“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” – James Joyce
Let’s face it, the past two years have been brutal for the denizens of Detroit.
Two of Motown’s mighty Big Three automakers went belly up and nearly sank in the depths of the Great Recession before being rescued by a federal bailout. Detroit became the unofficial unemployment capital of America, bottoming out at nearly 20 percent. The mayor was sent to the slammer.
If ever there was a city that needed a lift, a kind word, something to cheer about, it’s Detroit. On a sunny June afternoon, they almost got it. Out of what seemed to be the pages of a well-worn Hollywood script came Armando Gallarraga.
Armando bounced around Major League Baseball as a journeyman pitcher for a couple of years before getting an audition this spring with the Detroit Tigers. The 28-year-old Venezuelan native had a rough spring training, losing out in a competition for the final spot in the Tigers’ rotation. Armando began the season with the Tiger’s Triple-A minor league squad, the aptly named Toledo Mudhens. That’s where he was, toiling in obscurity in Toledo on May 16, when the call came from Detroit that the Tigers needed a fresh arm to bolster their injury-plagued staff.
So Armando stepped onto the mound at Comerica Park on Wednesday afternoon to face the Cleveland Indians. Eight scoreless innings later, Armando found himself on the cusp of baseball history. Cleveland sent 24 batters to the plate and 24 batters quickly came back to the dugout. The reserve pitcher, who had never thrown a shutout — probably never dreamed about a no-hitter — was better than that. He was perfect.
Three more outs, and Armando would join 20 other baseball immortals and achieve one of the rarest feats in baseball history. Three more outs, and the third perfect game of the season — all recorded within the same fortnight — would be in the books.
That last factoid should have prepared us for what came next. Clearly, the baseball gods were toying with us.
The first Cleveland batter in the ninth, Mark Grudzielanek, took a mighty cut at one of Armando’s offerings and sent it screaming into the nether regions of Comerica’s vast centerfield. Armando grabbed his head with his gloved hand and stared out into the abyss. The crowd and millions more watching on national television held their breath. Everyone waited for the ball to land with a sickening thud yards behind the desperately racing outfielders. Armando’s perfect dream was about to dissolve into a forgotten almost.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Austin Jackson decided to channel Willie Mays. Detroit’s rookie centerfielder galloped with his back to home plate and rapidly closed the distance between himself and the speeding white pellet. Within a few feet of the centerfield wall, the ball suddenly veered to his right. Jackson pivoted at full speed, stuck his glove up at an impossible angle and caught the ball over his shoulder. Armando smiled.
The baseball gods were laughing now. They had us set up perfectly. After the next batter grounded out, the devious gremlins delivered what they thought was their coup de grace.
Armando, still perfect, induced Cleveland’s Jason Donald to hit a dribbling ground ball to second base. Inexplicably, Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera decided he needed to make the play. Cabrera ran ten yards, cut in front of the second baseman, caught the ball, awkwardly turned and fired to first.
Thanks to 21st century video technology, the next 15 seconds are now remembered forever in agonizing slow motion. We see Armando, suddenly realizing he must cover first for the absent Cabrera, loping over to the bag. We see the ball arrive behind him, forcing him to lunge for it as he tries to find the base with his foot. We see the ball strike the center of Armando’s mitt and roll up into the webbing. Hearts stop across America as he gracefully squeezes the ball in the webbing and steps on first base at the same time, one step before the speeding Donald arrives. We see Armando swing his arm to the first base umpire, show him the ball and smoothly flip it into the pocket of his glove. Game over. Perfect game. Time to exhale. Time to cheer.
Except the 54-year-old umpire, James Joyce, stands frozen. For what seems like an eternity, Joyce appears to ball his fist in preparation for the universal out sign. Then, suddenly, he raises both arms. Safe. “Why is he safe?” Rod Allen, the Detroit play-by-play man cries out. “Why?” Because those cruel jackals, the baseball gods, have delivered us to the cosmic purgatory of the endless agony of what-might-have-been.
Or so they thought. The baseball gremlins forgot one detail that was beyond their control — they forgot Armando Gallaraga. Because after Joyce gave the safe sign, condemning himself to baseball infamy, Armando did something truly amazing.
He smiled. He didn’t say a word to the umpire. He just smiled.
Later, after an emotionally destroyed Joyce saw the replay and apologized to the young pitcher, this is what Armando said:
“You don’t see an umpire after the game come out and say, Hey, let me tell you I’m sorry. He felt really bad. He didn’t even shower. I know he felt worse than me.”
Then Armando smiled again. “Nobody’s perfect,” he said.
A few hours later, the Governor of Michigan issued a proclamation declaring that Armando Gallaraga had in fact pitched a perfect game. A few hours after that, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig ruled that Armando Gallaraga did not pitch a perfect game. The next day, General Motors decided to give Armando a new Corvette anyway.
But they all missed the point. Armando showed us something that might be even rarer than a perfect game. He showed us a perfect heart.