My Sportsman: Armando Galarraga
The word "Sportsman" in SI's "Sportsman of the Year" seems kind of outdated, doesn't it? It seems an old English word, like poppycock, or maybe a a 1950s American word, something forever locked with cheerleaders in poodle skirts shouting "Hip hip hooray!"
Look at Biff over there. Now ... he is a sportsman!
The Oxford English Dictionary has four basic definitions for Sportsman. The first, the most common, is a man who hunts or fishes. The Sportsman Channel, after all, is all about hunting and fishing. The Sportsman Guide generally sells outdoor stuff. By this definition, the Sportsman of the Year should probably be Kevin VanDam who is the all-time money leader in Bassmaster Tournaments. (more than $4.5 million).
The second definition, a mostly outdated definition, basically refers to a gambler. In this scenario Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series, was a sportsman. The third refers to someone who exemplifies the ideals of a sport -- a good sport. The fourth, and last and least used, is simply someone who participates in sports.
So, "Sportsman" is kind of a charged word, which makes the decision to pick a Sportsman of the Year kind of difficult. is it the best athlete (or coach)? The athlete who had the biggest impact on the year? Do we want this person to exemplify the ideals of sportsmanship? Or do we want some combination of these things? We had a great example last year. In many ways, 2009 was the sports year of Alex Rodriguez. At the start, he was forced by reports to admit that he used steroids to improve his play. Then he missed the first month of the season with a serious injury. Then he had a typically good season -- .402 on-base percentage, 30 homers -- and was a big part of the Yankees' 103-win season. And THEN, with his reputation as a playoff choker so intact that few bothered to even question it, he had a spectacular playoffs, hitting .438 with five homers in the nine games it took the Yankees to get to the World Series. He wasn't quite as good in the World Series, but he was good enough with four extra base hits as the Yankees won their first title in almost a decade.
He impacted the year like no one else. But you could hardly call him "sporting." And the choice was Derek Jeter, who had a typically good year, a good playoffs and, more, represents something larger with the way he play the game and with the way he carries himself. Jeter fit the "Sportsman" title (along with the "true Yankee" mythology) better than A-Rod ever could.
And so it has been for most of the 57-year history of the award -- with winners and larger-than-sports icons like Joe Paterno, Bill Russell, Cal Ripken, Tim Duncan and so on. Sportsman is supposed to mean something a bit more than just the biggest newsmaker or the best athlete of the year. That is not to say that sportsmen of the year are supposed to be saints or shining examples of human goodness or anything like that ... we can't know that. We constantly make mistakes whenever we try to assign superior moral qualities to our athletes -- this year, with Tiger Woods' various tabloid tangos proved that yet again. No, it's not about morals. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who shared the 1998 Sportsman, look now to be a rather tragic choice. But I don't think so. In 1998 they lifted did not just excel at sports, they LIFTED sports. And I think that's the point.
All of which is why my choice for 2010 Sportsman of the Year is Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga. All in all, he had a pretty crummy sports year. He went 4-9 with a 4.49 ERA. His Tigers were mostly a non-factor this season. He made no impact all on the sports landscape ...
... except for one day, when he was perfect. That was June 2, just his fourth start of the year. It was against the Cleveland Indians. And he retired the first 26 batters he faced. There was a bizarre perfect-game bug in the air in May and June. On May 9, Oakland's Dallas Braden, who until that point was only known for telling the aforementioned A-Rod to stay off his mound, threw a perfect game against Tampa Bay. Exactly 20 days later, on May 29, Roy Halladay threw a perfect game against Florida, a performance of such dominance that if that was the first game you had ever seen, you would have walked away wondering how ANYONE gets a hit in this odd game called baseball. Two perfect games in 20 days. Strange. There were ZERO perfect games in the 1970s, for instance.
So here it was, only four days after Halladay's perfecto, and Galarraga was throwing one of his own. He was not as dominant as Halladay. The Indians hit a few balls hard. But they did not hit any balls safely. Then it was the ninth inning, and Cleveland's Mark Grudzielanek flew out (hit the ball well), Mark Redmond hit the ball to short (did not hit it well) and Jason Donald was the last batter. There were fewer than 18,000 in the Detroit stands, but there was a buzz. No Tigers pitcher had ever thrown a perfect game.
What followed is now part of baseball lore. Donald squibbed a groundball off the end of his bat. The ball rolled to the right side, where Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera ranged to his right, scooped it, and then fired the ball overhand to Galarraga, who had raced over to the cover the bag. Galarraga caught it and reached for the bag somewhat awkwardly. He looked to be on time. And here's the hell of it: First base umpire Jim Joyce -- when viewed on replay after replay -- seemed just about ready to call Donald out and compete the perfect game.
Only Joyce did not do that. He seemed to shift in mid-call. He called Donald safe. And the perfect game instantly turned instead into a tidy but rather run-of-the-mill one-hitter.
This was one of those calls that looked wrong in live action. On replay, with the action slowed, it looked like something worse than wrong -- grotesque ... twisted ... appalling. This was a year when the call for replay review in baseball reached shrieking levels, perhaps because we have become a society that cannot tolerate ambiguity. We want black and white, out and safe, right and wrong, champion and loser. On replay, there was no question at all that Donald was out.
There was also no question at all that Jim Joyce in his honest effort to protect baseball history had, instead, derailed baseball history. To use the cruelest of sports words: He choked. He knew that last out was for a perfect game, and he felt the pressure, and I think that instead of allowing his own instincts to come through (because everyone will tell you that Jim Joyce is a good umpire) he got lost in the moment and looked too hard to find something that wasn't there.
He felt terrible -- beyond terrible. "I cost that kid a perfect game," he would say in horror after the game. You can imagine the game being over and Joyce rushing into the video room, muttering to himself: "Please be right. Please be right." And when he saw that he wasn't right, well, it tore him up.
Joyce would handle his mistake with great dignity. But the real hero was Galarraga. He did not argue with Joyce on the field. He just sort of smiled. He retired the next batter, Trevor Crowe, and finished off the game as a one-hitter (making this, in the minds of many, the first 28-out perfect game in baseball history). And then he went into the clubhouse and told reporters that he was very proud of the way he pitched. When asked about Joyce immediately afterward, he said that Joyce should not worry about it, that everybody makes mistakes. He actually planned to go to Joyce to make HIM feel better. Later, when Joyce came to see Galarraga to apologize for missing the call, the pitcher reiterated his stance. It meant a lot to him that Joyce came over to apologize.
"Nobody's perfect," Galarraga said.
I feel sure that long after I have forgotten the details of the Braden perfect game and the Halladay perfect game, I will remember Armando Galarraga's grace in the face of a baseball injustice. When it was all done, many people wanted Bud Selig to turn back the clock, to use his superpowers as Commissioner to give Galarraga the perfect game he so clearly had earned. But Selig did not do that, and I'm glad. For one thing, changing history is dangerous stuff. For another, yes, Galarraga should have thrown a 27-up, 27-down, no-hit, no-baserunner game. He had that taken away from him by a good umpire who had just picked a bad time to miss a call.
But because of the way he handled it, Armando Galarraga DID throw a perfect game. In many ways, it was the most perfect game in baseball history.