To Forgive is Baseball

Jim Joyce had a bad day on June 2, 2010. (via Keith Allison)

On the evening of June 2, 2010, the Detroit Tigers were set to host the visiting Cleveland Indians. At first glance, there was nothing to recommend the game to anyone but the most diehard of baseball fans. 

The Tigers were mired in another season of mediocre baseball. The previous decade had begun poorly enough with the team losing 96, 106, and 119 games from 2001 to 2003. While the Tigers had made the World Series in 2006, they had failed to make the playoffs in the seasons since. General manager Dave Dombrowksi continued to spend aging owner Mike Illitch’s money trying to make the Tigers competitive again. In 2010, those efforts were coming up short. 

As they entered the June 2 match-up against Cleveland, the Tigers were 27-25 and 3-1/2 games behind the division-leading Twins. 

The visiting Clevelanders were a division rival but were in even worse shape than the Tigers. With a 19-32 record, their season was already over and summer had not yet officially begun. 

The June 2 sports page of the Detroit Free Press typified the apathy of the local sports fans for the hometown nine. The paper featured articles about the Detroit Red Wings re-signing forward Erik Lindstrom and the LeBron James free agent sweepstakes, and a headline promoting Tigers starter Jeremy Bonderman, who had pitched eight innings the night before, his longest outing since having shoulder surgery two years earlier. 

The Tigers organization itself seemed unenthused about the games against Cleveland. Inside the sports section, an advertisement featuring a goateed Justin Verlander announced a series of events the next weekend for the Eighth Annual Negro Leagues weekend. Giveaways included a 60-ounce beverage pitcher, a Detroit Stars hat, and a Comerica Park jigsaw puzzle. A small bit of text also mentioned the remaining two games against Cleveland. 

Free Press reporter John Lowe wrote this enticing preview, buried in the pages of the sports section: “Armando Galarraga makes his first start since a week ago Saturday as he faces Cleveland’s top starter, right-hander Fausto Carmona. It’s Galarraga’s third big-league start this season.” 

While only 17,738 fans would walk through the turnstiles at Comerica Park that evening, the game would prove to be more memorable than anyone could have imagined. At an hour and 44 minutes, it would be the shortest nine-inning game of the season and ultimately the entire decade. The whole game was played in less time than the 7 p.m. showing of Sex and the City 2 at the nearby Ren Cen 4 movie theater. 

In the decade to come, the ever growing length of baseball games—thanks to the advent of longer commercial breaks, increased use of harder-throwing relievers, mound visits, longer time between pitches, and more frequent pitching changes—became baseball’s latest existential crisis, prompting a litany of “back in my day” hot takes and ominous warnings about the millennial generation and their waning attention spans. By the middle of the decade, MLB commissioner Bud Selig decided to act on the issue by employing the best practices of a commissioner who had no interest in actually solving the problem—he created a committee to investigate the matter. 

That evening’s Cleveland-Detroit game would feature a brilliant performance by a struggling starter, an umpiring mistake of monumental proportions, a staggering act of forgiveness, and a reminder that a single error cannot ruin an otherwise unblemished career.  

At 7:07 p.m., Cleveland center fielder Trevor Crowe stepped into the batter’s box against Tigers starter Galarraga. The 28-year-old Galarraga had spent the last 12 years of his life in organized baseball, having signed with the Montreal Expos as an amateur free agent in October, 1998. He had been traded twice: once by the Washington Nationals with Terrmel Sledge and certified-Guy Brad Wilkerson to the Texas Rangers for Alfonso Soriano. A few years later, the Rangers sent him to Detroit for minor league pitcher Mike Hernandez

Galarraga’s 2008 rookie season was like the Krusty Doll at the House of Evil—for every good element, there was an equal bad one. Galarraga started 28 games and pitched 178.2 innings. That’s good! He walked 8.2 percent of batters. That’s bad. He struck out 16.9 percent of opposing hitters. That’s good! He allowed 28 home runs. That’s bad. He had a 3.73 ERA. That’s good! He had a 4.88 FIP. That’s bad. 

