A Learning Moment from “America’s Pastime”

One of the many blessings of participating in sports is that they provide a “clinic” for life. One of the curses of participation in sports is that some participants, spectators and perhaps more unfortunately some of the parents of participants think that the “clinic” for life is life itself. Sports are games that require athletic ability, discipline and competition within boundaries of rules. When we confuse sports as life then we also lose the opportunity to use it as a training ground for life. However, sometimes in the midst of a game there is a moment that shines brightly. Last week in the marvelous game of baseball, also called “America’s Pastime,” we were privileged to witness such a moment.

His name is Armando Galarraga. He is a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who has been having a tough season and was actually on the verge of being sent back to the Minors. But last week, he was given a starting assignment and not only pitched a marvelous game but made it all the way to the ninth inning and was only two outs away from the coveted “perfect game.” (There have been very few “perfect games” in baseball but oddly enough there have already been two this year. This is almost like a baseball tsunami!) Galarraga delivered the pitch. The batter hit a groundball to the left side of the infield. It was fielded by the first baseman, who was ready to toss it to Galarraga, as he covered first base just ahead of the runner. This play, like this game up to this point, was worked to perfection, except the umpire. He made an error. Jim Joyce called the runner, who was obviously out, safe. Galarraga’s immediate response was the first of multiple amazing responses to that call that provided the opportunity for this story and a glorious moment for a life lesson. Galarraga simply smiled. It was a smile that seemingly conveyed, as one sports writer said, a hope that the umpire was right because it sure seemed that he was wrong. The instant replay showed the runner was out and the umpire was indeed wrong. The obligatory and expected anger of the manager, team and crowd descended upon the first base umpire, Jim Joyce. As they surrounded him, the only one absent was Galarraga. Then, during the media onslaught Galarraga refused to react with anger, wrath or accusations. Although the media was clearly attempting to bait him into an angry response of condemnation of the umpire and speculation as to the bad call which he had made but the simple smile was now followed by a simple statement…”we all make mistakes.” Armando did not resort to threatening a law suit. He made no accusations of prejudice, bias or malevolence… just simply the recognition that “to err is human.”  What an unbelievably refreshing moment. But it didn’t stop there.

When Jim Joyce saw the replay he immediately, with sincere and visible emotion, owned his mistake and declared that “I cost that kid a perfect game.”  Joyce went to Galarraga and asked for forgiveness. Now, whether Galarraga is a Christian or not, I do not know. But I do know, whether by redeeming grace or common grace, he did an act of grace and not only forgave him but then did his best to console the visibly and emotionally distraught umpire.

But the story did not end there, either. If it had, it would have ended with what was already a glorious moment, but more was to come. Joyce was the first base umpire, so in the rotation for the next day he was to be the home plate umpire. He knew that he could expect nothing but shouts of abuse, anger and jeers from the crowd. The managers of both teams normally bring out the starting lineup cards to the home plate umpire to start the game but this time, the manager of the Tigers, Jim Leyland, sent Galarraga. When the two men met at home plate, they shook hands, Galarraga again smiled a simple smile and Jim Joyce again wept and again Galarraga consoled him. The reconciliation that was personal the day before now became public. The reaction from the crowd was now spontaneous and exuberant cheers and applause. Even baseball fans who paid for a ticket to yell at everyone, particularly umpires, realized that they had witnessed another glorious moment.

Okay, I am a Gospel Preacher so as I watched this, I could not help but wonder… What would happen if Christians not only acted that graciously to others in general, but also intentionally acted that way toward each other?  Is that not why Christ called us to “forgive other as we have been forgiven?”  Would the world react the same way that the baseball fans reacted at this evidence of Christianity if we responded Christianly toward one another in such a matter? Amazement and maybe even cheers but more importantly they would then have to ask, “…now why do you love so graciously and patiently and who made you to love in that manner?”

Baseball is a just a game but that day it not only taught lessons for life but it taught lessons for what Paul calls “the abundant life.” We live in a broken world. We will have to deal with malicious sin, but we must not be malicious in our response. We must overcome evil with good. Here was a young man who had, in his hands, the coveted achievement of “the perfect game.”  It was taken from his hands by an error but he rose above the circumstances and realized that even though he wanted a “perfect game” he lives in an “imperfect world” where errors are made all the time yet he responded graciously and redemptively.

I hope and pray that Galarraga belongs to the Redeemer. I also pray that those who are redeemed will be challenged by this story to live redemptively with grace. When Galarraga responded as he did I immediately desired to know what or who was in his life that caused him to be such a courageous and gracious man. It was no surprise when I found out about his parents and their influence on him from his wife, who in an interview said his response was no surprise to her because, in her words, that is just “who he is.” As I read her interview I remembered a maxim which I had developed to challenge my faltering life – Circumstances do not dictate your character, they reveal it and become the opportunity to refine it. Armando Galarraga’s character was revealed in that circumstance to such a display that I am now challenged to call upon God’s redeeming grace in my life to be in the midst of disappointment a courageous, forgiving and gracious man for Christ.

One final thought…Being from a baseball family of three generations, a number of people asked me after this event if I thought we needed “instant replay” in baseball. My immediate answer is absolutely not! I personally believe that it is good, if not great, when things like this happen in baseball. Why? Because things like this happen in life all the time. If the first baseman had bobbled the ball or threw it away, the game would not have been a “perfect game” because of his error. But, the first baseman fielded the ball well, threw it straight to the target, Galarraga caught it BUT in this case the umpire made the error. In big league baseball there are not just 18 men on the field. There are 22. Whether it was the first baseman or the umpire, it was an error. That means it was not a “perfect game.” But, in this “Imperfect Game” we got to see something much better. We saw a “Perfect Response.”

We live in an “imperfect world” because of sin in the midst of “imperfect people”      because we are all sinners. But, there is a Redeemer who has overcome our sin and by that same grace Christ will make you an overcomer in a world of sin and errors – The ones you make and the ones others make around you and to you.

My guess is, you can’t name any of those guys who have pitched perfect games unless perhaps you are my age and remember Don Larsen in the Yankee’s victory during the World Series. I’m pretty certain that none of you know who umpired in those games! However, I’m pretty sure that this generation of baseball fans will remember Jim Joyce, the umpire who owned his error and asked for forgiveness as well as Armando Galarraga, a man who was bigger than self promotion and gave forgiveness.  Could we give in life a Gospel driven “perfect response” to the “imperfect world” around us so that those watching would cheer – not us but the One who saved us and changed us from the need to be cheered to living lives that brings cheers of praise and glory to Christ?  That will be a glorious moment.

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