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06/02/11 10:00 AM ET

A year later, perfect memories of imperfect game

Galarraga, Joyce indelibly linked by their reactions to blown call

The phone rings in Tacoma, Wash. Armando Galarraga, on the road with the Triple-A Reno Aces, answers on the third ring.

One day soon, he hopes, that phone will ring and the voice on the other end will tell him he's headed back to the big leagues. For now, it's just another reporter looking to talk to him about the game that will likely be the focus of his obituary, if not his epitaph.

The near-perfect game. Or the imperfect game, if you prefer. The game that took place one year ago -- June 2, 2010, at Detroit's Comerica Park. It was a night when Galarraga was unhittable against the Indians, and for 26 precious outs, first-base umpire Jim Joyce was invisible. Then came the sound of bat on ball, the hustle of a rookie named Jason Donald, two feet touching first base, and in an instant, Joyce's two outstretched arms.


First, stunned silence from the crowd of 17,738. Then, caustic catcalls. An umpire had cost a pitcher his place in history, and the ample availability of instantaneous replay -- on the monitors in the concourse, on the televisions in the Tigers' clubhouse and on the smartphones in the stands -- quickly confirmed it.

The scene in those seconds, for those who were there that night and for the many watching at home, was predictably ugly. But the memory that lingers -- the moment that taught us all a little something about class in the face of calamity -- was the one reaction you could not predict:

The wry smile on the face of Armando Galarraga.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Galarraga is not the least bit hesitant to talk about all this once more. Because to him, the memory of the imperfect game evokes only positive feelings. About the man who robbed him, only to show almost immediate, sincere remorse. About the fans who showered him with cards and letters loaded with kind words. And about his own ability to get back to the Majors and again dominate as he did that night.

"Wow," he says now. "One year. It feels like a long time ago."

* * *

On some level, Jason Donald probably knows the feeling. He, like Galarraga, is a year removed from the seemingly endless loop of the highlight reel and a world away from the big-league stage.

Donald's phone rings in Goodyear, Ariz., where he is rehabbing a knee sprain suffered while trying to turn a double play for Triple-A Columbus last month. And this injury came mere days after he finished rehab of the broken hand bone that kept him off the Indians' Opening Day roster.

"It's been a little challenging lately," Donald says. "I've been in Arizona three weeks. Hopefully, I won't be here too much longer. It's definitely been frustrating."

The frustration stems from the fact that Donald showed the Indians enough in his rookie season of 2010 to be considered the front-runner for their starting third base job this season. And the way he broke out of the box and charged hard down the line in the bottom of the ninth on June 2 was both representative of his respectable style of play and responsible for the controversy that would ensue.

Galarraga would say later that Donald was probably the last guy in the Indians lineup that he wanted to face with two out. Not because he feared Donald, but because he knew Donald was like him. Both players had started the season in Triple-A, and both were hungry to impress their bosses. Galarraga knew that Donald wanted the hit at least as much as he wanted the out.

"His slider just had really good bite that night. It was tight. He was spot-on with his location. Everything was down, he didn't miss up. He never left a slider just hanging. Everything had life to it."
-- Jason Donald

Like the rest of his Tribe teammates, Donald had watched Galarraga work his magic not just effectively but efficiently.

"I just remember the game going by really quickly," Donald says. "Because Fausto [Carmona] was basically matching him, not in terms of no hits but just having quick innings. I remember it snuck up on us really fast. That's how it felt to me. Before you know it, it was the sixth inning, and it's like, 'Somebody break this up.' Then in the eighth, I felt a little more tension in the dugout."

The tension was justifiable. En route to a fourth-place finish, the Indians would have plenty of tough nights against opposing pitchers. But Galarraga's precision was particularly palpable.

"His slider just had really good bite that night," Donald says. "It was tight. He was spot-on with his location. Everything was down, he didn't miss up. He never left a slider just hanging. Everything had life to it."

Everything, that is, except the Indians' bats. So when Donald stepped to the plate with two out in the ninth -- minutes after center fielder Austin Jackson made a terrific over-the-shoulder catch of a Mark Grudzielanek fly ball for the first out of the inning -- he knew history was on the horizon.

Unless he did something about it.

The count on the right-handed Donald was 1-1. He stepped out of the box, took a swing and adjusted his batting gloves. He was trying to pull Galarraga out of his rhythm. But Galarraga's next pitch, a slider, hit its intended location on the outside corner.

