A Prayer for Joe Torre- Get out of the dugout and Get into the Game

by Darren Clarke, March 15, 2017

Instant Replays, Intentional Walks, Extra Innings

“(Baseball) is a game with a lot of waiting in it; it is a game with increasingly heightened anticipation of increasingly limited action”

― John IrvingA Prayer for Owen Meany

In basketball score clocks hum to the tune of hundreds of points blurring by in an exclamative sea of chest thumping celebrations, three pointers and more three pointers, slam dunks and alley-oops. In football crowds roar around a veritable battlefield, money is bet, tailgates are dropped as touch downs, big hits, long bombs, first downs, sacks and celebrations punctuate the war. In baseball, we wait. We wait with sunlight on our skin, we wait as chatting opponents stand together on first base and pitchers peer in at catchers signs, we wait. We wait for the suddenness of a ball hit 440 feet, a centerfielder diving, body fully extended to catch a line drive, we wait for the right fielder to scoop up the bouncing ball and throw home, we wait to see what gets there first- the ball or the runner. In baseball we wait for sudden defining moments to arrive.

In 2014 when Major League Baseball introduced expanded replay use commissioner Bud Selig said, “I’m proud of the changes we’ve made, and I’ll tell you why I’m proud of them. Because they won’t disturb the game as we know it.”

Three years later the new commissioner Rob Manfred  told Bob Nightengale of USA Today at the quarterly owners’ meetings in Palm Beach, Florida, “I will say that pace of play is an issue that we need to be focused on.”

Now, the reasons baseball games can regularly extend just beyond the magic three hour mark certainly isn’t limited to the replay however I would suggest that the replay and all the humming and hawing that comes along with it is a major contributor to the, “Oh my God this is boring!” parts of the game. Time is relative how engaged you are with an entertainment product and nothing disengages a person like watching 60 year old men in baseball uniforms taking themselves too seriously.   So here we are watching the leadership of Major League Baseball think. At the heart of some of the most troubling recent thinking by MLB tends to be Joe Torre, surely a fine man but someone who seems entirely unaware of the fact he isn’t supposed to be wearing a baseball uniform anymore. Torre’s brainchild (to be tested in the minors in 2017) of starting extra innings with a runner on second base is designed to increase the likelihood of, first, a shorter game, second, one which avoids overuse of pitchers, and in the end sounds like the mad rant of a frustrated manager after an 18-inning loss. The intentional walk no longer requiring four pitches but rather just a sign from the defence is another example of Major League Baseball thinking but not particularly well.

The recent fiddling with their rules is Major League Baseball presenting itself as the answer to the problems it has created. It is taking the wrong things too seriously and the right things not seriously enough. There is an ebb and flow unique to baseball- It doesn’t exist in hockey, basketball, and while it does on a certain level in football, it is an entirely different animal.

A major league baseball game often demands less or your attention than any other sport but hey, you’re not in a cold hockey arena or a snowy field so it’s okay, it’s the game of summer, it’s the game of cold beer, cool breezes and chatting with the people around you. There is intrinsic ebb to the game- for instance batters fouling off pitches eternally, intentional walks, throwing the ball around the infield after a strikeout, and then there is imported and silly downtime- managers reviewing a review to see if they want to ask for a review.

And so the institution of Major League Baseball struggles to reconcile itself to its’ own game. It wants the game to go faster but the only thing they’ve really done is make it go slower. The hardest thing to reverse would be the replay because it is a Pandoras box. Once you’ve opened it good luck going back. The replay is a failure of technology and imagination. In terms of technology either make it so the right call is made instantly or get it the hell out of here. The failure of imagination is the intellectual failure of certain segments of the league, the media and fans to understand the importance of the feel of the game versus the “rightness,” of it. This significant slice of humanity chose to forgo the richness of rhythm and happening in place of the cold calculation and the self absorbed pursuit of perfection.

The pursuit of perfection.

The pursuit of perfection brings us to the pro-replay crowds greatest source of fear mongering. What if history is impacted by imperfection?

“No one ever approaches perfection except by great stealth and unknown to themselves.”

William Hazlitt

Armando Galarraga’s near perfect game- The Wikipedia page. An entire Wikipedia page dedicated to something that almost happened but didn’t.

