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Learning From Forgiveness

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
It has been four days since Jim Joyce blew the biggest call of his career and no one has gotten it right yet.

What started out as a perfect game somehow got better.

Joyce’s blown call, and the resultant loss of a perfect game for Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, created national headlines but Joyce’s subsequent apology and tearfulness did to the story what oxygen does to flame.

The story relates to the Raptors, the Leafs, Marlies and Toronto FC because it is both bigger than and about sports.

It is about sports because the event happened before a large gathering of people paying for  the privilege. Every game has arbiters and every team, most recently the Lakers and Celtics, Blackhawks and Flyers have legitimate beefs. I consider basketball refereeing a night at the improv, not because of any lack of discipline or skill among referees, but because the game is absolutely impossible to officiate. Soccer stands just a few inches behind. Ask any Leafs fan about Kerry Fraser and Doug Gilmour. Same goes with Raptors fans who constantly bellyached that their non-contending team was incurring non-existent fouls.

But the Joyce-Galarraga story isn’t really about instant replay or the cocksure attitude of umpires. It’s bigger than that.

It’s about forgiveness. Grudgingly given in the critical moment and then quickly extended from Galarraga and Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

It’s about Joyce admitting to his mistake after seeing the replay.

It’s about his contrition and heartfelt apology.

It’s about the pitcher handing the scorecard to a weeping Joyce at home plate the next day and a good portion of the Comerica Park crowd cheering Joyce when he stepped on to the field.

Galarraga’s would have been the third perfect game of the season but only the 21st in the history of major league baseball. The Tigers are 116 years old.
This would have been their first perfect game. Baseball has gone better than three decades between perfect games. They are that rare.

Which makes the conduct of the people involved all the more spectacular - and this is what matters most - exemplary.

When we watch basketball, hockey or soccer, we pick up very little we can apply to our lives. Professional athletes operate at a standard most of us can’t hope to approach, let alone meet.

We cheer for our teams. We follow the standings and go up and down with the results. There is opportunity aplenty for entertainment, but precious few teachable moments.

And then along came Armando Galarraga, 21-18 lifetime and a pitcher who started the season in the minors.

Along came an umpire from Toledo, Ohio, Jim Joyce who reveres baseball and understands more than anyone the miserable corner of the game’s history he will forever inhabit.

Randy Johnson threw a perfect game. So did David Cone and Roy Halladay, Boomer Wells and Don Larson. Same goes for names such as Mark Buehrle and Charlie Robertson and most recently, Dallas Braden. Perfect games are whimsically parceled out to great pitchers and good ones. Galarraga’s chance of getting in sight of another one will mostly depend on how much baseball he watches when he retires back to Venezuela.

But even rarer, in this era of rapacious agents and astronomical salaries are moments of true greatness.  When baseball star Rickey Henderson set the major league record for stolen bases, he proclaimed “I am the greatest of all time,” and thus indisputably proved that he wasn’t.

Two words to chew on: Tiger Woods.

Sports is built on fallibility. It shows when Zinedine Zidane is goaded into a red card in the World Cup and when Brett Favre ends his season with a needless interception. If there are no mistakes, there is no game or at least none worth watching.

Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga reinforced an elemental lesson. We are not defined by our ability to fashion monuments to perfection. We are at our best when we humbly kneel down to pick up the pieces.
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