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Joyce cements place in MLB history


Baseball history's goat farm threw wide its paddock gate and welcomed a new member on Wednesday night. Merkle, Denkinger, Buckner, Bartman and all the rest, bleat hello to the mustachioed umpire, Jim Joyce, perhaps the only person -- either at Comerica Park or watching on television at home, even before slow-motion replays could be cued -- who believed that the 27th consecutive out that Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga recorded against the Indians on Monday was not, in fact, an out.

Galarraga, making his third start of the season after an up-and-down first two years in Detroit (he entered with a 20-18 career record and a 4.62 career ERA), had been brilliant all night; he ended up throwing just 21 balls among his 88 pitches. Here he was -- improbably, ridiculously -- on the cusp of becoming the 21st player ever to throw a perfect game, and -- improbably, ridiculously -- of becoming the third to do it in the last 24 days (and the fourth in the last eleven months), with a serious assist from rookie center fielder Austin Jackson, who made a sprinting over-the-shoulder basket catch with no outs in the top of the ninth. With one out to go, Galarraga induced shortstop Jason Donald to tap weakly to first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera fielded it and threw overhand to Galarraga, who was covering first. In one motion, Galarraga caught it while reaching back with his right foot for the bag. He touched it, clearly, with Donald at least a half step away. Joyce, the first base ump swung his arms, and he swung them wide, and history's view of him was cemented just like that.

Cabrera, about as close to the play as was Joyce, pumped his fist in jubilation. Then he saw where Joyce's arms were positioned, grabbed his crotch, put his hands on his head, and spent the rest of the inning jawing at the umpire. (Galarraga retired Trevor Crowe on a groundout to third, securing his one-hit, 3-0 shutout). Some of the other Tigers took the development even worse. Catcher Gerald Laird -- who wasn't even playing -- appeared as if he had to be restrained from going after Joyce as the umpires jogged, relatively briskly at that, off the field. It is also a good bet that at least a few droplets of Jim Leyland's saliva inadvertently landed on Joyce's face. The manager's verbal protest was neither meek nor executed from any appreciable distance.

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In fact, the Tiger who seemed take it all the best was, strangely enough, Galarraga. He clearly knew that he'd recorded that 27th out, but when he saw the call he simply smiled, and said nothing. He was smiling still after the game, in a TV interview, even if his eyes seemed a little moist. "I feel good," he said. "That was my best game so far." Of that play -- the play -- he said, "I have to see the replays, but I feel really good."

It was clearly too soon for Galarraga to be thinking about how his place in baseball's record book was unfairly snatched from him, and how the list of perfect game hurlers will unfairly remain at 20 -- at least until Chris Volstad or Kenshin Kawakami or someone throws another one next week. But even though the record book matters more in baseball than in any other sport, and his rightfully earned perfect game will now not be written there, the memory of Galarraga's brilliance on Wednesday night will persist. "The Tigers' fans have been cheated out of the greatest pitching experience in Tiger history," fretted the club's color commentators. Well, no they weren't; it still was. In fact, the way that the game ended will probably mean that Galarraga's feat will be better recalled by baseball followers than will, say, Dallas Braden's Mother's Day perfect game.

If Galarraga will now always be remembered, then so, of course, will Joyce. It has been a difficult period in which to be a major league umpire, the public perception of the men who work in the profession shaded by the buffoonery of Joe West (a man who actually -- on his own Web site, -- bills himself a "star in two fields of entertainment, Country Music and Major League Baseball") and by the itchy trigger finger of Bill Hohn (whose absurdly fast ejection of Roy Oswalt on Monday earned him a stern talking to by the league office). Joyce, by almost every account, was one of the good ones. Was. Now the 21 years of service he's put in at the major league level, the two All-Star Games and two World Series he's worked, and however many more might come, will all be boiled down to one split second in which he, for whatever reason, made an incorrect decision. "I just cost that kid a perfect game," a dejected -- and admirably forthright -- Joyce said afterwards. (Galarraga reported that a teary-eyed Joyce had apologized to him, and that the pitcher gave the ump a hug.) "I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay. ... Biggest call of my career and I kicked the s--- out of it."

Armando Galarraga? What he did on Wednesday night won't appear in the record books, but it always will in our memories. The same, somewhat sadly, goes for Jim Joyce.