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Jason Donald & The Human Elephant

Johan Santana used everything he could and kept the opposition off the board. The Mets didn’t score enough for him. Francisco Rodriguez made a tough situation even more difficult and blew a potential save. The Mets stopped scoring altogether in extra innings. Somebody on the other team hit a walkoff grand slam. The Mets lost a series set anywhere but Citi Field.

I suppose I could delve into a few of the distinguishing details that made Wednesday evening’s disturbing loss at Petco Park [1] different from other disturbing losses in other teams’ ballparks in 2010, such as…

• Santana’s heroic struggle to maintain command for seven shutout innings;

• Rodriguez’s failure to hold Tony Gwynn in the ninth;

• the pox that is David Eckstein in all seasons;

• the sweet Bay-to-Wright-to-Blanco relay that cut down Eckstein at the plate, presenting us with a couple of innings of false hope;

• Rodriguez remaining in the game in the tenth and not giving up the tie (but mostly his remaining in the game; I still like Frankie, but I didn’t need to see any more of him);

• Valdes and Wright combining on a heady play to cut down Gwynn at third

• and Valdes proving helpless/useless from there

…but I’ll take a pass on the Mets for the moment. To be honest, I wasn’t paying that much attention to them for a couple of innings and I think you can guess why. Like everybody else with a remote control, I turned to indispensable MLB Network to watch the end of the third perfect game baseball has produced in the past month. And, like you, I saw it.

Only one interested party didn’t.

Eighty-eight spotless pitches say Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers was as perfect as a pitcher could be [2], no less so than Dallas Braden of the A’s on May 9 or Roy Halladay of the Phillies on May 29. Like pregnant, there are no degrees of perfect; you just are. But circumstances leave me thinking Galarraga was perfect and then some. He threw a 28-out perfect game, making his accomplishment just a little more impressive than what Braden and Halladay did. Furthermore, Galarraga was equally on target after the game, handling every question regarding somebody else’s imperfection with the perfect blend of respect, regret and humanity. He didn’t spit, he didn’t cry, he didn’t kick, but he was clearly disappointed, right up to the edge of devastated. It was perfect the way Armando Galarraga went from superhuman to intensely human.

A lot was said in the aftermath of Jim Joyce’s proffering of The Worst Call Ever about the human element and how it’s part and parcel of the game, even a perfect game rendered jaw-droppingly otherwise. Following the fiftieth or sixtieth utterance of said cliché, it began to sound to me like they were talking about the human elephant. The human elephant in the room, of course, is Joyce. The final out of what was in everything but indelible ink the 21st perfect game in major league history is currently residing in the pocket of this red-faced man in blue. Everybody on TV immediately closed ranks around one of their friends from the industry. Everybody’s instinct was to say that Jim Joyce is a great guy and a great ump. Also, that Jim Joyce is human, and you can’t ignore the human elephant.

Sure you can. We have machines for that now. It’s called instant replay. It’s used on borderline home runs. It’s worked fine [3]. It would have worked Wednesday night in Detroit. The whole world knows Jim Joyce blew the call. Jim Joyce, great guy that he is, admits he blew the call. He feels terrible. Galarraga feels terrible. Jim Leyland — who vouched for Jim Joyce minutes after getting in his face — feels terrible. Tigers fans feel terrible. Baseball fans feel terrible. It’s the most enormous case of whaddayagonnado? since Don Denkinger handed the Royals a stay of execution in the sixth game of the 1985 World Series when he magically turned the first out of the bottom of the ninth inning into a leadoff, rally-sparking single. I’d have felt worse about that one, except it screwed over the Cardinals, and I yearned more in 1985 for the screwing over of the Cardinals than I did for a correct call.

Back then, whaddayagonnado? was a rhetorical question. Denkinger blew the call and ruled Jorge Orta safe and Kansas City scored two runs and cost St. Louis a title. Today, however, we have precedent for an answer to whaddayagonnado? It’s multiple-camera instant replay. We know what actually happened in our homes. Why shouldn’t the umpires be let in on the secret? The way they are when a home run ruling is in doubt? The human elephant should be the players — a player making a bad throw, for example — not the parameters set up to determine the success of their play. No matter how great a guy and ump Jim Joyce may be, there is no reason to not officially second-guess him. The cameras are in place. The technology is in place. The rationale, after Armando Galarraga was compelled to pitch to a 28th Cleveland Indian batter, couldn’t be more firmly in place. Enough with the backslapping nonsense that dates to the 19th century. It’s 2010. We know how to rectify bad calls. What are we waiting for?

(For that matter, why should Bud Selig wait to do the right thing? An interesting take on precedent and sportsmanship from someone who does his homework here [4].)

If anybody looks perfect in all this besides Armando Galarraga, it is the guy who forced Jim Joyce’s errant hands. Jason Donald of the Indians was no human elephant running from home to first. The reason there was a possibility of a bad call was because there was a close play. There was a close play because Jason Donald took nothing for granted. The Indians weren’t making life particularly difficult for Galarraga before Donald’s third at-bat. Twenty-six Tribe batters entertained all of eighty pitches in their benign quest to bring Galarraga to the brink of history. Donald, the ninth-place hitter, hit the 83rd pitch from Galarraga to Miguel Cabrera at first — who knew Miguel Cabrera cared whether his team won or lost ballgames? — and the race was on.

