Friday, June 4, 2010

The (Im)Perfect Game

I am a huge baseball fan. I grew up on the baseball diamond. My dad ran our local recreation league for several years, and I played high school baseball, so from March to August, I was on the field or at the park practically every single day. I know a lot of people find the game to be slow and boring, but I love the subtle intricacies and strategies of the game, and I love the battle between pitchers and hitters. It's a physical battle, no doubt, but I think it's also one of the most intellectual battles in sports.

I say that to say this: baseball has a special place in my heart, but never has a story about baseball captured my interest in quite the same way as the recent story of Armando Gallaragga and Jim Joyce.

If you've been paying much attention to the news this week, you've probably seen the story already. Gallaragga, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, was on his way to throwing only the 20th perfect game in baseball history. For baseball novices, a perfect game is when a pitcher doesn't allow any hits, runs, errors, or walks through the entire nine innings of a game. It's obviously quite a feat, since only 19 people have done it in more than 100 years of playing Major League Baseball. Think about that, 100+ years of 20+ teams playing 100+ games. That's literally hundreds of thousands of games, and it's only happened 19 times.

So Gallaragga is one out away from this historic feat. With two outs in the 9th inning, the would-be final out hits a slow ground ball to the first baseman. Gallaragga himself comes to cover first base and get the out. The first baseman flips it to him, clearly getting the runner out by about half a step. Then, the unthinkable happens: the umpire, Jim Joyce, calls him safe. One out away from the perfect game, and Gallaragga loses it because of a bad call by the umpire. In his defense, Joyce is considered one of the best umpires in the game. But he blew this call.

That in and of itself is enough to make this story incredibly intriguing, but what happened after has made it even more so. There are times, even in our fallen culture, when something happens that is so beautiful that it begins to show off the Gospel, almost despite itself. And that's exactly what we've seen in this situation. There are several things I want to note.

You might have imagined that Gallaragga would have lost it after this play. Most people would say he would have every right to get in the umpire's face, to yell and scream and argue. That pretty much happens in ten baseball games a day. But he did not. Gallarragga had a brief look of surprise, then he smiled, walked back to the mound and finished the game, doing his job, getting the final out, and getting the win for his team. I don't know much about this man, but this was an incredible display of character.

Here's what C.S. Lewis had to say about character:

"Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light." - Mere Christianity

When I saw Gallaragga's reaction, I immediately thought about what Lewis said here. Character is most clearly revealed when we don't have time to think about what our reaction to a situation should be.

This situation also displayed the Gospel in several pretty amazing ways I thought. Now, when I say it displayed the Gospel, I'm not saying that Jesus was proclaimed. But I am saying that there were several elements of the Gospel that were very clear. Here are some:

1 - Man's sinfulness. I'm not saying the umpire sinned by making the wrong call. But I am saying that the bad call says something about all of us. We are fallen humans, and we make mistakes. We are not God, we are not perfect.

2 - Repentance - After the game was over, and the umpire had a chance to review the play, he quickly realized he had made a big mistake. He was very upset. He immediately went to the Tigers' locker room, found Gallaragga, and apologized for his error. He then went before the media, admitted his mistake, and in tears apologized for ruining the pitcher's chance for a history making moment. His apologies were sincere and heartfelt. There was true regret in his voice.

3 - Mercy - By most accounts, Gallaragga would have completely been within his rights to blow off the umpire's apology, to say, "You cost me my chance at history!" But we've already learned that he has some character, and he continued to show it after the game. He simply accepted his apology, told reporters that he knows umpires make mistakes sometimes, and moved on.

4 - Grace - But that wasn't all he did. It would have been plenty. He's already shown more than enough character in this episode. Nevertheless, he takes it a step further the next day. You see, Jim Joyce was the umpire behind home plate the next day. It is baseball tradition for the manager of the team to take his batting lineup to the home plate umpire before the game. Instead, Gallaragga took it to the plate, patting Jim Joyce on the back as the veteran umpire wiped back tears. It was an incredible act of grace, going beyond just forgiveness. This is a beautiful picture of what Jesus does. It's not enough that he forgives our sins. When we repent, we are made joint-heirs with him in God the Father. We go from being his enemy to being a part of the family. And that's exactly what happened here.

At the end of the day, I believe this is actually a better story because of the blown call. Most non-sports fans would not even know of this story if it weren't for the bad call. And God has used it as a way to display his glory and his grace to the nations. What a beautiful picture.