When a Ref Blows a Big Call — and Owns Up to It

It’s partly for history-robbing moments like Wednesday’s in Detroit, where first-base umpire Jim Joyce individually and insidiously thwarted the rarest of baseball feats, a perfect game, that I support the death penalty.

I’m no seamhead, but you merely had to have a pulse last night around 10:30 to be cognizant of Joyce’s malfeasance. Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Armando Galarraga had retired the first 26 Cleveland Indians’ batters he’d faced, and with two outs in the ninth Cleveland’s Jason Donald hit a ground ball to second base. The play at first was close, but not as close as many plays that first-base umps routinely call without controversy or furor. The throw to Galarraga, who was covering the bag, sure appeared to arrive into the webbing of the pitcher’s glove right as Galarraga tagged the base with his foot, the tag beating Donald there by about a full step. By Joyce called the runner safe. Chaos and postgame angst predictably ensued.

I was tuned in to a good Stanley Cup finals game 3 in Philadelphia, but with my Twitter account open I could see that something big had gone down in a baseball game in Detroit, as the hockey media at Wachovia Center were hyperventilating over the matter. Anyway, I thought little more of it until I logged on this morning and read what umpire Jim Joyce did afterward.

By breakfast this morning I supported commuting Joyce’s death sentence. Additonally, I want him to run for Congress.

Major League Baseball didn’t demand or even ask that Joyce address the media in Detroit (the league still hasn’t said anything on the matter); Joyce did so of his own volition. His utterances were profound in their candor and accountability.

  • “It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the (bleep) out of it.”
  • “I just cost that kid a perfect game.”
  • “I don’t blame [the Tigers] a bit for anything that was said. I would’ve said it myself if I had been Galarraga. I would’ve been the first person in my face, and he never said a word to me.”

Joyce also asked the Tigers if he could meet with the pitcher in the postgame. He did, and he apologized to Galarraga, tearfully, and hugged the pitcher.

Briefly in the early a.m. today I thought myself a sports fan who’d died and been delivered to Accountability Heaven. Was Don Koharski going on ‘Oprah’ today to repent?

What we have here, by virtue of Joyce’s courage, is a remarkably changed narrative, from ‘Ump robs pitcher of franchise’s first-ever perfect game’ to ‘Stand-up ump takes the heat.’ How refreshing. History still will remember Joyce for his error last night, which will be ID’d perhaps in the opening sentence of his biography, but sentence no. 2 will acknowledge his honor and courage in the matter.

We don’t quite have this ethos of accountability in hockey. Instead, the NHL seems to almost relish having its officials play a pro wrestling kind of striped bandits role in its games, regular season and playoffs. Getting jobbed and robbed is just another obstacle for teams to overcome in their Sisyphus climb up Lord Stanley’s hill. Allegedly all NHL referees in all games are formally evaluated by the league, but hockey’s media and its fans have to take the league at its word for this, and certainly there hasn’t been anything approaching Jim Joyce’s stunning courage of last night seizing the ice zebras.

I’ve long been on the record here calling for the NHL to make public two key sets of evaluative data — the ice surface reports and those for games’ officials. Wouldn’t disclosure in both instances necessarily inject a healthy accountability upon a league not much known for transparency in controversial matters? 

It wouldn’t be a bad idea either for one member of the hockey media each evening to be designated the equivalent of a pool reporter, and be empowered to request of the league at the end of each game the ability to spend 5 minutes in the postgame with the officiating crew. In the interest of accountability.

A lot of the furor over Joyce’s error last night is being bottled up in calls for incorporating replay in baseball . . . as if the games weren’t long enough already! (A little-commented upon aspect of Galarraga’s perfection last night was its effect on the length of the game — it came in in under one hour and fifty minutes, and as such would have been the fastest perfect game since I believe the ’60s). Baseball ought to learn a lesson from the NFL when it comes to discussions of replay; that league has long been embroiled in paralysis by over analysis.

Jim Joyce last night gave sports on all levels a powerful lesson in accountability, one so powerful that were it merely moderately replicated by his officiating peers the culture of replay in sports generally could be negated. Our games are played, and officiated, by error-prone human beings, and when they own up to their errors the fans in the stands and the commentators on line seem reflexively to be reminded of their own frailties and shortcomings, and arrive at forgiveness fairly fast. This morning we seem to know that Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game for the Detroit Tigers last night. More importantly, we know that despite a big error at its end the game was presided over by an official with integrity.

Postscript: Very helpful clarification arrived from the Capitals this morning: The NHL actually allows for media to request to meet with game officials, “but the referee ultimately can decide whether to accept or deny the request,” effectively neutering its impact.

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5 Responses to When a Ref Blows a Big Call — and Owns Up to It

  1. IRockTheRed says:

    This is SO true. And I commend Joyce for this. I just really wish the NHL would do everything you suggest right here.

    Do I see it happening?

    Unfortunately… no.

  2. Dave says:

    I’m 100% with you on the mood swing regarding Joyce. I went from wanting to run the guy out of the country to feeling terribly sympathetic towards him. The lack of contrition in todays world extends far beyond officials of sports games, and it’s great to see someone finally exemplify it.

  3. Sherrie Van Houten says:

    Out here in Michigan, the only thing that could have pried me from the hockey game was watching a Tiger pitch a perfect game. The rest of it left me speechless. I was a ref/umpire for 25 years, and I certainly blew my share of calls–I could imagine what Joyce was feeling. And to be deprived of a perfect game–I COULDN’T imagine what Galarraga was feeling. The whole thing made me feel sick. And then these two people decided
    to take the high road. And slowly but surely, you could feel things change out here. I certainly don’t think every fan cheered Joyce’s appearance at Comerica Park today (Wow. To come back and have to do THE PLATE today…) but a substantial number did. Several fans waiting in the seats by the tunnel leaned down and shook Joyce’s hand.
    Would that we could all remember how this awful moment changed (although certainly not due to “Proud-to-be-yer-Bud” Selig, who incredibly is actually more horrible than Bettman). I hope Galarraga gets another chance at his perfecto, although history suggests he won’t. And I hope that Jim Joyce can go back to being the highly respected umpire he was, and is.

  4. Fonz says:

    It would be harder for this type of apology to happen at the NHL level. Part of the ethos of baseball is the human aspect of the officiating staff. When was the last time you saw a coach get “the business” from a hockey referee? In baseball, you get the face-to-face yelling back and forth and the “your outa here!” finger that everyone loves so much.. the umpires are people.

    The NHL goes the other way. They are machines; assess the penalty, drop the puck. I think it has to do with the fact that the ice zebras have WAAAYYY more gray area to deal with. In baseball they can have personalities because the calls are so black-and-white. The human aspect of a hockey game is so loaded into the judgment that is applied in every moment of the play that to add “personality” to the officials threatens their credibility. There are simply too many instances that a hockey referee could be seen as “wrong” in a shades-of-gray situation. Its a can of worms best left closed I think.

    That said, BIG KUDOS to Jim Joyce. That’s a guy who respects his profession and his sport. That’s character.

  5. Jack Hazard says:

    Never have I seen such an element of humanity from an ump/ref. Impressive, unprecedented, and touching.

    Go O’s.

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