The Imperfect Game
Bob Toth | On 02, Jun 2020
Baseball was once known as the perfect game, a religion unto itself, lived and breathed and romanticized by those willing to follow along with the most cerebral of games played. Though full of its own perfections, it is not without flaws that come to the surface. Ten years ago this week, the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers played out a game marred by one such umpire ruling that drastically and directly altered a historic event in the making.
On June 2, 2010, Comerica Park was set to play host to the second of three games in a series between the visiting Cleveland Indians and the home Detroit Tigers. It was the third meeting of the clubs that season and the second time the Tribe had headed north to play their division rivals. Armando Galarraga drew the starting nod for the Tigers, looking to fend off the Tribe and its rebounding right-hander Fausto Carmona.
The prior matchups that season were indicative of two teams heading in completely different directions, with Detroit winning four of the first five games out of 18 scheduled between the two over the course of six months. The Indians themselves were in a bad place, one that most team historians would rather not look back upon. Just a game away from a World Series trip a few years earlier in 2007, the Indians put together a ho-hum 81-81 season in 2008 as the front office began a rebuild, dealing ace CC Sabathia away. They failed to crack 70 wins the following season while further dismantling the starting rotation, shipping out the controlled Cliff Lee for a similar (but nowhere near as productive) return of prospects while also shedding manager Eric Wedge with an eye on the future.
The 2010 season was the first year of the Manny Acta era in Cleveland, a three-year span of losing baseball saddled with injuries and missed opportunities. Acta’s first month at the helm saw the Indians at a 9-13 record, but the Tribe was only five and a half out and in third place in the American League Central. A dismal May all but squashed any of the team’s hopes for a turnaround, as the Indians won just a third of their 27 games to drop to 18-31 on the season.
Cleveland ended May by dropping three of four games in the Big Apple against the Yankees and continued its three-city, ten-game road trip with a voyage to Comerica Park in Detroit. The Indians snatched the opener from the Tigers and Jeremy Bonderman on June 1, holding on for a 3-2 win as Kerry Wood walked a tightrope act in the ninth to leave the tying run at third base. It ended a 10-game losing streak to the Tigers, dating back to the previous fall.
The Tigers, four years removed from their most recent World Series trip and coming off of a positive 86-77 season in 2009 (one game in back of Minnesota for the division title), were knocking on the door and were just a year away from the best stretch of baseball played by the club in franchise history. A slow start left Detroit just a game over .500 at 26-25 entering play on June 2, four and a half in back of the Twins.
Detroit’s rotation looked as though it had some potential, although the experience was lacking. With Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello joining Bonderman, the youthful staff grew to prove itself. Verlander had become an All-Star and Cy Young candidate annually and was in his sixth season. Scherzer was in his first season in Detroit and his third in the Majors and was just a few years away from putting his name in the top five of the Cy ballot for seven straight years (2013-present). Porcello finished third in the Rookie of the Year vote in 2009 and himself went on to win a Cy Young in 2016. Bonderman, the most experienced of the men in the rotation, was in his eighth season but never lived up to the early hype.
The fifth rotation spot initially went to Dontrelle Willis, a left-hander acquired a couple of offseasons earlier from Florida with a vicious, herky-jerky delivery. He was unable to hold onto the fifth spot and was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 1, prompting Galarraga to get another look in the rotation.
After losing his fight with Willis for the final rotation spot in spring training, Galarraga headed to Toledo and pitched effectively enough at Triple-A to get a call back to the Majors in mid-May. His first start went well, but he was touched up in the second and pitched a third time in relief. Now, the door was back open for him and he took full advantage of the opportunity on a warm, Wednesday night.
The Indians took a highly aggressive approach against Galarraga all night long. While sometimes that can work against a pitcher that a team is unfamiliar with, this time it played right into Galarraga’s hands. The Indians saw just nine pitches in the first. Leadoff man Trevor Crowe sent a 2-2 offering to center for a fly out. Shin-Soo Choo grounded a 1-1 pitch down the first base line to Miguel Cabrera. First pitch swinging, Austin Kearns lined to Cabrera to end the first frame.
Sharing the bump with Galarraga was Carmona, pre-Roberto Hernandez Heredia days. Coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career, he opened the year strong with a 4-1 record before losing his last two outings in May. He had a quick first inning himself, giving up a single to Austin Jackson before a double play ball by Johnny Damon and a grounder to second by Magglio Ordonez.