June 2, 2010, the slender, six-foot-three inch tall, Armando Galarraga, from Cumana, Venezuala, took the mound for the Detroit Tigers carrying a career record of 20-19 with a 4.62 career ERA. The twenty-eight-year-old took the mound at Comerica Park to face the Cleveland Indians in front of an announced crowd of 17,738 as pretty much as average a pitcher as there could be.

The Tigers came into the game barely peaking over the .500 mark while the Indians entered the game a lousy team with an appropriately lousy 19-32 record. While nothing suggested greatness would happen that day it nonetheless did.

“A no-hitter is a freaky thing,’ Tweet said. ‘Most of the greatest pitchers never pitched one. It’s a combination of a lot of little accidents.”

Duane DeckerSwitch Hitter

In over 140 years of baseball there has been 252 no hitters and only 23 perfect games. A perfect game- No hits, no walks, no hit batsmen, no errors. Twenty-seven players walk up to the plate and all return to the dugout wholly disappointed.

This particular game began with the Indians Trevor Crowe hitting a long flyball that fleet footed Austin Jackson nimbly tracked down in center field. The game breezed by from there. Detroit put up three runs off of Roberto Hernandez and those three runs would end being more than enough as Galarraga entered inning nine with a perfect game.

Leading off the ninth light hitting Mark Grudzelanak surprised the outfield defence by launching a shot to deep left center that Austin Jackson, at full gallop, arm fully extended, made a gorgeous over the shoulder grab on just as he crossed the warning track. Next 39-year old journeyman catcher Mike Redmond stayed in character and grounded to short. Galarraga was one out away from the elusive perfect game. With two out Jason Donald, who entered the game playing in only his twenty-second major league game, stepped to the plate.

Donald grounded the one ball, one strike, pitch to the right side of the infield where first baseman Miguel Cabrera ranged far to his right to corral the ball, pivoted, and threw back to Galarraga whose lanky frame glided towards the first base bag. The play was close, but not that close, Donald was out, but instead of raising one arm and pumping an out sign Jim Joyce waved both his arms at chest level, “Safe!”

The Tigers announcers initially announced him safe, then recognized that Joyce had called him out, “… Galarraga covers… He’s OUT! Nooooo! He’s SAFE!!! He’s SAFE! (The camera pans to show Cabrera with both hands on his head in disbelief, then to Brennan Boesch on the top step of the Tigers dugout in a similarly bewildered pose, hands on his head in shock, the announcers are quiet for a moment and you can hear a kind of stunned buzz and vague booing from the crowd who had begun to celebrate only to find themselves feasting on disappointment, the announcer absently repeats himself)… he is safe at first base… (the camera turns to Galarraga who is returning to the mound with a look of slight bemusement on his face before he takes a quick glance at manager Jim Leyland who is out of the dugout to engage Joyce, Galarraga then adjusts his cap puts his head down and continues back to the mound, the camera now focuses on Leyland talking to Joyce down the first baseline, the crowd continues to buzz)… Jim Joyce said he was safe at first base, you make the call (the replay rolls)… Cabrera, Galaragga (2nd announcer asks, “Did he miss the base?”)… He’s out, why is he safe? (2nd announcer, “Unless he missed the base.”) Are you kidding me? Why is he safe? (2nd announcer as they replay the final moments of the play again, “We’ll see right here…” the replay freezes indicating Galarraga’s foot on the bag with Donald still a full step away from first base) Why is he safe? Oh my goodness Jim Joyce…(Second announcer, “No!”) No! Jeez Louise… “

“Jeez Louise.”

“Beware when the so-called sagely men come limping into sight.”’

Chuang-Tzu (from Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger)

The day after the game Tom Singer writing for MLB.com commented, “In Philadelphia on Wednesday night, a call reversed by instant replay helped determine a game in the Stanley Cup Finals. But in Detroit, there was no help for Armando Galarraga. Umpire Jim Joyce’s call at first base with two outs in the ninth inning stood, and that human error stood between Galarraga and perfect-game immortality. One call begat numerous calls for greater use of instant replay in baseball, as Galarraga’s misfortune torched a brushfire of indignation.”

Jayson Stark of ESPN.com wrote,

“It’s time once again to say those four words Bud Selig doesn’t want to hear:

We need more replay.”

You know who did have a perfect game in 2010? Dallas Braden. I know this because I Googled it. Once I saw his name listed amongst the pitchers who had accomplished the feat I had the whole, “Oh yeah, Dallas Braden!” moment- sports highlight packages flickering through my brain but, in and of itself, it wasn’t something I ever would have thought of again. The Armando Galarraga story is one I will always remember.

