Saturday, June 5, 2010

THE IMPERFECT GAME

I’ve been a Detroit Tiger fan for a very long time.

No, I didn’t see Ty Cobb play. But I do remember Mickey Cochrane, Tommy Bridges, Goose Goslin and Elden Auker.

As a kid on the west side of Detroit, baseball was the sport of choice. My late May birthday usually got me a new glove or ball and bat. One year a full Tiger uniform.

When my Dad got home, I would plead with him to play catch on the sidewalk in front of our house. Later I would spend hours pitching a tennis ball against the steps of the front porch.

Unfortunately the Good Lord didn’t provide me with as much talent as enthusiasm. The apex of my baseball days came in sophomore year in high school, when I tried being the catcher for a hard throwing freshman named Ray Herbert.

A couple of practice sessions with him and my left hand swelled up so much I could barely get it out of the catcher’s mitt. I decided to take up basketball. Ray Herbert went on to have a sixteen year pitching career in major league baseball.

Baseball used to be called the national pastime. It was the first really major league sport in which the players became icons for the fans, and the games were glorified and remembered as popular history.

I well remember the 1968 World Series and the impact that the heroics of Mickey Lolich, Denny McClain, Al Kaline, and the rest had on a city that just a year before had been ravaged by senseless burning and shooting.

Polly and I painted up our old station wagon and hauled all the kids out to the airport to greet the team. We were among the frenzied fools who stormed onto the landing field at Metro and prompted the Tiger plane to divert to Willow Run.

But the really great thing about baseball is the stories.

Baseball and romance. Baseball and sentimentality. Natural companions. Robert Redford as the indomitable Roy Hobbs in “The Natural”; Kevin Costner saving the farm with his “Field of Dreams.” Thousands still visit Dyersville, Iowa every year hoping to get a glimpse of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Just a few days ago a new baseball story was written in Detroit. It will go down in history with Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield to predict a home run, or Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech or Hank Aaron’s homer that broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record.

Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga almost had a perfect game. It would have been the first in Tiger history. With two outs in the ninth, Galarraga got Cleveland shortstop Jason Donald to hit a grounder which was fielded by Tiger first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Galarraga covered the bag as all good pitchers do and beat Donald by a clean step.

Unhappily, Umpire Jim Joyce didn’t see it that way. Or hear it. Lots of umpires keep looking at the bag and listening for the ball to slap the glove. If the runner’s foot touches base before they hear the catch, their hands instantly spread in the traditional sign for “safe.”

Maybe Galarraga didn’t catch the throw dead in the pocket and the slap was muffled. Maybe the din of a near hysterical crowd drowned out the sound of the catch. Whatever. Joyce called Donald safe at first and the perfect game was spoiled.

I suppose lots of couch potato sports fans, accustomed to technology assisted officiating in football games, will shout for instant replay and even want Bud Selig to change the scoreboard nunc pro tunc.

Bad idea. Galarraga’s imperfect game will go down in history. It will overshadow all the 22 perfect games already on the books.

Joyce’s heartfelt apology, Galarraga’s mature and classy grace, Jim Leyland’s philosophical acceptance of baseball’s human dimension; these are the stuff of great baseball drama.

I predict that “The Imperfect Game” will be up for an Academy Award in 2012.

Bet on it.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more. Baseball is unique in that all fans remember events such as this. Who can forget Harvey Haddix pitching 12 2/3 perfect innings against the Braves and Lew Burdette and losing 1-0.

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