Serena Williams threatening to injure a line ref over a call she didn’t like. Pitcher Dallas Braden mixing it up with Alex Rodriguez because the slugger “disrespected” him by crossing the pitcher’s mound. Gilbert Arenas bringing guns into a basketball locker room.
The American sports scene in recent years offers no shortage of players behaving stupidly, immaturely, gracelessly. We wring our hands, but we should not be surprised. Take young men and women — often barely out of school — shower them with millions of dollars and endless adulation, and what do you expect? Athletes are not heroes but ordinary people with extraordinary talent, and they do the same bone-headed things that ordinary people everywhere do. Except, of course, that when they do those things, the whole world gets to gawk and gasp.
And then, very occasionally, something happens that defies expectations so thoroughly, it almost restores one’s faith in humanity (if not in professional sports).
On Wednesday, Detroit Tigers starter Armando Galarraga pitched what should have been recorded as Major League Baseball’s 21st perfect game. But with two outs in the ninth inning, umpire Jim Joyce made a stupendously bad call at first base, ruling the runner safe when replays showed he was clearly out. The game ended one batter later, and Mr. Galarraga officially won with a one-hitter instead of one going into the books as having achieved one of the most elusive goals in all of sports.
That was extraordinary, but what happened next was perhaps even more so. Mr. Galarraga might have been expected to show unhappiness, anger, even rage — but he didn’t. This pitcher didn’t pitch a fit. Neither did Tiger Manager Jim Leyland or anyone else on the team.
Most remarkably of all, when the sorrowful and apologetic Mr. Joyce returned to the stadium the following afternoon, he was greeted by the Tiger fans not with catcalls, threats or rotten tomatoes but, almost unbelievably, with a hearty round of applause. The majority of fans chose conciliation and understanding. They decided to be, to use an almost old-fashioned term, good sports about the whole thing. Mr. Leyland even sent Mr. Galarraga out to deliver the lineup card to Mr. Joyce, a message that there were no hard feelings.
Umpires make mistakes, and this was a very bad one indeed. But something very good happened in Detroit this week as well. Those of us whose kids play sports, or who idolize athletes, have pitiably few opportunities to point to a contemporary sports figure and say to our child: “There, that’s a good example for you. That is the right way to behave.” Today, thanks to a blown call that cost a pitcher his place in the record books, we have a few names to add to that short list: Armando Galarraga. Jim Leyland. And, yes, Jim Joyce, who owned up to his mistake with a bracing honesty and sincere apology that are all too rare these days, whether in athletics, politics or any other field of play.