Amy K. Nelson of ESPN.com wrote an article in January of 2011 that does a fantastic job of bringing home the fallout from the incident as it pertained to umpire Jim Joyce. Jim Joyce, a widely respected umpire, was crushed by his mistake and went to the extraordinary length of putting himself in front of reporters after the game and taking full accountability, “No, I did not get the call correct, 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… this isn’t a call, this is a history call, and I kicked the shit out of it…”

In the wake of the incident Joyce received the usual spectrum of humanity on the rails- threats and insults alongside many acts of kindness and best wishes from peers, ballplayers and fans. He kept every note, good or bad, in a scrapbook.

For his part Armando Galarraga was gracious and incredibly considerate in the wake of what had to be a bitter disappointment. He would never publicly criticize Joyce and instead was very supportive, “He apologized to me, I gave him a hug. I’m sure the guy feels one-hundred times worse than me,” Galarraga said. “The next day we turned the page. He’s a professional, I’m a professional.”

From Amy K. Nelson from ESPN.com January, 2011, “Searching for meaning in the mistake.”

“What Joyce does know is that for him, the word “perfect” means something entirely different now. “It means one guy was, and one guy wasn’t. I happen to be the guy who wasn’t. … But what does the word ‘perfect’ mean? Sometimes the word ‘perfect’ means to be able to accept imperfection.”

That same month, June, 2010, ESPN polled 50 players from each league as to who the best umpire in baseball was. The winner was Jim Joyce. The 2010 Tigers would finish the season at 81-81. Armado Galarraga ended 2010 4-9 with a 4.49 ERA. Despite being only 28 he would go on to only win three more Major League Baseball games. Galarraga would bounce around the minors, the Chinese league (playing for the Chinese Brother Elephants which is a name too good not to mention), the Venezuelan League and Mexico before retiring in December of 2015. The final line for Galarraga would be 100 games pitched, 26 wins, 34 losses, a 4.78 ERA, 1 shutout. Jim Joyce  retired after the 2016 season and aside from umpiring 3 All-Star Games, 10 Division Series, 7 League Championship Series and 3 World Series, on August 20, 2012, Joyce saved the life of an Arizona Diamondbacks employee by administering CPR to the woman who was in cardiac arrest at Chase Field. For those keeping track Dallas Braden ended his career having pitched in 94 games, he won 26 games as well, he lost 36, his career ERA was 4.16, he had 2 shutouts, 1 perfect game.

Framing Galarraga’s lost perfect game as a tragedy is a familiar refrain from those that support the replay yet it’s hard to view what transpired as such. Joyce’s mistake would be the backdrop for that most wonderful of things, a transcendent moment of humanity in sports. The fact is that if Joyce had called Donald out I would have remembered Galarraga’s perfect game in the same way I would have Braden’s- I wouldn’t have. Instead I remember Galarraga and not only do I remember him I remember him as a man who handled sudden adversity in a stunningly beautiful manner. I remember Galarraga as a gracious man who extended kindness along with forgiveness when many would have understood him providing far, far, less. I remember Jim Joyce as someone who took full accountability in the face of a very public mistake (or, in his words, “kicking the shit out of,” an important call). By respecting the rhythm of the game, of something happening, that was our reward.

The argument is always going to be that being against the replay is advocating mistakes, “Get it right.” And that seems almost impossible to debate until you consider the fact that being right isn’t good enough. Yes, being right isn’t good enough. If you doubt me on this go ahead and ask your wife what her thoughts are.

“The truth of a thing is in the feel of it, not the think of it.”

Stanley Kubrick

What that worlds resident would-be intellectuals and statistical navel gazers don’t get is that, though it may appear hard to qualify on the surface, appreciating the feel of the thing often separates the meaningful moments of your life from the banal. If your wife hasn’t clearly spelled things out for you already consider this- You don’t answer the phone during sex and you do not say to Jimi Hendrix mid-Star Spangled Banner, “I don’t think you quite hit that note, let’s take a look at it and then maybe you could start over.” You don’t do this because something special is unfolding, something special is happening and at its’ core it is held together by a certain precarious balance between participation and introspection, perfection and imperfection. Sending in 60-year old men in baseball uniforms to amble around waiting to figure out if they want to review a call at second base (that they themselves needed a replay to know if they disagreed with) is simply a failure to participate respectfully in the beauty of the thing and it is a failure to have the courage to reconcile oneself appropriately with the fallibility of all things.