Galarraga handled the middle of the Tribe order with ease in the second. Travis Hafner chopped an 0-2 pitch off the plate and up the middle to the shortstop, Jhonny Peralta lined softly to second on the same count, and Russell Branyan grounded to second on a 1-2 pitch to cap a ten-pitch frame. The Tigers rewarded Galarraga’s quick work two pitches into the home half, when Cabrera put the first run of the night on the board with a homer to left to give Detroit the early 1-0 lead.
The bottom third of the Cleveland batting order fared no better against Galarraga than the top two-thirds as they were retired on ten pitches. Mark Grudzielanek flied to center on two pitches. Catcher Mike Redmond and Jason Donald each grounded to short on the fourth pitches of their at bats. Galarraga was perfect through three with an economical 29 pitches under his belt (just seven balls).
Carmona worked around a potential two-out threat in the bottom of the third to keep the game close as Detroit manager Jim Leyland deployed a similar aggressive approach with his lineup. Carmona needed just three pitches to get two outs in the air before Jackson singled on the first pitch that he saw in his second plate appearance. He stole second on a 1-2 pitch out of the zone, but Damon grounded out to strand him in scoring position.
The Indians really made Galarraga work in the fourth, when he threw eleven pitches (just two short of the highest number of tosses that he made in any one inning on the night). Crowe bounced an 0-2 pitch to first before Choo lofted a fly to left-center tracked down by Jackson and Kearns struck out looking for the first strikeout by either side in the contest.
Eleven pitches later, Galarraga was back on the mound as Carmona flew through the Tigers order, getting Ordonez and Cabrera to ground to the left side of the infield before striking out Brennan Boesch swinging. Hafner worked Galarraga for his longest single matchup of the night as the count went to 3-2 before the Tribe DH fouled out to left. Peralta grounded the next pitch back to the mound and Branyan lined one off of Galarraga’s foot, but in typical special game magic, the ricochet went directly to third baseman Brandon Inge, who fielded and fired to first to retire the Cleveland first baseman to end a 10-pitch frame.
Carmona made it six straight retired with the first two outs of the fifth, getting Carlos Guillen to line to second before striking out Inge. Alex Avila, Galarraga’s battery mate for the evening, got on base with a single to short left, but Carmona got Ramon Santiago to line to center to end any rally efforts.
The veteran utility man Grudzielanek became Galarraga’s second strikeout victim to open the sixth, cut down on a check swing on a 1-2 pitch. Redmond and Donald wasted little time, using three strikes between the pair to put two more outs in the air. Through six, Galarraga had protected his 1-0 lead. Just like the first three innings, he needed just 29 pitches in the middle third of the game to get his nine outs.
The Tigers remained unable to get anything going against Carmona again in the sixth, needing seven pitches to retire Jackson, Damon, and Ordonez. Carmona, who was pitching himself a whale of a game, had allowed just three hits and a run with a pair of strikeouts through six innings, but he was not the story of the night as Galarraga continued to carve the Indians up in a six-strike seventh, with Crowe grounding out to second on the first pitch of the inning, Choo lining to center on an 0-2 pitch, and Kearns grounding a fastball to short after a first pitch strike.
Detroit threatened against Carmona after the stretch as Cabrera and Boesch singled on back-to-back pitches to put a pair on base. Guillen moved Cabrera to third on a fielder’s choice force at second for the first out, and Carmona enjoyed the pitcher’s best friend as Inge was doubled up on the back end of a grounder to third to end the rally efforts.
Still very much in the game but in desperate need for a base runner, the Indians continued to have no answer for Galarraga. Hafner grounded a 1-1 pitch to short. Peralta struck out on four pitches on one in the dirt. Branyan grounded a 1-2 pitch to second. Three batters stood in Galarraga’s way of history, or so it seemed.
The Tigers may have eased an ever-so-slight amount of the pressure on Galarraga in the eighth when they got to Carmona for the first time since the second inning. Three straight singles with two outs did the damage, as Jackson singled, Damon moved him to second with another single, and Ordonez recorded a base hit to right. Jackson scored easily and Damon touched home safely on a throwing error by Choo. Carmona struck out Cabrera in a seven-pitch battle to stop the bleeding there with the score now 3-0 in favor of the home town kitties.
The Indians’ last hopes resided in the bottom third of the order in three hitters not exactly well remembered in the annals of Cleveland history. Grudzielanek, set to turn 40 years old at the end of the month and unknowingly just a week away from his release by the club, jumped on the first pitch from Galarraga and launched a drive to deep left-center. The rookie Jackson, who made a remarkable catch years later for the Indians while falling over the short bullpen wall at Fenway Park, chased down the blast with an over-the-shoulder bucket catch at the warning track to momentarily preserve perfection. Redmond, down in the count 1-2, bounced weakly to short for out number two.