In 2009, Galarraga’s strikeout percentage fell, his walk rate climbed, and he continued to allow home runs at an alarming rate. As a result, his ERA and FIP ballooned to 5.64 and 5.47, respectively. 

Galarraga’s 2010 looked like more of the same. Prior to June 2, Galarraga had pitched in only three games, beginning on May 16 against the Red Sox. Through those three games, he had allowed seven runs and two homers. Galarraga had struck out eight hitters while walking four in only 11 innings of work. He was exactly what his underlying stats revealed—a wild pitcher with a penchant for allowing home runs. Galarraga was an unlikely choice to be the protagonist for the shortest game of the decade. 

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Galarraga bore down on the hapless Cleveland lineup. Crowe flew out to deep center field to start the game. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo grounded out to Miguel Cabrera, who threw the ball to Galarraga covering at first base. Left fielder Austin Kearns lined out to second base. 

Galarraga’s counterpart on the mound for Cleveland, Carmona, had a similar background of mixed effectiveness. In his rookie season in 2007, Carmona posted a 19-8 record, striking out 5.73 hitters and walking 2.55 hitters per nine. He managed to leave a high number of opposing hitters on base, lowering his ERA relative to his FIP. The next two years, however, Carmona struggled. His strikeout rate declined, his walks increased, and his luck at keeping runners from scoring disappeared, leading his ERA and FIP to skyrocket. Injuries took their toll as well, as Carmona managed only 120.2 and 125.1 innings in 2008 and 2009, respectively. 

Carmona’s first 10 starts of 2010 were going better than his previous two seasons, but danger lurked beneath the surface. He entered the June 2 game with a 3.69 ERA. In April, he had held opposing hitters to a .221/.304/.295 batting line. But in May opposing hitters had hit .272/.341/.386. He had walked 26 batters while striking out 28. 

In the bottom of the first inning, Carmona quickly got himself into a jam, allowing a leadoff single to center fielder Austin Jackson. Left fielder Johnny Damon, however, hit an 0-1 dribbler in front of home plate, leading to a double play. Right fielder Magglio Ordonez then grounded out to second, ending the inning. 

After Galarraga set Cleveland’s Travis Hafner, Jhonny Peralta, and Russell Branyan down on 10 pitches, Carmona made his way back to the mound for the bottom of the second inning. Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera then stepped into the batter’s box. 

Since coming to Detroit in a classic Dombrowski “boatload of prospects for superstars” trade in 2007, Cabrera was everything the Tigers had hoped for at the plate. In two seasons playing for Detroit, Cabrera had hit .308/.373/.542 — a 136 wRC+ — with 71 home runs and 230 RBIs. 

Against Carmona, Cabrera did exactly what the Tigers expected of their emerging middle-of-the-order threat. He launched an 1-0 pitch deep into the left field stands, giving the Tigers a 1-0 lead. Carmona then set the next three hitters down in a row, escaping without any further damage. 

For his part, Galarraga continued to pitch masterfully, retiring the visiting Clevelanders in order inning after inning. He only had one three-ball count in the entire game—in the fifth inning against Cleveland designated hitter Hafner. Through eight innings, Galarraga induced 12 ground balls, and his defenders turned every single one into outs. 

Carmona continued to pitch well, but he could not keep pace with Galarraga. After the Cabrera home run, Carmona allowed runners in the third, fifth, and seventh innings but managed to avoid any further run scoring. The Tigers bailed out the struggling Cleveland pitcher by swinging early and often in the count and grounding into several double plays. By the bottom of the eighth inning, however, Carmona’s luck ran out. 

After Carmona retired Alex Avila and Ramon Santiago to start the bottom of the eighth, Jackson hit a weak single to left field. A Damon grounder became another infield single, putting runners on first and second. 