Beyond the fundamental problem with the nature of the replay is the fact it continues to increase the average time (particularly the tedious time) of the game. It’s not the smallest bit ironic then to consider that Major League Baseball continues to look for ways to shorten games. This brings us to the 2017 change to the intentional walk.

The failure in the thinking with the intentional walk rule is particularly spectacular. In Tom Gatto’s article in the Sporting News, “Major League Baseball Gets It Wrong Again,” he breaks down the 2016 intentional walk stats and indicates that intentional walks accounted for, at most, 1.5 pitches a game (I say, “at most,” as in his calculations he applies four pitches for every intentional walk while, as he mentions, intentional walks are at times decided partway into an at bat thus the total number of pitches could be lower) .

We could talk a long time about maintaining the integrity of the game and its’ various nuances versus changing/adapting/etc. or we could simply agree that based on the fact the rule change doesn’t do what it’s supposed to in even the remotest sense that it is silly, silly as all get out.

Finally we come to Joe Torre’s idea of starting off extra innings with a runner on second base to increase the likelihood of runs scoring and the game ending earlier. Here’s Torre commenting on the change that will be tested at the minor league level-

“We get to those 12th, 13th, 14th innings — and I’m just talking from the dugout now — and no matter how much you tell the players, ‘Just try to get on base,’ everybody’s trying to end the game themselves,” Torre said. “And to me, that’s an ugly game. Everybody’s trying to hit a home run. And you go through your whole bullpen and you use everybody up, and here we are in the 19th inning, and we’ve got a utility player on the mound.

A few things- First, Torre seems to be suggesting his idea is predicated upon the highly debatable fact that Major League ballplayers are too dumb to score runs in innings with double digits, that everybody is up there trying to hit a home run. Second, I don’t give a Flying Walenda about how major league managers are impacted game to game by extra innings, that’s not really a fans problem or concern. Finally, fans love it when utility players have to take the mound, love it- Give us Jose Caseco pitching at Fenway, give us Ichiro on the mound, it’s part of the beauty of the game, it’s something we eat up and talk about for years.

The fact Torre would suggest a rule entirely out of step with the game shows a fundamental failure on his part to look at baseball through the appropriate lens. I don’t honestly know what the functions of Baseball’s Chief Officer would be however I’m certain they should mandate that he stop, “speaking from the dugout.” The interests of the people who play the game, who manage the game, can and will be in conflict with the bigger picture of the game itself. In embracing Torre’s small picture thinking Major League Baseball becomes complicit in his conflict of interest, even when it is simply testing it at the minor league level.

The question at the end of the day has to be- What is major league baseball trying to achieve? There is only one league that makes more more revenue per team than Major League Baseball and that’s the National Football League. The NFL embraced the replay far earlier than MLB and in doing so created a kind of template for future use in other leagues. Interestingly the average NFL game is actually longer than the average MLB game begging the question- Where is all this focus on time of game coming from and why is it so poorly directed?

I’m not here to suggest one sport is better than the other- to each their own virtue. I am suggesting that it is madness to compare them or to think that importing certain aspects from one will enhance the other. Everybody wants the NFL level of success/revenue but the problem with trying to copy the NFL model is that you can adopt tailgating, cheerleaders, you can adopt the replay but unless you are bringing them to a game that has the built in sense of occasion attached to only playing once a week and less than twenty times in a season they are probably not going to help you. Moreover, in terms of real impact on success many of the elements that we consider staples of the NFL event are simply bystanders for that which is truly compelling- The aforementioned built in sense of occasion aligning perfectly with gambling sensibilities. Football is the perfect sport to gamble on.

So where are we at this point? Simply, obviously and not so obviously, Major League Baseball doesn’t need to cut down on the average of 1.5 pitches a game attached to intentional walks, it doesn’t need to cut down on the wild, the whacky and the improbable attached to extra innings but it does need to get rid of the tedium and vanity attached to when, “ the so called sagely men come limping into sight.”

Let’s get Joe Torre out of the cold dugout and into a warm seat in the stands, let’s get him a beer,  a hot dog, and tell him, “Relax Joe, it’s only baseball, and it’s beautiful.”