People can’t seem to stop talking about umpire Jim Joyce’s bad call ruining what should have been the final out of what should have been pitcher Armando Galarraga’s perfect game this week. The sportswriters are waxing eloquent on this topic, generally taking the position that we need to appreciate that human error is just part of baseball. (There was also a good piece by Bruce Weber in today’s New York Times.) I’m going to add a little more to this torrent of words, inspired by a post on Peter Phillips’s blog which makes the point that sometimes we need to accept outcomes that are beyond our control, even when they are caused by unfair mistakes.
First let me join in the praise of Armando Galarraga, who was remarkably calm and gracious about being deprived of joining only 20 pitchers in history who have pitched a perfect game. In his own imperfect English, Galarraga summed it up: “We’re human, we go make a mistake, nobody is perfect. In that situation everybody is focused to do their best thing.” How many people would smile like this after having glory taken from them? If only life could be more like baseball! If only baseball could always live up to that level of sportsmanship!
An umpire in baseball functions differently from a judge or an arbitrator, and he is certainly not a mediator. An umpire does not help people resolve conflicts, or decide between competing arguments. Instead the umpire actually determines what happens, regardless of anybody else’s version or objective reality. A strike is not a strike because it passes through a defined area called a strike zone. A strike is a strike if and only if the umpire calls it a strike. A player is not safe because he stepped on the base before the throw was caught. He is safe if and only if the umpire called him safe. Different umpires call plays differently. Umpires make mistakes in every game. Baseball players and fans all know this, and generally accept it, even though they might get mad when a call goes against them. Baseball tradition frowns on appeals and instant replays, and arguing with the umpire will not get you very far. The rules of baseball place ultimate power and control of the game in the hands of the umpires, but umpires do not see themselves as powerful, only as fallible human beings trying to do the best they can to make accurate calls.
Umpire’s calls are important because baseball is a game of statistics, in which everything that can be measured and counted is measured and counted. Most of those statistics have nothing to do with the outcome of the game, but only affect history. In law, we would call Jim Joyce’s blown call harmless error, because it did not affect the outcome of the game. All it meant was that the pitcher had to face 28 batters instead of 27, the difference between a perfect game, and an almost perfect game. But in baseball, there are no harmless errors, because every call changes some statistic, and therefore changes history. In fact, there are no umpires’ errors at all. That might be the only statistic that we can’t and don’t track, because there is no higher authority than the umpire to measure it.
People search for perfection in life as in baseball. People find peace when they understand and accept how impossible it is to measure objective reality and obtain perfect justice.