Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fancy seeing you here!

Well, my Chicago Cubs started the baseball day with an ugly scene this afternoon, but who ever thought we could count on Edwin Jackson and the Arizona Diamondbacks to close it with such flourish?

Working in the baseball business, at least from the standpoint that my job entails, it's become somewhat of a Pavlovian response to dread the possibility of a no-hitter or perfect game unfolding on your watch ... mainly b/c we're apparently all lazy asses and don't want to do a little extra work. But in the seven years I've been in the biz -- and despite numerous close calls that had my sorry ass cheering, sometimes silently, sometimes not, each time one was broken up -- I had yet to be assigned to a game that ultimately turned into a no-hitter.

Edwin Jackson celebrates his no-hitter. (AP)
Until tonight.

And even though Mr. Jackson hadn't allowed a hit through five innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, he had given up seven walks, so I have to admit, a no-hitter wasn't really on my radar.

But as the game went on, and the Rays continued to put up zeroes in the "H" column, I became more intrigued than panicked to see if this guy could finish this thing out. He did ... throwing a whopping 149 pitches -- the most ever thrown in a no-hitter -- and walking eight batters, hitting one and allowing one to reach on an error.

That's called doing it the hard way.

But what intrigued me the most about this particular gritty no-no -- the fourth one this season, for that matter -- was that I had some interaction on a personal level with Jackson in the past. In my very limited capacity as a professional writer, I filled in one day in 2007 to cover the Rays, who were playing the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.

The starting pitcher for those Rays that day, the very same team that was held hitless tonight? Edwin Jackson.

Edwin Jackson reacts after giving
up three straight homers. (AP)
What I remember about that afternoon was a young, inexperienced pitcher, who held the Sox scoreless and scattered five singles over six impressive innings, cruising toward a sure victory. That is, until the seventh inning, when -- Bing-Bang-Boom! -- Jackson served up three consecutive homers that chased him from the game and led to an agonizing defeat.

Afterward, going down to the clubhouse to get quotes for the game story was like walking on eggshells. I, along with a couple other reporters, talked to Rays manager Joe Maddon in his office right away, and fairly extensively, to get his thoughts, and then moved out to the clubhouse common area to talk to the players.

Obviously, a quote had to come from Jackson, who was quietly dressing in front of his locker with his back turned. The three of us tried to stay back a bit, giving him space and waiting until he was ready, which really had to have been a funny scene. Neither of us really said anything to each other, but kind of shared a couple of glances and half smiles, revealing the awkwardness of the situation ... looking around and acting as if we weren't waiting specifically for him to be finished, making small talk with other forlorn players milling about, and mainly not wanting to have to make the guy talk about what happened, but needing to get the quote nonetheless.

Eventually, Jackson appeared ready, finished putting some things in his locker, slipped a chain over his head, took a deep breath and slowly turned around to face the music. As he was doing this, the three of us slowly had inched our way nonchalantly toward his locker, so that we were standing there when he turned around.

Now, following this type of loss, any pitcher has every right to be surly and defensive and short with his answers. But Jackson faced each of us directly, looked us in the eye, and answered every question we asked. We kept it brief and tactful and after we got what we needed, I shook his hand, wished him "best of luck, man" and walked up to finish the story.

And what a long trip it's been for Jackson since that day. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers and then to the D-backs, battling injuries and inconsistency, but always having that brute strength and determination that seemed to offset some of his shortcomings.

Tonight, he threw a no-hitter against his former team, and it's cool to look back on that game, and remember how depressed he felt, not knowing what was going to be in store for him three seasons down the line.

Equally cool, is Maddon -- one of my favorite managers in the game -- who had Jackson's back during that tough game in 2007, reflecting on his former player who got the best of him tonight: "He's a horse and a great athlete," Maddon said. "He's a great kid and he deserved to do that tonight. Hat's off to him, he's a wonderful man."

So here's to Edwin Jackson! Congratulations on joining the prestigious no-hit club ... it wasn't the prettiest thing you'll ever see, but nobody can take it away from you.

And, maybe to a lesser and more selfish extent, it certainly washed the sour taste out of my mouth from today's forgettable opening act.

Friday, June 4, 2010

After the storm

Jim Joyce receives the lineup card from Armando Galarraga. (AP)
It was a good day to be a baseball fan.

