6/03/2010

Baseball's "Human Element" Throws Monkey Wrench Into the Game


The phrase "human element" has been used a lot during the past couple of days when people talk about Detroit Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga losing a perfect game because an umpire missed a call that would have put Galarraga into the record books.

Umpire Jim Joyce admitted that he'd missed the call on a play at first base that would have ended the game and preserved Galarraga's pitching gem. He even apologized to Galarraga after the game. But MLB commissioner Bud Selig refused to overturn Joyce's blown call and declare that Galarraga had indeed pitched a perfect game, sparking outrage among many fans.

Baseball purists such as I love to talk about the "human element" of baseball. Invoking the human element means that even though baseball has rules that theoretically prevent any sort of advantage for either team, we purists recognize that human frailties often decide the outcomes of games. And we supposedly accept that as part of the game, just as we have to accept that a pebble in the infield can suddenly change the path of a ground ball and alter the game.

Calling it the human element sounds more noble than saying that an umpire blew a call. And there's a long history of Major League baseball games that have been affected by that particular human element -- including several perfect and near-perfect games.

New York Yankees' pitcher Don Larsen pitched the most famous perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. But Larsen probably had a little help from plate umpire Babe Pinelli. With two outs in the ninth inning, Pinelli called Brooklyn Dodger pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell out on a third strike that many witnesses thought was well out of the strike zone. Pinelli, the human element in this game, apparently decided that Larsen deserved the perfect game and ended it before Mitchell could spoil the masterpiece.

In May 1959, Pittsburgh Pirates' pitcher Harvey Haddix pitched above and beyond the boundaries of normal perfection when he didn't allow a runner to reach base for 12 innings. Facing one of the toughest lineups in baseball at the time, Haddix retired 36 consecutive Milwaukee Braves batters.

It was an unprecedented performance, and I doubt that anyone will ever accomplish it again.
But Haddix and the Pirates lost the game in the 13th inning. Since he'd pitched nine perfect innings before losing, he was credited with a perfect game -- until MLB changed the scoring rules in 1991 and wiped Haddix's perfect game from the record books.

In May 1972, Chicago Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas retired 26 straight San Diego Padres' batters. Then, one out and one strike away from perfection, Pappas threw two pitches that were close enough to be called third strikes. But plate umpire Bruce Froemming -- that ornery human element -- apparently didn't have the same respect for perfection that Babe Pinelli had in 1956. Froemming called both pitches balls, and Pappas's perfection was lost to human imperfection.


I had mixed feelings when I heard that Bud Selig was going to consider whether to reverse Joyce's call and declare that Galarraga had pitched a perfect game. That umpire-as-human-element thing came to mind, and I thought that maybe Joyce's blown call should not be reversed.

Then Selig made his ruling, and I was angry, and I know why. I just don't like Selig. He could say publicly that his mother loves him, and my instinctive reaction would be to snort and call him a liar. My old friend Chaz Misenheimer has a description of Selig that sums up the opinion of many fans, including me. Chaz says Selig is "a smiling, spineless, gutless jellyfish of a bureaucrat who couldn't pick up Barney Fife's whistle."

Milt Pappas -- still sore that he lost his bid for perfection 38 years ago because of the human element -- was more succinct in his description of Selig's decision. He called the commissioner "Mr. No-Guts."

At the same time Selig announced that he is going to convene a committee, confer with the players unions, yada yada yada, and figure out some way to prevent this from happening again.

I'll admit that I'd probably have complained regardless of what Selig decided. But his wimpy, bureaucratic effort to please everyone and avoid controversy reminded me of why I dislike him. He's breaking his back to avoid having to make a tough decision himself.

NOTE: The screen-grab photo at the top clearly shows that pitcher Armando Galarraga's foot is touching first base ahead of Cleveland Indians' runner Jason Donald. The play should have been the final out of Galarraga's perfect game.

1 comment:

Naomi said...

This post makes me miss college (though, not necessarily summer school!) and that feeling of being surprised at my interest in something. It sounds like your professor accomplished his goal.