Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce, The First Hit of a Game Must be Clean

Blown Call Illustrates What to Do When Staring Down the Barrel of Perfection

Most of the chatter about last night’s blown call that cost Detroit’s Armando Galarraga a perfect game has to do with whether Major League Baseball might overturn it, and the chances of the league implementing a more comprehensive replay policy.

More immediate, however, is the unwritten rulebook, one section of which calls for official scorers to mandate that the first hit of any game must be unequivocally clean. It’s designed to prevent second-guessing, should that hit—or error, depending on one’s perspective—end up being the only one the pitcher gives up on the night.

Last night brought the rule to field level. As umpire Jim Joyce has no doubt learned, any hit over the final inning(s) of a no-hitter should be beyond reproach. The moment that Joyce called Cleveland’s Jason Donald safe on a play that beat him by a full step, he was informed of this—first by Tigers manager Jim Leyland, then by a TV replay in his dressing room, and ever since by a legion of angry baseball bloggers. (Watch the play here.)

For the clearest perspective on the rule, turn to Donald himself.

“It was so bang-bang that I thought for sure I’d get called out because of everything at stake,” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Donald is all of 15 games into his big-league career, and knows things that Joyce, a 21-year veteran, had yet to learn.

Perspective can do wonders for a person, however. After watching the replay, Joyce tearfully apologized to Gallaraga and the Tigers, both in person and through the press. One of his takeaways from the experience clarified the parameters under which the Code takes precedence.

“This wasn’t a call,” he said in the Detroit News. “This was a history call. And I kicked the shit out of it.”

It’s not the first time this has happened to would-be perfection. As pointed out by ESPN.com, Milt Pappas was 26 outs into his own perfect game in 1972, when plate umpire Bruce Froemming ruled that a full-count pitch—close enough to argue—was a ball.

The Code mandates that any pitcher on the cusp of greatness has earned the benefit of any doubt that may exist. That concept could be seen in action yesterday, but not in Detroit—in Newport News, VA, in a collegiate summer league game.

There, pitcher Jharel Cotton of the Peninsula Pilots didn’t give up a hit until two were out in the eighth inning. At that point, a batter broke it up by beating out a bunt, as the third baseman’s hurried throw was off the mark. (We’ll forgive the indiscretion of bunting to break up a no-hitter; it was a 10-0 game, but college kids can’t be expected to know all the rules of their big-league brethren.)

Afterward, the Pilots convinced the league office to overturn the call, ruling it an error and preserving the no-no.

If only it was that easy for Jim Joyce.

– Jason

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