Friday, June 4, 2010

Umpires and the pursuit of perfection

A veteran umpire (the story goes) noted that at one city the same leather-lunged fan berated him constantly. He made a few inquiries and learned that the loudmouth was a prominent local physician.

Next day, the ump worked the plate with the fan doing his abrasive thing — until the veteran arbiter approached him: "Doctor, you get to bury your mistakes. Mine live forever."

Jim Joyce's mistake on Wednesday will certainly live forever. Indeed, Armando Galarraga's imperfect game is likely to be remembered longer than Dallas Braden's perfecto because of Joyce's miscue.

There's an umpiring adage that says it's the only job at which you're expected to be perfect on the first day and then improve. Actually, that's true for the conscientious worker in any field, be it copy editing, pitching or haircutting. If the people putting cars together on the assembly line slip up, bad things can happen.

We pursue perfection, but achieving it is another matter, and sustaining it well-neigh impossible. Even when an individual is doing everything right, perfection can hinge on somebody else doing his job right. Had one of Galarraga's infielders let a grounder go through the wickets or overthrown the first baseman, there would have been no perfect game for Joyce to wreck on the 27th batter.

The people demanding instant replay are seeking perfection from technology. I'm not an advocate of instant replay; I don't believe that perfection is any more possible from machines than it is from humans. It's going to happen; the Galarraga-Joyce game has probably made the pressure for it too strong for even Bud Selig to resist much longer, and even if Bud does continue to hold out, the next commissioner probably won't.

The broadcasters like to tell us that the idea is to get the call right. They forget, or conveniently ignore, the reality that the only people in the park for whom the correct call is the priority are the umpires. The players, managers, coaches, even the fans — what they want is the call that helps their team.

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