Almost Perfect: What a Blown Baseball Call Can Teach Us About Imperfection

BY

It was arguably the biggest officiating gaffe in the history of sports. The magnitude of the implications of the blown call and the blatancy of the blunder combined to create a moment of infamy that would long be remembered.

In June 2010, an unremarkable pitcher named Armando Galarraga found himself performing rather remarkably. Through 8 2/3 innings there was nary a blemish on his scorecard; he had allowed no hits, no walks, and, to that point at least, there were no errors.

Neither his arm nor his teammates in the field betrayed him. A routine groundball seemed to provide the last out in his masterpiece. Galarraga would have this night as a memory forever. He had achieved baseball immortality by pitching a perfect game.

But it was not to be. Umpire Jim Joyce (a respected veteran with a far more accomplished career than Galarraga) inexplicably blew the call at first base. Although replays definitively showed that the runner was out and Galarraga a hero, there would be no perfect game that night. Galarraga would have to settle for being oh-so-close.

The reactions were moving. Joyce was emphatic in both his contrition and his taking responsibility for his mistake. He offered no excuses and was emotionally remorseful. Galarraga was even more impressive. He was magnanimous and understanding, demonstrating a rare sensitivity and perspective. He expressed no ill will towards Joyce and demanded neither sympathy nor retribution.

It was a paradigm of sportsmanship, and rightfully held up as a model of how competitors can transcend the limiting confines of their athletic pursuits and touch on values and ideals that are greater than championships or displays of physical prowess.

And maybe it was something more as well. In an inspiring essay penned shortly after the game, sports writer Joe Posnanski suggested that our eyes may have deceived us. In fact, Galarraga had pitched perfectly, more so than any other player before him. Posnanski wrote, “Galarraga pitched a perfect game on Wednesday night in Detroit. I’ll always believe that. I think most baseball fans will always believe that. But, more than anything it seems that Galarraga will always believe it. The way he handled himself after the game, well, that was something better than perfection… Armando Galarraga’s perfect game was a lesson in grace.”

He provided further insight and food for thought when he explained that perfect games are mostly an illusion. The label of perfection is a misnomer. Surely there were more than a few poorly thrown pitches, surely there were more than a few mistakes. But Galarraga was as almost perfect as possible. In his case there was no illusion, only a confrontation with imperfection. And in his noble battle with error and fallibility he was more perfect than ever. Posnanski poignantly concludes, “[a]nd when my young daughters ask, ‘Why didn’t he get mad and scream about how he was robbed,’ I think I will tell them this: I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s because Armando Galarraga understands something that is very hard to understand, something we all struggle with, something I hope you learn as you grow older: In the end, nobody’s perfect. We just do the best we can.”

Our long season of High Holiday confessionals can sometimes seem to drag on and become redundant. There is a pitfall of our standardized mea culpas devolving into unhealthy contrivance. Perhaps one way of approaching this and avoiding any debilitating malaise is to simplify our approach and refocus our words. Again and again, our mantra is: “We are not perfect. We see beyond our own illusions.”

Too much of our personal and professional lives are spent working on the illusion of perfection. We interview for jobs, enter new social situations and cultivate our images for public consumption. We practice a firm handshake, assume an upright posture, and (often appropriately) hide all of our faults and foibles. But all of this bravado comes at a cost. We invest far too little of our time and energy into grappling with our imperfections. We buy into the myth of perfection and this serves as a significant impediment in our quest for growth.

The healthiest of marriages are built on admissions of vulnerability. Vibrant and dynamic organizations flourish from an appreciation of their own areas of weakness and a willingness to improve. Our relationship with God is structured similarly and we gain greatly from the most basic of confessions.

The most successful educational institutions will incorporate this message into two fundamental facets of their basic methodology. First, internally, we should be careful not to pay too much attention to our finely tuned PR and press releases. The practical need for organizations to broadcast and celebrate our successes can never obfuscate an acute awareness of our failures. We can’t believe that we are perfect, or even that we are perfect enough. At the same time, acknowledging these failures need not depress us or demoralize us. Imperfection is not as rare or unnatural as it may seem, and does not define us as hopelessly unsuccessful.

Perhaps more importantly, this lesson can inform the way we construct our learning environment. We should not be trying to raise or develop perfect students. We should not be demanding from them, explicitly or even tacitly, impossible levels of perfection. Rather, we should be working to inspire our youth to a confidence that will allow them to face their failures with resolute ambition to overcome and improve.

We are not perfect. No one is. We must acknowledge that simple truth and use it to propel us to real greatness.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of NCSY’s Ignite magazine. 

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.