day when Joyce was scheduled to be the plate umpire back in Comerica Park, the Tigers home, and gave him the option of taking the day off. Joyce went to work. It was an extraordinary choice, the hard way, to be sure. A great example to students that sometimes you have to do, what you have to do. Like math or poetry.

The Tiger fans chose to do the right thing and gave their applause, in recognition of Joyce's admission and his choice to show up, when his name was announced as part of the umpiring crew. Their reaction was reflective of  Midwest work ethic and kindness. Leyland, designated Galarraga to present the game's lineup card and set up an emotional reunion. They exchanged a handshake and Joyce gave a Galarraga a pat on the shoulder. Shortly afterward during warmups, Joyce had to wipe away tears and let out an emotional blow of air that  a man employs to ward off full blown crying. Fortunately for a lot of us, we didn't have to worry about the cameras.

The lessons for students, because as teachers we teach life lessons as well, is that doing the right thing is sometimes hard. Humility, grace, forgiveness, and empathy might not ever get one of my students a corvette, like the one that GM gave Galarraga, but those traits will help them become persons of great character. I might have a hard time remembering the other perfect games this season or of ones in the past, but I will not forget the wonderful choices that Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce made. Perfect.


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