Ordonez then lined an 0-1 pitch to the right-field gap. The speedy Jackson came around to score, and Damon crossed the plate thanks to a throwing error by Choo in right field. The Tigers now held a commanding 3-0 lead with a runner on first and Cabrera at the plate. Cabrera, however, struck out, but the two added runs had raised the Tigers win probability to 97%. 

In the top of the ninth, Galarraga strode to the mound with a perfect game on the line. He only had the seven-eight-nine hitters — Mark Grudzielanek, Mike Redmond and Jason Donald — to retire before clinching himself a place in baseball history. 

The inning began with a scare. Grudzielanek drove the first pitch he saw deep into left-center.  Jackson, a rookie who earned himself 12 DRS in 1,256.1 innings in center field, ran at full speed and extended his glove at the last possible moment, robbing Grudzielanek of a hit. It was the second near-hit of the evening. 

In the fifth inning, Russell Branyan had hit a ball up the middle that ricocheted off Galarraga towards short. Third baseman Brandon Inge grabbed the ball on the run and threw out the slow-footed Branyan. Had the runner been faster, the perfect game may have ended right then and there. 

After retiring Redmond, Galarraga looked in, needing only to retire weak-hitting Jason Donald to end the game. With the count 1-1, Donald hit a grounder to Cabrera, who flipped the ball to Galarraga covering first. The throw beat Donald to the base, but first base umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe. On replay, Donald clearly was out. The game should have ended, and Galarraga should have had the first perfect game in Tigers history. Instead, Joyce blew the call. Jim Leyland came out of the dugout to argue but returned to the bench defeated. Donald was on first. The perfect game was gone, and there was still one out to go. 

As Galarraga pitched to Crowe, Donald took second and third on defensive indifference. Ignoring Donald, Galarraga induced his final ground out of the game as Crowe hit the ball weakly to Brandon Inge, who threw him out at first. 

The condemnation of Joyce’s mistake came swift and sure. WXYT’s Jim Price, former Tigers player, had said during the game: “Are you kidding me?…Oh my goodness! He was clearly out, and the umpire called him safe. His foot was on the bag, and he called him safe. You got to be kidding me. Wow, an absolutely horrible call…He got cheated. The fans got cheated. The organization got cheated.”

Tigers catcher Gerald Laird made sure to let Joyce know his feelings before the umpire had a chance to leave the field. Tigers fans booed Joyce through Crowe’s final at-bat. The Detroit Free Press put coverage of the game on the next day’s front page with the headline “ROBBED!” Within minutes, someone had edited Joyce’s Wikipedia page calling him “the very worst umpire in Major League Baseball.”  

Joyce’s error overshadowed everything else about the game—the near hits from Branyan and Grudzielanek, Carmona’s own performance, and the lightning quick pace of the game. 

In the clubhouse, Galarraga’s teammates were angry. They had watched the replay of the play at first over and over. Nothing they could do could change the outcome of the play or the reality of the situation. Yet they watched it anyway. No divine justice from God, the State of Michigan, or the commissioner’s office would give Galarraga the perfect game Joyce had denied him. A sense of gloom settled in the clubhouse even though the Tigers, as everyone had seemed to forget, had won the game. Galarraga had pitched the game of his life. His Game Score of 88 was the highest of his career and his best pitching performance in two years. 

Meanwhile, in the umpires’ dressing room, Joyce was beside himself. He had worked his way up the umpiring ranks in the Midwest League, the Texas League, the Pacific Coast League, and elsewhere before making the majors in 1989. He had worked All-Star Games, division series games, championship series, and two World Series. He had cultivated a reputation as a fair and honest umpire—a reputation he feared had disappeared in a single play. 

