What an Umpire Could Teach BP

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Baseball, the late Bart Giamatti once said, is a tragic undertaking. “It is designed to break your heart,” Giamatti, Yale president and baseball commissioner, wrote in an essay titled “The Green Fields of the Mind.” “The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

Of all sports, I think, baseball most resembles life. The seasons are long; defeat is familiar; repetition often, but not always, makes you better. And it is not necessarily fun all the time: our colleague George F. Will wrote a splendid book on the game with the telling title of Men at Work.

A drama that played out last week in Detroit is that rarest of public moments: one in which everyone involved acted with grace, giving the country an example not only of sportsmanship but of how to conduct oneself in politics, in business, in journalism, and in daily life. Armando Galarraga was on the mound for the Detroit Tigers, who were playing at home against the Cleveland Indians. As the innings passed, Galarraga put down batter after batter, and with only one out to go in the ninth, he was on the verge of pitching a perfect game—one in which no player on the opposing team ever reaches base, either with a hit, a walk, or on an error. Cleveland’s Jason Donald hit an infield grounder and, to most eyes watching, the throw to first for the final out beat the runner. Perfection was, it seemed, achieved.

The eyes that mattered, however, saw things differently in that split second. The umpire, Jim Joyce, blew the call, ruling the runner safe. Galarraga missed out on one of sport’s greatest accomplishments. The umpire made a mistake. “I just cost that kid a perfect game,” Joyce said afterward. There was no malice, no agenda, just plain human error. There was no appeal, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. The next day, after the umpire had realized his mistake and apologized, admitting forthrightly that he had been wrong and was sorry, he and the pitcher met at home plate. The Tiger fans cheered Joyce as he and Galarraga stood together; Joyce was visibly moved by the pitcher’s grace, and the crowd’s. He had made a human error, but by acting like a gentleman, he emerged from what he referred to as his Warholian “15 minutes of fame” as a principled man.

The contrast with the head of BP, Tony Hayward, could hardly have been starker. “You know, I’d like my life back,” Hayward said last week (he later apologized). Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal rightly excoriated Hayward, and now comes what we might call the Joyce test: will Hayward and those most directly engaged in the spill and its implications move forward with candor and clarity? Hayward has blown much so far, from the initial explosion to the early reaction to his unfortunate remarks. He needs to keep saying the company is sorry, and press on to undo—or at least contain—the untold damage the leak is causing. He and BP can only be parts of any solution, not the whole thing: as Sharon Begley writes in this week’s cover, the potential toll of the BP disaster is nearly incomprehensible.

Sand and seafood are just the beginning. “The worst effect of large-scale death on the gulf floor is nothing as photogenic as dead pelicans but much more pernicious,” Sharon writes. “The deep-sea communities are linchpins of the global carbon cycle—or, less jargony, they are the ocean’s garbage men and recycling centers. They eat the carcasses of creatures that lived and died in higher layers of the sea, and whose bodies drifted to the sea floor…Without deep-sea organisms, dead marine creatures would accumulate like bottles and cans in places without deposit laws. That would deprive the rest of the living seas of the nutrients they need to keep life going.”

There is no comparison between a baseball game and the nation’s worst environmental disaster, but there is a lesson to be learned from how Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga handled what was, in their world, an epic event. Be honest, admit mistakes, and keep moving. That is perhaps the only way to cope with tragedy of any scale.

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