What we began to see as last night gave way to this morning, flourished this afternoon when umpire Jim Joyce, mere hours after blowing a call that would've given Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game, took the field again to take his place behind home plate. A visibly emotional Joyce, wiping away tears, professionally and courageously led his crew onto the field in front of 28,000-plus Tigers fans, who were so irate when last they met. But, today, Joyce was greeted by an element of forgiving applause and even some supportive cheers that seemed to prevail over the inevitable smattering of boos.

And there was much more.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who conveyed his respect for Joyce last night, went even further today in arranging for Galarraga to deliver the lineup card to Joyce at home plate, giving the two another opportunity to bury the hatchet and put sportsmanship and class ahead of any lingering animosity.

Galarraga's teammates, who had to be physically restrained in their anger toward Joyce after last night's game, had nothing but well-wishes, compassion, understanding, respect and pats on the back for the umpire, who was overwhelmed by the amount of support he has received.

Armando Galarraga is presented with a new Corvette. (AP)
And certainly not to be forgotten, Galarraga was feted in fine fashion, receiving a Corvette from General Motors before the game and a proclamation from the governor of Michigan, who formally considered Galarraga's feat a perfect game, as far as the office is concerned.

After all, he's the only pitcher in history to throw a 28-out perfect game, when you think about it.

And isn't that really the central issue here, when it's all boiled down? History is history, whether it officially records a perfect game, as it has 20 times in the past, or recognizes an even more unique feat such as Galarraga's last night.

When you throw a perfect game, sure, you're in a unique class of pitchers who have that story to tell, who will forever be associated with greatness. But in Galarraga's case, consider everything that has happened to him in the last 24 hours. He technically threw a perfect game, and got an historic "28th out" to boot ... he initiated some of the finest sportsmanship I've ever witnessed, forever linking himself to a man who understood the magnitude of his mistake and owned up to it courageously and nobly, inspiring everyone who even remotely followed this story ... He brought to the world stage compassion, respect, sympathy and basic human decency among players, coaches, fans, media and even those who don't even follow baseball ... He received a sports car and a government edict, which joined everyone else in recognizing the fact that he did throw a perfect game... and he cemented himself a place in baseball history that is his and his alone, something no other player can ever, or likely will ever, share.

Not bad for a young pitcher, who was believed to be so tragically wronged in the immediate aftermath of Joyce's blown call heard 'round the world.

As this has developed, it's become clear to me that it's simply the term "perfect game" and our fixation on that baseball rarity that has blown this whole thing into the stratosphere. But isn't it really all about having a unique story to tell, a unique experience, a unique achievement that you can be proud of and reaching a point of distinction matched by few, if any? Isn't that what life is all about for all of us who don't play baseball? What establishing a legacy is about as we go through our own lives? Would you rather be able to say you've thrown a perfect game -- something 20 other pitchers can say -- or being able to say what Galarraga can say as you look back over your life?

I think we've gotten so literal and bound by technicalities and labels and terms and feats and statistics that it causes us to sometimes lose sight of the things that are truly great and truly worth remembering.

I'm certainly not taking anything away from a perfect game ... after all, every time I see a perfecto going into the fifth inning, I start to tingle a bit and wonder, "Can he do it?" It adds such an element of excitement to a game, where you hang on every pitch and the intrigue grows and grows, until the ninth inning becomes so electric you can barely stand it. And, oh how heartbreaking it is to climb that high, to come so close to something so remarkable and not be able to touch it. Its prestige is rivaled by nothing in baseball as far as personal achievements go, and it's because of this allure, so steeped in tradition, that this incident became such a significant chapter in baseball's history.

But knowing all that and knowing that the next time I see a perfect game in progress I'll most assuredly get that same thrill, that same high off the possibility of history, I can't help but think that what happened here today will be remembered, appreciated and treasured significantly longer and more intimately than it may have had Galarraga simply recorded only 27 outs.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

'Nobody is perfect'

I apparently created this blog a few years ago as one of those instances where I have the urge or a whim to do something, and then I lose interest. In this case, it's been sitting there and forgotten for years, but recently I've thought more and more about starting one up -- for what specific reason, I'm not exactly sure. I don't feel comfortable sharing every thought or feeling I have, I'm a pretty private person and I always kind of found this blog idea to be simply a method of garnering more attention than anyone really needs.

But there are times like tonight when I understand them, where I get that people have that need to vent and share a few thoughts from time to time. Because as I'm sitting here in my apartment, on my couch and watching the surprising Reds take on the Cardinals, while an ominous line of severe thunderstorms rumbles through, there was a development in baseball that has proven to be one of those instances that I just can't shake, and probably won't for a while.

