SARASOTA, Fla. The man who came within one famously blown call of baseball immortality sits at his locker, blending inconspicuously into the clubhouse of the Baltimore Orioles.
You could easily walk by and not notice him amid the clatter of pre-game preparations. If not for his hand in an epic event that made the sports world stand still on June 2, 2010, he would just be another player in camp with a minor-league contract, another player with the kind of big hopes and dreams that flourish every spring training.
But Armando Galarraga is hardly a perfect stranger.
He will forever be known as the Detroit pitcher who threw the 21st perfect game in major league history, only to have it undone by umpire Jim Joyces incorrect call on what should have been the glorious final out.
Yet even more than that, the 30-year-old righthander from Venezuela will be remembered for the grace he displayed in the aftermath the way then he immediately forgave the veteran ump who knew he had bungled the call of his heralded career.
And Joyce, for that matter, is remembered equally for the stand-up manner in which acknowledged his mistake after viewing the replay in the umpires room, then requesting a meeting with the pitcher to convey a deep, tearful apology.
Their emotional home-plate lineup card exchange the next day was soon celebrated nationally for epitomizing class and ultimate sportsmanship. Galarraga and Joyce were hailed at ESPNs Espy Awards, and even presented with a Medal of Reasonableness by comedian Jon Stewart at his Washington, D.C. Rally to Restore Sanity AndOr Fear.
But while the episode became a lasting chapter of the game, Galarragas moment in the spotlight proved all too fleeting.
He closed out the 2010 season with a disappointing record of 4-9 with a 4.49 ERA, a sharp contrast to his rookie showing in 2008 with a mark of 13-7 and 3.73 ERA. The Tigers then traded him last year to the Arizona Diamondbacks, but his fortunes continued to spiral. He saw limited action, posting a record of 3-4 with a 5.91 ERA before being designated for assignment with the Reno Aces.
Part of his problem was an injured throwing elbow, and during the off-season he underwent surgery to remove bone chips. The Orioles, in serious need of experienced starting pitching, signed Galarraga in January. And now here he is, trying to prove he still can be the pitcher that captivated baseball two years ago.
True to form, he displays the same positive, upbeat attitude talking about his new opportunity with the Orioles, despite the frustrating journey that has led up to it.
Things are going good I feel strong right now, healthy, you know? he said, his words tinged with a Spanish accent.
His optimism hasnt been tempered by the load of pitchers Baltimore has brought to camp. He insists he isnt worried about the intense competition.
I dont think that way, he said. Im just trying to do my job and get an opportunity any opportunity I can get. I just want to prove that I can come back to the big leagues again.
Its strange to see a pitcher so widely acclaimed only two years ago now on the outside looking in, hoping to resurrect a career that has become a permanent footnote in perfect-game lore. But Galarragas story and outlook is uplifting at the same time, in his sheer determination not to let that memory define him.
Definitely, definitely Im still young, he said. I want to make the All-Star team I want to pitch consistently for five, six or seven years.
Thats why he feels encouraged and renewed this spring, following the surgery to repair his throwing elbow.
This is the first time in the past two spring trainings Ive come in healthy, he said. I threw yesterday with no pain, and I feel like I could be back on the mound today. Its a great feeling. I feel like 100 percent right now. Its totally different.
Still, things have not gone particularly well so far, with his ERA of 7.88 in eight innings of work, along with 10 hits and five walks. But Galarraga looked better in his recent outing March 17. He held Boston scoreless in the first two innings and yielded a run in the third, before tiring and getting tagged for three runs in the fourth.
Orioles bench coach Johnny Russell, managing the split-squad team, offered a positive assessment: Early, he was hitting his spots, keeping the ball down. He got some ground balls and thats what he does when he keeps the ball down because he has good movement. In the last inning, he started getting balls up late in the count, and that hurt him a little bit. But I was very encouraged by the first couple of innings.
Whatever happens, nothing can change how Galarraga views his accomplishment against the Cleveland Indians two Junes ago even if it will never have a home in baseballs record book due to forces beyond his control. He calls it a good memory in spite of losing his perfect game in the blink of an eye, when Joyce called Indians rookie Jason Donald safe after legging out a soft grounder between first and second.
First baseman Miguel Cabrera moved to his right to field the ball and tossed it to Galarraga at first. The throw beat Donald by a half-step, but Joyce a respected umpire considered one of the games best ruled the runner safe.
Instead of throwing a justifiable tirade, Galarraga merely smiled at Joyce in the wake of the stunning call a powerful, lingering image of the unforgettable episode. He collected himself and returned to the mound, retiring the side to finish with a 3-0 win and certainly the most talked-about one-hit shutout in major league history.
Im a totally calm person, never aggressive or like some pitchers who bump it up a little bit more, he said. Ill always say I was so nervous and kind of excited. Everybody reacts differently some people react by screaming or yelling at the umpire. I reacted just like shock.
But it was his secondary reaction to the lost chance at perfection that conveyed a universal lesson an understanding of the imperfection of human judgment, a compassionate spirit, and an immediate willingness to forgive the man who had blocked his path to history, telling the media in the post-game press conference, Nobodys perfect.
In the umpires room, after viewing the replay, Joyce told the Associated Press after the game, "It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the expletive out of it. I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay." Joyce was sick over what happened and asked to speak to Galarraga before leaving the stadium. He apologized tearfully and hugged the pitcher, who replied, I understand.
My education is to forgive, he said last week, sitting at his locker. I got a great education from my mom and my dad. You forgive people when they do something wrong. And the second thing is, Jim Joyce is a class person. He couldnt leave the stadium for two-and-a-half hours because he wanted to talk to me. So he apologized that night and everything went smooth.
During the pre-game ceremony, Galarraga received a cherry red Corvette convertible from General Motors for his landmark effort. And that gift was punctuated by a most poignant one: the lineup card exchange and a handshake between the ump and the pitcher whose lives were now inextricably bound.
Galarraga and Joyce, in fact, have remained friends. Last year, they co-authored a book with writer Daniel Paisner about the careers that intersected that fateful night. The title: Nobodys Perfect: Two Men, One Call and a Game for Baseball History.
People still stop Galarraga on the street to ask him about that night and to tell him how inspiring his reaction was after seeing his place for the ages slip away. He enjoys the comments, but doesnt feel as if he missed the perfect game.
I know threw it, he said. So its a great memory to tell my kids and my family about. I dont have to ask anybody, because in my heart I know I did it.
That heart is what carries Galarraga forward as he strives to fight his way back into the big leagues. And it is the same heart that gave one painful baseball game a perfect ending after all.