The Perfect Game that Wasn’t

Armando GalarragaArmando Galarraga          

Sports Saturday

Even as we stand on the precipice of the World Cup—tragically I will be traveling cross country today when the U.S. is playing England—something has been happening in the world of baseball that invites comment.  Perfect games are breaking out all over.

A pitcher pitches a perfect game if no runner reaches base.  27 batters come to the plate and, in one manner or another, all 27 are retired.  The perfect game is rare.  Since the beginning of the modern baseball era in 1900, there have been only 18 (and only 20 in all).  Until last year, there had only been 15.

But Mark Buehrle threw a perfect game last July and then, this past May, Dallas Bradan and Roy Halladay followed with perfect games of their own.  The odds against three perfect games occurring in the course of a 12-month period are astronomical.

But the perfect game that everyone has been talking about recently is the one that wasn’t.   Two weeks ago Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers needed one more out and, on a routine grounder, was covering first base to receive the fielder’s throw.  The throw was there in time and the runner was out.  Except that he wasn’t.  The umpire made the wrong call and the base runner was safe.

The umpire has since tearfully admitted that he blew the call.  Some want the baseball commissioner to step in, reverse the call, and award Galarraga a perfect game.  That probably won’t happen.

And now for the development that has everyone talking.  Galarraga has handled the affair with class and dignity.  He has been understanding of the human error that robbed him of history and has come out in support of the umpire.  Here’s a story of how, the following day, he presented the team’s batting line-up to the umpire to assure him there were no bad feelings.  We are so accustomed to athletes throwing temper tantrums that it astounds us when someone acts differently.

For instance, Galarraga could have acted like the pitcher in the Philip Roth novel The Great American Novel (1973).


In that wild book, there is a sensational rookie pitcher with the fabulous name of Gil Gamesh (Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian epic hero).  On one fine day, he doesn’t only throw a perfect game.  He throws 81 straight strikes, striking out each batter he faces with three pitches.  No batter gets close enough to even foul a ball.

Except that the umpire calls the 81st pitch a ball.

The 82nd pitch catches the umpire in the larynx and cripples him permanently.  Gamesh is thrown out of the game of baseball and becomes a shadowy figure for the rest of his life.  There are reported sightings of this mythical figure at semi-pro games around the country.

I sense that the umpire in Roth’s novel is trying to save the game of baseball.  By calling the 81st pitch a ball (as I recall, it’s a borderline pitch), he keeps alive the possibility of human fallibility, and therefore human drama. Life is about striving for perfection, not achieving it. In professional soccer, goals are only scored when someone makes a mistake.  Without mistakes, there would be no scoring.  Baseball, which operates without a clock, functions slightly differently.  As poet Bruce Cohen, writing about the game from the batter’s point of view, says in a wonderful poem that I have written about,  “If not for failures, nothing would ever end.”

I find something wrong with the very phrase “perfect game.”  Perfection is for the gods.  One could say about “perfect games” what Buffalo running back Thurmond Thomas said about the Super Bowl.  “If it’s so super,” he once asked, “why do they hold it every year?” 

How can perfection be achieved 18 times?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives us a useful perspective on Galarraga’s perfect-game-that-wasn’t.  Gawain is the “perfect Camelot knight,” someone who steps forward to wield the Green Knight’s axe when no one else will and then rides out to meet his rendezvous with death.  For the most part, he resists the temptations of the castle seductress Lady Bertilak.

But he does mess up.  He takes her proffered girdle when told that it will save his life and then hides it from his host, thereby breaking his word.  And when his head is on the block and the Green Knight feints a blow, Gawain flinches.  He is not perfect because, at those moments, he cares more about his own life than his chivalric code.

Gawain lacerates himself for his stumbles.  The Green Knight, who is Life and Death, is far more forgiving.  As I interpret the work, the Green Knight doesn’t want humans to obsess about whether or not they are perfect.  Rather, he wants us to open ourselves to what life and death dish out.  Otherwise we play small.

My sense is that, on some level, Armando Galarraga understood this.  Baseball is not about perfection.  It is about negotiating failure, including bad umpiring calls.  Even a great player. say someone batting .333, fails two out of three times.  Galarraga proved himself a big man and, interestingly enough, his imperfect perfect game may come to be better remembered than the “perfect” games of his peers.

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3 Trackbacks

  1. By Soccer Highs and Lows and a Tennis Epic on June 26, 2010 at 1:05 am

    […] Writing about sports perfection two weeks ago, I quoted the poet Bruce Cohen that, “if it were not for failures, no game would ever end.”  Cohen is talking about baseball but he could have been talking about Wimbledon fifth sets, where the tiebreak system is not employed.  I appreciated Cohen’s hypothetical when I read his poem.  I just didn’t expect to see it tested. […]

  2. By Doc Halladay No Long Blushing Unseen on October 9, 2010 at 7:05 am

    […] The other no-hitter is enshrined in legend: Yankee Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Admittedly Halladay’s is less dramatic, coming in an earlier game and being one walk short of perfect.  Nevertheless, it is still something. (You can read my post about perfect games, including Halladay’s own perfect game earlier this season here.) […]

  3. By 2010 Sports, Seen through Literature on January 1, 2011 at 11:22 am

    […] wasn’t—a blown umpire’s call on the final out robbed Armando Galarraga of perfection–leading me to compare him with Gil Gamesh, the brilliant but doomed pitcher in Philip Roth’s Great American […]


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