Umpire Jim Joyce’s Bad Call Ruins Perfect Game, Turkish Flotilla, Gulf of Mexico, All Hope
It is a time of bad calls. Israel made a bad call this week when it took the bait and violently boarded a flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip. British Petroleum has continued its series of bad calls in an ineffective effort to plug the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. And perhaps worst of all, umpire Jim Joyce made a bad call in ruling a baserunner ‘safe’ with two outs in the 9th inning, costing Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.
Galarraga retired the next batter, completing a one-hit shutout, but that didn’t put the oil back in the well. (And Israel later peacefully deported the flotilla activists.) The anger continues to gush.
Many are calling for baseball to expand its use of instant replay. Others are advocating a direct appeal to MLB commissioner Bud Selig to intervene and reverse the call, retroactively granting Galarraga a perfect game. Others want – perhaps wistfully- umpires to be replaced by robots. Shared by all these responses, though, is the sense that a grave injustice has been perpetrated.
Which is interesting. Had Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera booted the ground ball, no one would have called for a rule-change. There would be no suggestion that first basemen should be replaced by robots. Though regrettable, an error would not have violated anyone’s notion of what a first baseman should be doing, such that radical action need be taken- at the institutional level- to rectify the problem. It is of course understood that a ballplayer who strives may fail, and that professional sports are hard. Nobody’s perfect, as they say.
Yet people are far less forgiving of umpires. It’s not because anyone thinks an umpire’s job is easy (though of course refrains that ‘my blind grandmother could have made that call’ will be sung). And it’s not simply that the technology exists to aid with or even entirely replace a human umpire’s judgments- for a machines can catch ground balls too. It’s the conflict between the role and the reality of the actor playing the role. The purpose of an umpire is to make the right call. So, the role of the umpire is to make sure the game corresponds to reality, to eliminate the biases and partial perspectives that would exist were the players to call their own games. (Umpires exist to dispense justice, and so the old joke that justice is blind and so are umpires is appropriate.) From Jim Joyce’s angle behind first base on the right field foul line, the runner appeared to beat the throw. That partial perspective- the particular angle- is, ideally, to be eliminated. An umpire should know all, and see all, and not be blinded or shielded by a limited perspective. That our human condition lacks the complete perspective is regrettable, an impediment to the dispensation of true justice.
But instant replay and robot umpires approximate the ideal of having all perspectives, and so having no perspective. The replay would show the play from any and all angles, and the robot would have near perfect precision. There would be no injustice, no disappointment, no letdown. No human element. Only a congruence between purpose and execution. Fans may be disappointed when their favorite players or teams fail to do what they try to do, but it is nowhere in the ballplayer’s job description that he embody justice or truth. Failure throws victory into relief. A player need only try to succeed. Yet the umpires job is to make sure that success is recognized.
People are angry at British Petroleum. But should they be disappointed? Some may claim that BP has a responsibility to its stakeholders. But it is not out to serve the public good, or to protect the environment or the livelihoods of Louisiana fishermen. Its sole purpose is to make money. Oil is its means. And as a private corporation, the only accountability it has comes via the market, wherein consumers may choose not to purchase its products. If BP wishes to gamble that the costs of maintaining safe rigs are greater than the potential loss of profit that would result from boycotts or a public relations hit, well, then it is just doing its job as a corporation. It is playing its role. One may lament the damage, but why should one expect anything else? Though BP is now employing saw-wielding robots, few suggest that the CEO be replaced with a robot. Though I’m sure the technology exists.
Some are angry and disappointed with President Obama’s response to the oil spill. The defense of the President is that it is not clear what exactly he is supposed to be doing (besides better managing public perception) to clean up the spill. But because the president’s role, unlike a CEO, includes the protection of the public, the (perceived) failure to do so results in disappointment and anger. (This is especially the case with Obama, who’s campaign fostered great expectations in his ability to play the role of leader.) When it is revealed that Bush-staffed government agencies (including the Mineral Management Services) were in bed with BP, thereby failing to live up to their role as protector of the public and regulator of corporations for the public good, there rightly exists indignation and betrayal. But a robot president?
The wish is to go up the ladder, to appeal to a higher power to make things right. To the commander in chief to reign in corporate recklessness for the good of society, or to the commissioner of baseball to reverse a bad call for the “good of the game.”
It is not new to say that sport- and baseball in particular- can be a model of a perfect society. Well-run, fair, meritocratic. Rules apply to all, justice is served, grace and beauty are quotidian, and beer and peanuts are plentiful. We expect baseball to be an idealized world of fairness. Umpires are there to ensure the rules are enforced, and reality well-represented by accurate calls. Like any model, though, it is oversimplified. It is austere, and so lacks messiness. In domestic and foreign policy crises, there are probably only bad and worse calls. The hope, though, is that in baseball, ideal meets reality. Between the lines, the universe is small enough and neat enough to allow the perfect administration of justice. When an historic occasion of athletic perfection – an 88 pitch 28 out performance by Galarraga- is nullified by an imperfect call, the glaring discrepancy between expectation and reality- even in the toy universe of the stadium- is wrenching and disappointing. For if they can’t even get it right here, where can they get it right? In an age of bad calls, we hope that in baseball, at least, they don’t just call ‘em as they see ‘em. We need them to make the right call.
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