In stepped the rookie Donald, 0-2 at the plate on the day in just his 15th big league contest since being acquired at the deadline in 2009 as part of the Lee swap with Philadelphia. Donald had seen Galarraga earlier in the minor league slate while the pair were playing at Triple-A, but it had not equated to an advantage for him to that point. Behind in the count, he slapped an offspeed pitch off the plate to the right side of the infield, halfway between first and second. Cabrera range far to his right into second basemen’s territory, fielding the ball with a backhand grab at the ground. Galarraga alertly sprinted to the first base bag, in a foot race with the speedier Donald. Cabrera’s throw handcuffed Galarraga a bit, but down stomped his right foot, then a stride later Donald’s left. Feet behind the play to the left of the first base line, umpire Jim Joyce made his call, to the dismay of every person present or watching with affiliation to the Tigers or to those just hoping to see baseball history.
Galarraga looked to Joyce, a Toledo area native and a veteran of 22 big league seasons at the time after more than a decade of work on the farm, before smiling and walking back towards the mound. Donald stood in foul territory, hands on his helmet, before conversing with first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. in disbelief. Cabrera took a stance like Donald, hand and glove on top of his cap in shock mere seconds after jumping up in the air in celebration of the out that never was. All around the park, from the Tigers dugout to the stands to the suites, fans stood in similar fashion, stunned.
Leyland came out to argue his case, but there was no change to make. Umpires had little wiggle room for error back then in life before replay, and teams were left at the mercy of the occasional missed calls that could occur while the men in black focused on everything in front of them, including but certainly not limited to observing in some form visually or audibly the ball meeting the fielder’s leather or a cleated foot uniting with the base. Nowadays, such a play could have been overturned by managerial challenge or a crew chief review as the play happened in the final three innings. That, however, was not the case in 2010. Joyce’s call on the field stood, despite objection from countless Tigers players and the skipper Leyland. The game concluded five pitches later (the 88th of the night for Galarraga) when Crowe, the 28th batter, grounded to Inge to end the wild one hour and 44 minute contest.
“When I hit that ball, all I remember is I saw Miggy go and get that ball and then literally, my eyes went right to Armando,” shared Donald in a May 2020 story in the Detroit Free Press. “And typically the rhythm of the play is, if you can get even with a pitcher or a step ahead of them, you’re going to beat it.
“So my whole goal — I wasn’t watching the play develop in front of me, I was watching Armando in front of me — my whole goal was to get even with him to try to get a step ahead of him because I knew if I got a step ahead of him, I was going to be safe.
“Running down the line, I felt like I was in a race against him. And not even a race to the bag — a race to just try to get even with him. If I can get one step ahead, when we did get to the finish line or the bag, I would be safe. And obviously, that did not happen.”
“When Jim Joyce called safe and I start walking back, that is when I start doubting myself,” Galarraga shared with the Detroit Free Press. “And I was like, maybe I no touch the base? Maybe I missed the base? I don’t run that hard? So everything was started in my mind was about, maybe 1,000% I was for sure it was out. But when he called safe, I was doubting myself.”
“I didn’t second-guess it at all, he was just completely out,” said Alomar, who may have had the best view of all of the play in question. “I had a different angle, right in front of the bag. Jimmy was behind the bag and as Galarraga was coming, he kind of occupied a little bit of a space for his view as he was running toward the base. So I think that’s a confusion that he had. But, even so, he just beat it by a lot, man. I don’t know if Jimmy got there late or he got confused with a call because he knew right away he missed that call. He knew right away he missed that call.”
Several Indians veterans, including Grudzielanek, Kearns, and pitcher Jake Westbrook, grabbed Donald in the dugout after the game before he could even get to the clubhouse to prepare him for how to handle the likely media circus that was to come for his role in the history-altering call. They told the rookie to put more of the focus on Galarraga’s effort as a whole and that Joyce was very respected around the game (incidentally enough, an ESPN the Magazine poll result shared in the middle of the month named him as the best umpire in MLB as selected by a pool of 50 players from each league).
Joyce received confirmation right after the game that he had blown the most important call of Galarraga’s career and prevented one of the rarest events in baseball from being recorded in the archives (Tigers players and Leyland were both quick to share that fact with him on the field). He asked a staffer to call up the footage for him to review and learned the harsh reality of what transpired himself as the guilt quickly set in. But unlike what so many have done and will do in tough situations on the professional sports scene, Joyce did not cower and hide from his mistake. He owned it profoundly in an ultimate heartfelt first class act of humility.
