Blame it on Austin Jackson. By now most Americans, sports fans and non-sports fans alike, know of the perfect game that was not. They know Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga’s bid for baseball immortality was derailed by a bad call from first base umpire Jim Joyce. On what should have been the 27th straight out of the 20th perfect game in Major League Baseball history; umpire Joyce inexplicably called Cleveland Indians’ shortstop Jason Donald safe at first base on a play where Donald was clearly out.
The play set off a well-documented firestorm of controversy, while Galarraga’s reaction to the umpire’s gaffe won him immortality of a different kind. Galarraga’s display of forgiveness and grace has set him up as an example of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct that will long outlive his, until now, otherwise unremarkable career.
It never would have happened without Austin Jackson.
Baseball is a team game; and to finish a perfect game (27 batters/27 outs/no walks/no errors) the pitcher must rely on the team behind him to make all the plays. Austin Jackson did just that.
Jackson, the Tigers’ standout rookie centerfielder, kept Galarraga’s bid for a perfect game intact with a spectacular catch for the first out of the ninth inning. The first batter of the inning, Mark Grudzielanek, hammered what appeared to be an uncatchable ball to the left-centerfield power alley of Detroit’s Comerica Park. Even Jackson, who has more range than most outfielders, did not think he could catch up to it. It seemed Grudzielanek had ended the perfect game effort with one swing of the bat.
But a sprinting Jackson covered the ground and outran the ball, making a running over-the-shoulder-back-to-the-infield catch worthy of Willie Mays himself, robbing Grudzielanek of an extra-base hit. It was one of the best catches of this or any other year, and the pressure of the moment made it even better.
After the game Johnny Damon, the Tigers’ veteran outfielder/DH, said of Jackson. “That kid is amazing.”
Without that catch, the perfect game evaporates and Joyce’s unfortunate call at first base two batters later becomes moot. Without that catch there is no controversy. Without that catch, baseball does not revisit the need for instant replay. Without that catch Jim Joyce does not receive death threats, and Galarraga does not appear on Good Morning America. Without that catch Galarraga is not transformed from a middle of the pack Major League pitcher into an instant candidate for sportsman of the year.
Every play counts. Some plays count more than others. One mighty effort in Comerica Park’s centerfield that should have gone down in baseball history as the play that saved a perfect game will now be remembered as just another great catch, if it is remembered at all. But that catch forever changed the lives of Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce. The indirect result of that catch may be a long term change in the way Major League Baseball uses instant replay.
Blame it on Austin Jackson.