Donald smacked a hard grounder to the right-hand side. The first baseman, Miguel Cabrera, ranged to his right and fielded it cleanly, in front of second baseman Carlos Guillen. Cabrera tossed the ball to a streaking Galarraga, who gloved it with his left hand while stomping on the bag with his right foot, a split-second before Donald's foot hit the bag.

"I just felt like it really would have been an insult, not just to myself but also to the Indians and to the game, to not run that last ball out as hard as I could," Donald says. "I would have a tough time looking back on it if I just would have dogged it down the line and given in. That would have stuck with me more. That would have bothered me."

Donald takes no pride in mistakenly being called safe. His pride comes from forcing the issue in the first place.

* * *

As Donald crossed the bag, Jim Joyce made the call that changed baseball history. But he won't be answering a call about its anniversary.

When asked by e-mail for an interview, Joyce sent a cordial reply in which he deferred to Major League Baseball's public relations office, and a representative from the Major League office said Joyce would prefer not to talk about the Galarraga game any longer.

Joyce did the full media blitz in the weeks and months after the game, continuing to express the remorse he showed that night at Comerica Park and explaining how the botched call still follows him. Haunts him, even. And yet, the surprising responses he received from unexpected sources -- most notably, an 11-year-old kid with spina bifida who e-mailed him and reminded him that "in the grand scheme, it was just spilt milk" -- taught him that we live in a forgiving society.

"Seems we've struck some kind of chord, me and Armando. "Me, for the way I copped to my mistake and apologized and took my lumps. Armando, for so graciously accepting my apology and for carrying his disappointment with such dignity and good cheer. Wasn't how either one of us wanted to see this thing play out, but here it is."
-- Jim Joyce

We also live in a society in which big news leads to book deals. And so goes the recent release of the tome Joyce co-authored with Galarraga and New York Times writer Daniel Paisner.

In "Nobody's Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History," Joyce recounts the moment when he went from anonymous ump to front-page fumbler. He notes that umpires always know the game situation and certainly know when a no-hitter or perfect game is on the line. And in the moment when Donald stepped to the plate with two out in the ninth, he was hoping the game's next play would happen in his vicinity.

"That's how I was as a player," Joyce writes, "always wanting the ball hit to me, the game in my hands."

And that's just how it went down.

Joyce, a 22-year veteran, was in a perfect position to make the call. His gut said safe. Instant replay, on the other hand, would make it clear that Joyce, in his own terminology, "kicked the call." Even Donald showed shock that he had been ruled safe, placing his hands atop his helmet. But in the moments that immediately followed, Joyce remained convinced that he got it right.

The doubt would creep in a few minutes later, after the "28th out" was made by the Tribe's Trevor Crowe.

"Soon as the game is over, everything kicks up a notch," Joyce writes. "The yelling. The booing. Even the small sliver of doubt I have out on the field, it starts to grow as I make for the clubhouse. It moves from the back of my mind to front and center, from a doubt to a worry, because I've never heard anything like this before. Folks are really letting me have it."

When Joyce returned to the umpire's room, he asked crew chief Derryl Cousins if he had blown it. Cousins paused, then said, "Jimmy, I'm so sorry, but from my angle, I thought he was out."

Now, Joyce knew. And he would cue up the replay once -- and only once -- to confirm it.

In the hours that followed, Joyce allowed a throng of reporters into the umpire's room and fielded all their questions. He owned up to his mistake and broke into tears. His remorse wouldn't prevent him from receiving a few jeers as he walked on the field the next day, when he worked behind the plate for the series finale between the two clubs, and it wouldn't stop him from getting a death threat from some nut in Texas later that month. But it did earn him the respect of the Tigers.

Jim Leyland visited Joyce to share a beer. Then, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski visited to see if Joyce was all right and if he needed anything. Joyce had one request. He wanted to talk to Galarraga, to apologize in person.

That's how the best moment in baseball in 2010 was born. The following day, after Joyce spent a restless night at his mother's house an hour south in Toledo, Ohio, it would be Galarraga, not Leyland, who presented the Tigers lineup to Joyce at home plate. The Comerica crowd cheered the professionalism and sportsmanship showed by both men. The imperfect game had somehow given way to a perfect ending.