Rather than hide from the situation, Joyce admitted his error and took complete responsibility for blowing the call. He told a reporter, “I thought (Donald) beat the play. That’s it. There was nothing else.” He further explained, “This isn’t a call. This is a history call. And I kicked the (expletive) out of it. And there is nobody that feels worse than I do. I take in this job, and I kicked the (expletive) out of it. And I took a perfect game away from that kid over there.” 

Joyce’s history of honesty and fair play meant his reputation survived intact. A single mistake could not undo years of good work. Later in June, ESPN The Magazine published a confidential poll of 100 major league baseball players who had named Joyce the league’s best umpire. The players held no grudges. One player said in the survey, “He always calls it fair, so players love him. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s terrible that this happened to him.” 

Galarraga himself matched Joyce’s contrition with forgiveness and grace. After speaking with a reporter about Joyce, Galarraga went to visit the distraught umpire. Joyce reportedly told Galarraga, “I’m so sorry in my heart. I don’t know what to tell you.” Galarraga answered, “Nobody’s perfect.” 

 In what should have been his greatest professional triumph, on an evening when a struggling pitcher found his pitching flow and for two hours dominated like few in his profession ever have done, Galarraga expressed a quiet pride in his accomplishment. He explained to a reporter, “I’m not a super-emotional person. I know I did it.”  He added, “Hopefully it will happen again. But I’ll tell you something. I’m going to keep that CD (of the game), and I’ll tell my son, ‘I got one. It’s not in the book. It’s not official. But I got one.’” 

Galarraga did not need the external validation from the commissioner’s office or the destruction of a storied umpire’s career to tell him what he already knew in his heart—he had thrown the first perfect game in Detroit Tigers’ history in what would become the fastest nine inning game of the decade and one of the most memorable games of baseball ever played. 

References & Resources

Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dennis Bedard
2 years ago

How ironic that Jim Price lays it on about how the fans got cheated. In 1968, he participated in a famous hoax/charade when Mickey Mantle stepped to the plate for his last at bat at Tiger Stadium and he and Denny McClain conspired to throw Mantle a creampuff pitch so he could hit his final home run at Tiger stadium. Mantle told the story with a typical Mantle cheshire cat grin but mistakenly named Bill Freehan as a co-conspirator in this hi jinx.

2 years ago

One vote for the human element

The Ghost of Johnny Dickshot
2 years ago

IIRC didn’t Joyce cry the next day during the lineup card exchange? Both men handled it so perfectly.

2 years ago

Great write-up, but a leadoff single in the first inning is not a jam, the Internet has previously ruled on this matter quite conclusively.

2 years ago

I was there with my buddy that night and we were sitting right by the tunnel where the umps leave the field. We were so irate at Joyce that I had a full beer in my hands, fully prepared to dump it on his head as he walked beneath us. For some reason, common sense prevailed over me at the last nanosecond and I didn’t, thank goodness! Galarraga was a complete class-act starting from the smile he gave Joyce right after the call to the ensuing interviews. He’s correct, he threw a perfect game in the bigs and he doesn’t need a record book to prove it.

Marc Schneider
2 years ago

A lot of people in life could learn a lot about how these two men handled this. In today’s environment, it’s hard to conceive how Joyce could acknowledge his mistake and how Galarraga could forgive him and move on.

2 years ago

I’ve never sworn so loud in my life. And Rob Neyer tweeted or wrote or said something ridiculous like “all that happened was statistics were slightly changed” and I’ve never read him again. There are plenty of sabermetricians who also understand the value of the game’s story.

2 years ago

Its official: Armando Galarraga is the nicest man ever.

Johnnie T
2 years ago

I think that Galarraga’s grace in how he handled this will be remembered far more than he would have been remembered for the perfect game. And I think that is a good thing.

Articles like this that recall that help to make that so. Well done, Mr. Bouton.

2 years ago

I do love both of their reactions but I still wish they could just retroactively correct the call and update the record books. It’s the rare instance where there are no alternate realities for the corrected call.

2 years ago

Forgiveness? Burn in Hell Thurmon Munson.