Umpire access postgame is typically limited to one reporter, but this was an unusual circumstance and Joyce declined to abide by the norm. The Associated Press’ Dave Hogg was the designated interviewer that night, but Joyce, angrily pacing around with his fellow umps present, called all the reporters in to address the elephant in the room.
“No, I did not get the call correct,” Joyce began in a lengthy and honest exchange of over six minutes while answering the slew of questions hurled his way. “I kicked the shit out of it. I had a great angle on it. I had great positioning on it. I just missed the damn call. I missed it from here to the wall.
“No, I did not tell [Leyland] that I missed the call because at that particular time I really thought I got the call right. I really thought I got the call right. I thought he beat the play. I thought he beat him to the bag. I thought he beat it. At that particular time I thought he beat the play and now that I’m standing here and I’ve seen it on the replay… naturally every Tiger out there was telling me that I kicked the call because they had seen the replay. The first thing I did when I got in this locker room was looked at it. I told Tim our clubhouse guy to queue it up. I missed it. I missed it.
“This isn’t a call. This is…a history call. And I kicked the shit out of it. There is nobody that feels worse that I do. I take pride in this job and I kicked the shit out of that. I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his ass off all night.
“I thought he beat the play. That’s it. There was nothing else… I’m sure I’m going to get a call that asks me what happened. What do I say? I missed it. I missed it. It’s probably the most important call of my career and I [inaudible] missed it.
“I’ve never been through this. I’ve never had something like this happen to me. I had to give Jim Leyland his say. I’m a man, I mean I can take it. I’ve been doing this job a long time. Jim Leyland needed to say something and he did and I have nothing against Jim Leyland at all. If I would have been Galarraga, I would have been the first one standing there. I would have said something immediately. He didn’t say a word. Not a word.”
Joyce broke down with his crew after the reporters left. Leyland, bullpen coach Jeff Jones, general manager Dave Dombrowski, and Galarraga later joined him – the latter did not say anything to Joyce, but instead walked over to him and gave him a hug. The two had another exchange the following afternoon when Galarraga delivered the lineup card prior to the game to Joyce, who had the plate in the series finale. Joyce was notably shaken, with much of the pregame festivities centered on Galarraga’s accomplishment and the Chevy Corvette that he was given by General Motors. Joyce was given the opportunity to take the day off, but has said that he could not have faced himself had he taken up the offer.
Commissioner Bud Selig put to rest quickly any thoughts of overruling Joyce’s missed call and giving Galarraga a perfect game. Instead, he said that he would “examine MLB’s umpiring system and the expanded use of instant replay”.
While Galarraga was deprived of his place in the history books, perfect games had been picking up in frequency around the Major Leagues in recent memory. Arizona’s Randy Johnson became the oldest to pitch one in 2004 and Chicago’s Mark Buehrle blanked Tampa Bay in 2009. Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay both pitched perfect games in May of 2010, the first year in MLB history to see multiple perfectos in the same season. The grand total now sits at 23 (two from the 19th century and 21 during the modern era), with three more added to the ledger in 2012 when Philip Humber (April 21 for the Chicago White Sox), Matt Cain (June 13 for San Francisco), and Felix Hernandez (August 15 for Seattle) threw theirs nearly two months apart. Hernandez’s gem remains the last one seen by baseball fans.
Galarraga was back in the news in May as the anniversary of his one-hitter approached, with him pushing for Major League Baseball to retroactively award him with a perfect game.
“I was like, what can I do to have a better finish to the story?” Galarraga said in a May 13 story in Sports Illustrated. “How can Major League Baseball give me the perfect game? Because it was perfect, right?”
“Why not?” he continued. “Why wait for so long? I don’t want to die, and then they’ll be like, ‘You know what, he threw a perfect game.’”
Joyce himself petitioned MLB to do the same after the error, but the game remains a one-hit gem and the only shutout of Galarraga’s six-year career. His playing time concluded at the end of spring training in 2014; Joyce retired before the start of the 2017 season.
The Indians remain one of seven active teams (Arizona, Boston, Cincinnati, New York Yankees, Philadelphia, and San Francisco) to never have a perfect game thrown against them, but the city that the team represents cannot claim the same. The first perfect game on the record was thrown on June 12, 1880, by the Worcester Worcesters’ Lee Richmond against the Cleveland Blues. Cleveland’s Addie Joss threw the second one of the modern era in 1908 and Len Barker notched the team’s other in 1981. That perfect game remains the last no-hitter thrown by the Indians in a near 40-year drought.
Photo: Bill Eisner/Getty Images