Despite all the positive things we associate with the word “sportsmanship,” sports often brings out the worst in people: Little League parents behaving badly, drunken crowds, just for example.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
As most of the world knows by now, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers was one out away from throwing the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history. With two outs in the ninth, the Cleveland Indians batter hit a grounder to the Tiger first baseman. Galarraga, the pitcher, raced to cover first.
It’s a routine play, and the Tigers seemed to have pulled it off: Galarraga and the ball reached first base at least a step ahead of the runner. With that, Galarraga, who earlier in week had faced a possible demotion to the minor leagues, would become a baseball immortal.
Except he didn’t. As you probably know, umpire Jim Joyce called the batter “safe.” Galarraga’s response was “a simple smile.” A smile that, as Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated said, seemed to ask “Are you sure? I really hope you are sure.”
Galarraga was the only one smiling. The blown call outraged fans across the country. The most measured response called for Joyce to be fired. The more unhinged ones threatened Joyce and his family.
For his part, as soon as he saw the replay, Joyce knew that he had gotten it wrong. He told reporters “I just cost that kid a perfect game.”
By baseball standards, such an admission was extraordinary: Umpires are paid to make judgment calls and stand by them. Players and managers can argue with them but only within limits, and with no expectation of having the call reversed.
So, when Joyce apologized to Galarraga, we were already in unfamiliar territory. When Galarraga, in turn forgave Joyce, adding that Joyce probably felt worst than he did and “nobody’s perfect,” we were witnessing something extraordinary.
The victim of what Posnanski calls one of “most absurd injustices in the history of baseball” went out his way to comfort the umpire who made the mistake. And the umpire was humble enough to ask for forgiveness. It was, as Posnanski called it, a “beautiful” lesson.
It was also a lesson made possible only by Christianity. I really don’t know anything about Galarraga’s or Joyce’s beliefs, but I do know that it was Christianity that taught the world the virtues of humility and forgiveness.
Neither of these were considered virtues in the ancient world (or in any pagan or postmodern culture for that matter). On the contrary, they were signs of weakness.
The Christian message summed up in the words “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” provided a revolutionary new basis for human relationships. And it has the power to transform lives—both of victims and offenders—as I’ve witnessed over and over in 30 years of prison ministry. It has the power to heal nations, as the world witnessed in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda.
What happened after that baseball game was more beautiful than Galarraga’s pitching. Especially for a postmodern culture that rejects the faith that gave meaning to the words “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”