"Seems we've struck some kind of chord, me and Armando," Joyce writes. "Me, for the way I copped to my mistake and apologized and took my lumps. Armando, for so graciously accepting my apology and for carrying his disappointment with such dignity and good cheer. Wasn't how either one of us wanted to see this thing play out, but here it is."

* * *

And here is Armando Galarraga, answering the phone at his Tacoma hotel. It can be a lonely place for a man who once flirted with history at the game's highest level, but the voice on the line sounds hopeful, not hurt.

"You know what?" he says. "I feel like I need to do better to be in the big leagues. Like how I say before and before and before, everything happens for a reason. I'm trying to come through the Minor Leagues again. I'm a person that doesn't look too much into the past. I was struggling, and they sent me down here to work."

"They" would be the Diamondbacks, who acquired Galarraga from the Tigers in January with the hope that he would be a productive, if imperfect, addition to their starting rotation.

Galarraga's 2010 season, which had begun in Triple-A, went downhill in a hurry in the wake of June 2. About a month later, he was demoted back to Toledo for a brief period, and he finished the year with a 1-7 record and 4.52 ERA in his last 15 starts for Detroit. The Tigers avoided arbitration with Galarraga by signing him to a one-year, $2.3 million contract, only to decide to give his rotation spot to veteran Brad Penny and entertain trade offers.

With the D-backs, little has gone Galarraga's way. He was 3-4 with a 5.91 ERA after his eighth start, when a reporter asked him if he feared his job might be on the line. Galarraga expressed anger at the mere suggestion, but, days later, he was gone. Dispatched to Reno.

"I'm surprised I reacted like that. I've got to give credit to my mom and dad. They gave me an education and talk to me and help me. They always told me that in hard moments, I should always smile."
-- Armando Galarraga

Now, the 29-year-old says he understands the D-backs' decision. He worked five effective innings in his first start for Reno on Sunday and is scheduled to throw again Friday.

"I just go and pitch," he says. "I'm just trying to hit a stride like when I was throwing before. It's difficult, trying to get that confidence to throw a strike."

Galarraga had that confidence that night against the Indians. He just kept staying ahead with his fastball, getting first-pitch strikes on 24 of the 28 batters he faced and putting people away with the slider. Half of his outs that night came on ground balls. He needed just 88 pitches to complete what ought to be called the first 28-out perfect game in Major League history -- a game that took just one hour, 44 minutes to complete, controversy and all.

Instead, Galarraga's perfect effort will go down as nothing more than a complete-game shutout in a 3-0 win.

"I'm always going to have that in my memory," he says.

That smile he flashed in the seconds after Joyce's botched call sticks in the memory. It was a smile that betrayed the hurt Galarraga felt inside, but a smile that told us plenty about the young Venezuelan's character.

"I don't want to lie to you," Galarraga says. "I'm surprised I reacted like that. I've got to give credit to my mom and dad. They gave me an education and talk to me and help me. They always told me that in hard moments, I should always smile."

Beyond the smile, of course, there was sadness. After all, it would have been just the 19th perfect game in modern Major League history, and it would have provided a lasting legacy for a pitcher who has spent the bulk of the past five years bouncing back and forth between the bigs and Triple-A.

Still, that game and its aftermath taught Galarraga so much about the good in people that he can't help looking back on it fondly. He called it "a great day," and it was that postgame meeting with Joyce that allows him to reflect on it with approval, not acrimony.

"I remember exactly like it was yesterday," he says. "Mr. Joyce was feeling really bad. It was an hour and a half later. He was still in full uniform, didn't even change. He was so red, he was crying and he felt bad. When he saw me, the only thing he told me was he was so sorry. He tried to talk a couple times, but he couldn't. Every time he tried to talk, he started crying."

So what did Galarraga do?

"I gave him a hug," he says. "I told him, 'It already happened. It's over.' I don't have any doubt in my mind that he didn't do anything on purpose. He made a mistake, an innocent mistake."

It was mistake that would not be overturned. A mistake that will live in baseball infamy, alongside Don Denkinger's blown call, also at first base, in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, which gave the Royals the opening to come back and beat the Cardinals.

But it was a mistake that also showed us so much good in the game. Donald's devotion, Joyce's integrity, and above all else, Galarraga's grace.

"I wish he made the right call in that moment," Galarraga says. "Then I'd have the perfect game in the books. I know I threw a perfect game in the big leagues. But I got a great experience in that game, and it's not over yet. I'll have a lot more opportunities. Hopefully I can throw one. It would be nice."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.