Here is the first thing I think when I see the umpire make the safe sign at first base: I think he is kidding. I think the only reason he can say the runner is safe is to make a joke, because it does not feel to me like the play is even close.
Why do I say this? Because I have been playing baseball since I was a small boy. I know how the umpire can say one thing and you cannot complain because you cannot be certain. But I do not think this is one of those times, because it cannot be so. I know with my own eyes what I have just seen. And it is not only with my eyes. I know by listening. I know when my foot touches the base. I know when the batter touches the base.
I can feel these things, because I am a part of them.
They do not happen one on top of the other, which is how it feels when you make a close play, both things at the same time. No, they happen one after the other. First there is my foot on the base, and then there is Jason Donald, the Cleveland batter, there is his foot on the base, and then there is the umpire Jim Joyce saying he is safe. It all happens in a row, one thing after the other, but the third thing is not connected to the first two, which is why I now think it must be a joke. Or a mistake. Or maybe my mind is playing tricks, because it cannot be that the umpire really means the batter is safe.
It cannot be that I will not have a perfect game after all. I cannot think such a thing. There are two outs in the ninth inning, and my friend Miguel Cabrera makes a nice play on a ground ball to the right side and I run to first and catch the ball and step on the base in time to beat the runner, like we practice all the time in spring training, over and over, and now the umpire is saying this is not how it happened.
I wonder why he is saying this. There is not a lot of time for thinking, but this is what I think. I wonder what he has seen that I have not seen, what he has felt that I have not felt. I wonder what he has heard. I do not know Jim Joyce, except by his voice. The other players say he is a good umpire. They say he is fair, and I do not know any different. I will tell you the truth: I do not always pay attention to who is umpiring on the bases. When they are the home plate umpire, I pay only a little attention. I do not know them by name, only by how they call balls and strikes, so that is how I know Jim Joyce, by his voice. Other pitchers, they study the umpires and know about their strike zones, but I believe there are other things to worry about. I have my plan, going into a game. And the home plate umpire, he has his plan. He does not have to know about my plan and I do not have to know about his plan and we can both do our jobs. So all I know about Jim Joyce is that when he is the umpire behind home plate his calls are loud. He makes sure everybody knows what he thinks. It is like he is making an announcement after every pitch. This is what everybody says, the other pitchers on my team. And it is the same at first base, each time he calls a runner safe or out. You can hear him in every part of the stadium.
So it is not possible that I have not heard the umpire properly, when he shouts that the runner is safe. There is no room for misunderstanding, and as soon as I hear his call I turn and see him standing behind the base, with his arms wide, making the safe sign, so there is no misunderstanding this as well. This is no joke. This is not my brain playing tricks.
The second thing I think is that it does not matter. Okay, so it is not the call I am expecting, but I am too happy, so it does not matter. I am too happy with how I am pitching and how I have reached all the way to the end of the game without allowing one of the Cleveland Indians batters to get on base. It is such a joyful moment that nothing can make me sad. It is a perfect, perfect game, and I realize that nothing can change the truth of this perfect, perfect game. I tell this to people later and they do not believe me, but this is how I feel. Suddenly, I realize this. I know in my heart that I have now completed my perfect game. The moment my foot touches first base, I know this. It is something to share with my father. It is something to tell to my children and my grandchildren. It is something the people of Venezuela will always remember. And so I do not think to complain, because I was taught not to complain. The umpire is in charge. If he says the runner is safe, then the runner is safe. That is all.
The only thing for me to do is feel proud of the work I have already done, and worry about the next batter, and remember my many blessings. I do not do such a good job of this, worrying about the next batter, because I no longer have my focus. I am not upset but I am now thinking of other things besides baseball. I am thinking that I have so many blessings, so many reasons to smile. I am too happy, so I cannot be too sad when Jim Joyce calls the runner safe at first base. The fans are cheering for me. My teammates on the Detroit Tigers are cheering for me. It is a nice night, early in the season, and we are playing good baseball, so why should I not be happy? I am being paid to play baseball, a game I love, so why should I not be smiling? I have just pitched the best game of my career. And now there is a runner on first base and I am still pitching the best game of my career.
I am thinking, Armando, if you keep pitching like this there will be many more chances for a perfect game.
I am thinking, Sometimes the umpire knows one thing and you know another and there is nothing to do about this.
I am thinking, Let us just worry about the next batter, and then we can celebrate the blessings of this game.
I do not yell or curse or kick at the dirt, because what do I have to yell or curse or kick about? I can disagree. I can question. But I cannot argue because I cannot complain. I am filled with so many blessings, so here is what I do: I smile. I have not done anything wrong. Instead, I have done everything right. For the whole game, I do not think I have thrown a bad pitch. The ball can only do what I want it to do, what I tell it to do. I cannot remember a time when I have been pitching so well, for so long. For a batter or two, yes, I can feel like I am in control, I can feel like I am dominating. For an inning or two, maybe I can feel these things, I can feel like the best pitcher in the history of baseball. But never for a whole game. Never before this one night.
So, of course, I smile.
It’s three-thirty in the morning and I’m sitting in the front room of my mother’s house, chain-smoking Winston Lights. Same house I grew up in. Same chair where my father used to sit. Same shadows on the wall from where the streetlights come in through the picture window.
