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Armando Galarraga awaits a perfect opportunity

This is the first thing that pops into your mind when you see Armando Galarraga jogging across the field at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in an Orioles jersey:

How do you go — in less than two years — from pitching what everyone on earth knows was a perfect game to fighting for your career in the training camp of one of baseball's most imperfect teams?

It's not all that complicated. Galarraga, who became the poster child for good sportsmanship with the classy way he reacted when he was robbed of official recognition of his perfect game in 2010, is trying to resurrect his career on a minor league contract with the Orioles. It all has come a year after he was traded by the Detroit Tigers and six months after he underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

There are no guarantees, especially in a camp with at least a dozen starting pitchers fighting for five spots in the Orioles rotation, but Galarraga arrived in Sarasota last week with something that you don't often see in a minor league invitee: a prominent place in baseball lore and almost unanimous respect and affection from the rest of the sports world.

In fact, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter both made no secret of the fact that the character Galarraga showed after umpire Jim Joyce clearly missed a call at first base to keep him out of the record book was a factor in the team's decision to sign him.

Not the only factor, mind you. Galarraga looked healthy this winter pitching in Venezuela and seems to have regained some of the velocity lost over two seasons pitching with a sore elbow. He knows that the respect he gained in Detroit in June 2010 might have helped open this door, but he doesn't figure that his reputation is going to help him walk through it.

"I like to hear that stuff, but I wanted them to sign me because they see the talent I have, not because I'm a good person," Galarraga said. "I think everybody in here is a good person. I want them to like me because I'm a good pitcher."

That will be what ultimately determines whether he sticks in Baltimore, but he's going to have to live with the accolades.

Just in case there is anyone out there who doesn't know the story: Galarraga was one out away from becoming the 21st pitcher in major league history to throw an official perfect game when Cleveland Indians hitter Jason Donald hit a soft ground ball between first and second base. It was a tough play, but first baseman Miguel Cabrera ranged well to his right to snag the ball and threw to Galarraga covering to beat Donald by a half-step.

Except that Joyce did the unthinkable and signaled the runner safe, creating the best argument yet for expanded instant replay in baseball. Instead of celebrating a historic performance, Galarraga returned to the mound to record the final out and settle — officially — for a one-hit shutout.

Those are the nuts and bolts of the situation, but what made it truly unforgettable was the way Galarraga and Joyce both handled themselves after the fact. They turned a terrible mistake into an inspiring story of accountability and forgiveness. The scene of a tearful Joyce meeting Galarraga at home plate the next day is both poignant and instructive.

"I know them both very well," said manager Buck Showalter, "so that put a personal touch on it when you watch that. Jimmy is one of the best umpires in the league, and Armando obviously has pitched at a very high level in his career at times. I think the word I thought of was 'very humanistic.' This is a guy that understands the reality and the whole scheme of the world and the things that go on. You can tell he has a grip on reality."

Galarraga's new teammates simply marvel at the self-control he showed in the heat of that moment.

"I don't know if I would have been as gracious," pitcher Zach Britton said. "I think that takes a special person. [Pitching coach] Rick Adair mentioned that to us today. 'Go YouTube what he said to the media — the way he handled it was pretty unique.' I'd like to say I would, but I don't know. … That's the way it should have been handled."

Catcher Matt Wieters was impressed with how calm Galarraga seemed at the moment when he realized that a piece of history had been snatched out of his glove.

"It's the kind of situation where you can let your emotions get the best of you," Wieters said. "He did a great job of recognizing that human beings make mistakes. It's unfortunate that [Joyce] made that mistake, but we all make them."

It also was the kind of situation that might have gotten the best of Galarraga a little earlier in his career.

"He was with us in Texas, and he was pretty temperamental when he was younger," Adair said. "I don't know what I would have done [in that situation], but what he did was unbelievable. And, to know his history, and to know he could get a little explosive at times when he was younger, to see him handle that. I told him in our group meeting, I told him I couldn't be any more proud of his professionalism."

Of course, Galarraga could not have realized at that very moment that what was happening would make his "near-perfect" game probably the second-most-famous perfect game in baseball history, behind the one Don Larsen pitched for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series. He does realize that now.

"The special thing is, I made 28 outs," he said. "I got my 27, but then I had to get one more. I'm really proud of it. It was a dream come true. It was a great experience, but it's over. It's 2012 and I'm trying to make a team and help this team."

Which brings us back to how this great storyline landed in Sarasota this spring. Galarraga was pitching hurt when he beguiled the Indians for nine innings on just 88 pitches, and he would not be pitching for the Tigers much longer.

That game was one of just four victories in 24 starts in 2010, so — great guy or not — the Tigers signed free-agent starter Brad Penny before the 2011 season and traded Galarraga to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two minor league pitchers.

"He's a wonderful person and he handled himself as well as anyone could have in that situation, but we just felt that Penny would be ahead of him," said Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski. "I hope things work out very well for him. You can't handle a situation with any more class. Clearly, he knew the call wasn't correct, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him."

Galarraga holds no bitterness toward the Tigers. He was grateful for the trade that allowed him to remain a starting pitcher, though his elbow problem worsened in Arizona and he underwent surgery to remove bone chips in August.

Now he just has to prove that he's healthy enough to maintain consistent velocity and command if he is to move far enough up the depth chart to make a legitimate bid for a place in the major league rotation.

"I feel great … unbelievable," he said. "My velocity is back. I was down to 85-86, and now I'm back to 93-94, but you're going to see [what happens] in the games. The games are going to speak for themselves. I believe in myself, but I need to have a good spring training. I know that."

The opportunity is there. The Orioles have a lot of candidates for the rotation, but there could be several spots in play over the next six weeks.

"We need consistent, solid, durable starting pitchers," Duquette said. "Anyone who meets that requirement has a good chance to be in our rotation."

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