In sports, as in life, a mistake can provide an opportunity for genuine moral heroism

Dan Fink
Dan Fink Idaho Statesman

Sports heroes are not always good role models. This should not surprise us, for athletic riches and renown are not a function of ethical excellence. As with pop musicians, actors and politicians, sports stardom does not require a strong moral compass, and sometimes too much fame at too early an age inhibits personal growth. Thus, all too often, we read about our favorite athletes cheating with performance enhancing drugs, being accused of sexual assault, committing adultery and acting with terrible arrogance.

Yet sometimes, in sports, as in life, a mistake can provide an opportunity for genuine moral heroism.

Several years ago, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was on the verge of achieving perhaps the rarest occurrence in sports: a perfect game, in which the pitcher does not allow a single batter on base. This has occurred only 20 times in over a century of major league baseball history. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, facing the Cleveland Indians, Galarraga needed just one more out to join that rarefied company.

Instead, he was robbed. The culprit was umpire Jim Joyce, who made what is now considered one of the worst calls of all time when he ruled Cleveland’s Jason Donald safe at first. Instant replay showed that Donald was, in fact, easily out. Joyce clearly and unequivocally got it wrong. Nonetheless, just like that, Armando Galarraga’s shot at history disappeared into thin air.

What’s remarkable, though, is what happened afterward. Jim Joyce watched a replay and realized his error, which left him disconsolate. He told the press: “I cost that kid a perfect game.”

And then Jim Joyce, the umpire who erred, sought out Armando Galaraga, the player who paid the price for that error. Joyce wept and apologized. Galarraga promptly and graciously accepted. “Nobody’s perfect,’‘ he explained.

As columnist Leonard Pitts wrote in the aftermath of that remarkable exchange: “It bears repeating: As fans were dripping froth, as the Joyce family was reporting actual death threats, the embarrassed and reviled umpire owned his mistake and apologized, and the bitterly disappointed pitcher shrugged it off as one of those things. And both put it behind them and went back to work. The game might not have been perfect, but that response surely was.”

This week, the Jewish people will observe Yom Kippur. It is the holiest day of our year, a time set aside for repentance and forgiveness, for acknowledging our failings and growing from them. We start with the truth that Armando Galarraga so generously recognized: No one is perfect. And then we begin the long, hard and holy work of mending our misdeeds and becoming the best people that we can be over the coming year and beyond.

Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.