You might say in that situation everybody’s going to run hard and try their best. I’d like to think so. But this is Major League Baseball, where players regularly treat running hard as optional. In the eighth, in what was shaping up as a perfect game against his team, Russell Branyan jogged to first to end the inning on a grounder to second. It wasn’t the same as the grounder Donald hit, but since when is there an excuse to jog with less than three outs? Come the ninth with two out, Donald sprinted. Cabrera grabbed, pivoted and threw. Galarraga hustled and covered.

Joyce blew it.

Fine. We know that. Even Donald, for all his Ecksteinian vinegar, seemed to know that. He held his helmeted head in disbelief that he was called safe. Jason Donald was almost Rupert Pupkin doing his stand-up in King of Comedy, the part in which he recounts his miserable childhood and how his school made beating him up part of the curriculum:

There was this one kid, poor kid. He was afraid of me. I used to tell him, “Hit me, hit me. What’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to graduate?”

C’mon, Jason Donald just had to be telepathically communicating to Jim Joyce. Call me out. Save yourself this epitaph. Save yourself this embarrassment. Save baseball from yourself. I swear that’s what Donald was trying to tell Joyce when he grabbed his helmet, but he couldn’t get through. Jim Leyland was already on the line.

So now Donald is the least-loved baserunner in Cleveland Indians history since Willie Mays Hayes mouthed off on Opening Day in Major League. Nobody wants to see him on first. Nobody wants to see any more of this game. This game should be over. This game was perfect. But, per Joyce, the game must go on. It continues for five more pitches, the last of them grounded by Trevor Crowe to Brandon Inge, who throws to Miguel Cabrera without incident. It’s a one-hitter for Armando Galarraga. Put it, if you must, in the books. Could you blame the Comerica crowd for booing a shutout victory?

Yet there was something else that caught my eye in the seconds before a contingent of discontented Tigers descended on Jim Joyce to register their hard-earned protests. It was Jason Donald. As Inge was throwing to Cabrera, Donald was heading for home, which made me wonder one thing:

What was Jason Donald doing on third?

It didn’t come up in the Tiger telecast, because who could think of anything but Armando Galarraga being robbed of his perfect game by Jim Joyce, but Jason Donald kept playing baseball. While Crowe took strike one, Donald took off for second. It was scored defensive indifference. With the count one-and-one, Donald took off for third. It was also scored defensive indifference. Galarraga wasn’t holding him on, so he took his bases. It was 3-0 Detroit, there were two out in the ninth, the game hadn’t taken close to two hours to arrive on the cusp of its likely finish line, yet Cleveland was technically alive. You’re always alive as long as you have ups, and Jim Joyce gave Cleveland at least one extra up.

The Indians proved as recently as Saturday, when they were down 10-5 to the Yankees in the seventh inning, that being alive has its benefits. That day, David Robertson hit Crowe to lead off the seventh. With one out, Crowe took off for second — not defensive indifference, but not the sort of thing that figured to make a great deal of difference in the outcome. If you’re going to try to steal second trailing by five, sniffed Michael Kay on YES, you had better make it.

Crowe made it. Austin Kearns singled him home to make it 10-6. Before long, Joba Chamberlain replaced David Robertson and it was 10-9, Yankees. Lou Marson was on second and Matt LaPorta was on third. Up stepped rookie shortstop and ninth-place hitter Jason Donald. He doubled them both home to give Cleveland an 11-10 lead. They went on to win [5], 13-11.

Like I said, you never know what will happen when you’ve got ups. Jason Donald, a big leaguer only since May 18, figured that out Saturday — probably before. He was handed first base on Wednesday, but he took second and third. Who knew what might happen? Who knew Galarraga wouldn’t give up a legitimate hit from there or that Joyce wouldn’t gift the Indians more chances? Donald didn’t, and it’s to his credit he didn’t decide that he did.

It makes no never-mind to anybody’s bottom line. The score stayed 3-0, Detroit, and defensive indifference doesn’t go on a baserunner’s permanent record. All anybody will remember about Jason Donald in this perfect game was that they saw him beaten to the bag by at least half a step, just as they will remember that Armando Galarraga retired 28 consecutive batters when the first 27 should have been sufficient — and that Jim Joyce may be considered a great guy, but on the only night anybody ever noticed him, he was a disaster as an umpire. It won’t be long recalled that amid the tremors unleashed by the worst call in a generation Jason Donald kept on running.

The human elephant, unlike its jungle counterpart, has a rather selective memory.


Today, incidentally, is the 78th anniversary of Lou Gehrig homering four times in the same game. This rare and remarkable feat received little notice because on the very same day, John McGraw [6], announced his retirement from the New York Giants in his 31st season of managing them. Retirements of legends could overshadow rare and remarkable feats then. Nowadays? Not so much [7].


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