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The Flawed Pursuit of Perfection

4:33 PM, May 1, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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Over at Powerline, Paul Mirengoff asks, “Who was that cranky old man and why did he ice Kevin Durant?” That “cranky old man” would be Joey Crawford, the 62-year-old referee who grabbed the ball and ran over to the scorers’ table Tuesday night after Durant hit his first free throw with 27 seconds remaining, closing the margin to one point. The Memphis Grizzlies were leading Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder 100-99, but Crawford’s move effectively iced the 87 percent free-throw shooting Durant who went on to miss his next shot, costing the Thunder the game.

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant

Mirengoff sees Crawford’s showboating, his “‘look at me’ moment,” as part of a larger trend in sports. “Sporting contests have a flow and rhythm,” writes Mirengoff. “If the flow and rhythm are disrupted, the games become hard to watch and hard to play.”

Recently, Adam White made the same case about baseball here in THE WEEKLY STANDARD. “The introduction of widespread instant replay into major league baseball,” wrote White, “threatened to do serious damage to how the game is played and enjoyed.” Previously, umpires called plays "based on their best judgment of fast-moving plays, on the spot.” Now, however, “thanks to instant replay and high-definition cameras, these plays are now being adjudicated after the fact” with contested plays referred to headquarters in New York while umpires, players, and fans both at home and in the ballpark wait for the decision. Instant replay breaks the spell, casting us all from the logic of the dream and hurtling back into chaos.

 

Mirengoff notes that he and his Powerline colleague John Hinderaker (read his article about major league baseball’s instant replay here) “have been discussing whether replay in sports is a liberal/progressive concept,” and maybe they’re on to something.  I tend to think the push for bringing replay into the game had more to do with the money at stake. For a player finishing the season before entering contract negotiations, there might be millions of potential dollars in the difference between hitting .299 and .300, or winning 19 games rather than 20, margins that can be and have been decided by lousy calls.

 

For instance, advocates of instant replay were given a big boost with then-Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga’s near perfect game in June 2010. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, an easy ground out to the first baseman seemed to clinch it for Galarraga, but umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, ending the right-hander’s bid for perfection. Joyce later admitted he’d blown the play. "It was the biggest call of my career," the veteran umpire told reporters, "and I kicked it. I just cost that kid a perfect game." After the game, Joyce sought out Gallaraga, who was remarkably gracious. “I understand,” he said. “I give him a lot of credit for coming in and saying, 'Hey, I need to talk to you to say I'm sorry.' That doesn't happen. You don't see an umpire after the game come out and say, 'Hey, let me tell you I'm sorry.' He apologized to me and he felt really bad. He didn't even shower. He was in the same clothes. He gave me a couple hugs.”

 

Had replay been around four summers ago, presumably the blown call would have been reversed, and Galarraga would have joined the 23 other major league pitchers who’ve thrown a perfect game. True, the exchange between Joyce and Galarraga— with the former exhibiting shame and penitence and the other grace and forgiveness—brought out their best, transcending the game and bringing it back to its source, the dignity of play. As a fan, I often think I’d probably rather have that rare event and all the fine human feelings it made public than one more spectacle of a pitcher and catcher embracing at the mound, their teammates pouncing on them, and champagne in the offing to be uncorked in the clubhouse. To heck with having to get it right all the time—sometimes there are more important, more human things than perfection.

 

But on the other hand there’s this: To be sure, the problem with the progressive worldview, what makes it a fundamentalism, is its doctrine regarding the perfectibility of human nature, a viciously impossible doctrine with frequently evil consequences. But with baseball, while we should not expec perfection from either the game or the men who referee it, there are indeed moments of it wrested from failure and even chaos by the men who play it. And that too merits the admiration and awe of our flawed selves. 

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