Jim Joyce's fateful call at first. (Getty)
The Detroit Tigers' Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game. Facing the Cleveland Indians' Jason Donald, the 27th and what would have been his final batter, Galarraga induced a ground ball to first baseman Miguel Cabrera. He went wide to field the ball and threw to Galarraga, who covered first, for what the cameras showed to be the final out by at least a step and a historic night for Galarraga, the Tigers, their fans and for Major League Baseball, which would have seen a Major League-record third perfect game this season ... and the third in 23 days for that matter.

Except first-base umpire Jim Joyce ruled the runner safe. Perfection denied. The baseball world stunned. A single, glorious moment in a pitcher's career, one that has only come around for 20 Major League hurlers, purely and simply stolen away by a fleeting millisecond of human error.

Now, as awful as I feel for Galarraga, it's equally painful that Joyce was just a guy going out tonight to do his job, a job he's done and done well for 23 years, and having no idea of the magnitude in which his life will change in just one hour and 44 minutes after first pitch. As the minutes grew into hours -- which will inevitably grow into days, weeks and years for Joyce -- articles, news segments, sound bytes and headlines have seized on this story, thrusting the spotlight of disgrace (A Wikipedia hacker snidely provided a death date for Joyce following the incident: June 2, 2010) onto a man who made a split-second mistake and will not only suffer the immediate anguish of regret at costing this kid the most prestigious accomplishment a pitcher can achieve, but a lifetime of carrying this with him, day in and day out.

Jim Joyce faces the Tigers' wrath (AP)
As I flip through the channels and browse the Internet that are now becoming saturated with this whole fiasco, and watching that final play ad nauseam, to see Joyce stand his ground, looking utterly alone, as he faces an irate team barking and pointing and hurling insults at him after the game, I can't stop thinking about this guy and what he's going through tonight, how he's dealing with the persistent barrage of his own thoughts of failure ... how he'll wake up tomorrow morning and maybe for a blissful second forget this had even happened, until the inevitable black wave of realization washes over him, ruling out any hope that it was all a bad dream.

Well, the Reds, meanwhile, went on to lose to the Cardinals and relinquish sole possession of first place, and as I chatted with my brother -- who is as big of a Reds fan as anyone I know -- about tonight's imperfect game, I think he encapsulated the whole overshadowing effect this incident has had by saying that he felt worse about Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga than he did about the Reds' loss.

But as this whole ugly scene developed, I strangely started to become inspired by the admirable side of human nature that began to emerge. Joyce made no excuses after he looked at the replay, not only admitting he was wrong but flat out stating that "I just cost that kid a perfect game." He apologized to Galarraga in person, not hiding the emotion he felt over it, and he went into the Tigers clubhouse to apologize to the team.

Think of the courage that took to do.

And as all the announcers, analysts, reporters, columnists and fans rained unceasing blows upon Joyce for the blunder, really the only person that had every right to do so stayed silent. Galarraga only smiled in surprise -- or shock -- at the call, and afterward bore Joyce no ill will, saying he understands that "nobody is perfect" and even offering consolation for the umpire, who cost him not only a career-defining moment, but what can be considered a life-defining moment at that. Galarraga simply stated that he knows it was a perfect game, and knowing that is enough for him.

To that I say, Amen.

Baseball has always been a celebration of imperfection -- where a player who fails 70 percent of the time is a great player -- and it has widely been proclaimed a microcosm of life. Well, life is not perfect. And if our love of baseball and the beauty we find in it is rooted in the human element that can influence a game's outcome -- and without making a case for instant replay, an inevitable cry of debate that will increase exponentially because of this situation -- we have to be able to find a way, as difficult as it is, to understand that things like this can happen. Because it's a shame that a game that brings so much joy to people, can also ruin the lives of those who love it so much yet were unfortunate enough to screw up on its grand stage.

It's going to take some serious life perspective on Joyce's part to deal with this, there's no question. But I'm reminded of Don Denkinger, whose infamous blown call in the 1985 World Series defined his career, and instead of running and hiding from it, he's faced it head-on, has learned to live with it and, in a TV interview I saw a while back, has even hung a framed photo of his blown call in his house as a reminder that none of us are perfect ... and sadly, but fittingly, neither is baseball.

From what I saw of Jim Joyce tonight, he has that ability to move on from this, to frame this unfortunate chapter of his life within the context of life's imperfections and to be able to pick himself up, dust himself off and continue a well-respected career.

And equally important, we all need to learn to live with it, forgive and move on as well.

After all, Armando Galarraga already has.