The house is finally quiet, but there are noises in my head. Calls I should have made. Shouts I never thought I’d hear from players, fans, grounds crew guys. Can’t shut them out for trying. I’ve got the front door open, to get a breeze going. It’s a warm night, the a/c is off, but I’m mostly hoping the night sounds will drown out my thoughts, help me relax.
Some sounds take you from your troubles, and others remind you of them. Tonight, there’s just a bunch of reminders. Like my cell phone: I’d put the thing on vibrate, but after one or two in the morning, when there’s no whoosh of cars going up and down our street, even a vibrating cell phone can make a lot of noise, so I switch it to silent. It’s still lighting up every couple minutes, but at least I don’t have to listen to it. Just have to watch it keep lighting the room with how I messed up.
My eighty-six-year-old mother went to bed a couple hours ago. She waited up for me—dozing in her chair by the television. I came in just before the eleven o’clock news. My timing couldn’t have been better. Or worse. The phone rang as I walked in the front door. For all I know, it had been ringing and ringing, so here it was, ringing again . . . or still. One of those. Either way, it was late to be calling my mother’s house.
I said, “Don’t answer it.”
My mother looked up from her dozing. She said, “Why not?”
I said, “I’m not very popular right now, that’s why.”
She said, “What happened, Jimmy? How was the game?”
I fell into my dad’s chair, across the couch from my mom. I said, “You didn’t watch?” If she had watched, she wouldn’t have been asking.
She said, “No, I was watching something else. First the game, then something else. Then I fell asleep.”
This was unusual for my mother. She always watches my games. She always asks, and I tell her the time and channel. But I didn’t worry about this, just then. Instead, I explained. I said, “I kicked a call. Last play of the game. Cost a kid a chance at history.” I told her what it meant to pitch a perfect game—no hits, no walks, no errors, no blemishes of any kind—and she nodded like she understood. Wasn’t so long ago she would have known this for herself. Been watching baseball since she met my father, but now her memory is off and on and she had to be reminded.
She said, “It’s not such a big thing, Jimmy. It’s only a game.”
I said, “Yeah, but I don’t know how it happened. The whole game, nobody made a mistake but me.”
She said, “I don’t know why anyone would be mad at you, Jimmy. You did your best. You always do your best.”
I said, “Oh, Mom, come on.”
Just then the local news came on. Like it was waiting for me. Like it had something to tell me I didn’t already know. I’d kicked that call, and now it was the top story. Nothing was more important, in the eyes of these television news people. The economy was in the toilet. People all around Detroit were out of work, scrambling while the big three automakers figured how to fix their business. There was a war going on in Iraq, another in Afghanistan, and an out-of-control oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico killing the coastline. But this one baseball game, with this kid pitcher coming this close to a perfect game, this was the big headline.
The drill, when I work a game in Detroit, is I stay at my mom’s house in Toledo. Only takes about forty-five minutes to get to the stadium, so it’s a good chance to visit. Same goes for Cleveland—also not such a bad drive. Been doing it since I started calling games in the bigs. It’s become a soft spot in a tough schedule, something to look forward to on the long slog of a season. Usually, two or three times a year, I’ll come through one or the other, make a true homestand out of it, only this season is the first without my dad. He died almost exactly a year ago, so there’s some bittersweet to it, me coming home like this. Just yesterday, I took my mom out to the cemetery. First chance I had to see my dad’s headstone, first time I’d been to his grave since the funeral. Still can’t get over that he’s gone—especially now, this time of year.
He was the one who got me into baseball. Guess you could say he was the one who got me into umpiring, only not really. Back when I was still playing—high school, first couple years of college—he started working youth and amateur games all around the state. Pee Wee, Colt, Junior Knothole . . . all the way through to the high school circuit. Don’t think he liked it too much. Don’t think he liked the way folks would go after him when they didn’t like a call. Wasn’t really his thing, in the end, but he made a good go of it. Worked at it a couple years before moving on to something else. Still, first thing I thought of, soon as I realized I’d kicked the call, was him not being here. One of those fleeting, racing thoughts that just rip through your head. I thought, It’s a good thing he’s not here to see this. I thought, A call like this, it’d just about kill him.
Said as much to my wife Kay when she called after the game to see how I was doing. Said, “He would have just died.”
She said, “Stop it, Jim. Don’t do this to yourself.”
I half listened as the news anchor said I’d made one of the worst calls in baseball history, called the runner safe when he was clearly out. They showed the replay but I couldn’t watch. Once was about all I could take, back in the umpires locker room right after the game: yeah, okay, the runner was clearly out. No reason to have to look at it again. When I made the call, in my head the runner beat the ball. Wasn’t even close. But then when I played it back, in my gut the ball got there first. Wasn’t even close. And now I had to fit those two pieces together in a way that made sense.
When other guys mess up on the job, they hang their heads and hope like crazy their boss doesn’t notice. Me, I mess up and it’s this huge deal—so, absolutely, I couldn’t sleep. Tried, for a bit. Stayed up talking to my mom for a while, about this and that. Anything but the game. Spoke to Kay back home in Oregon. She’d called when I was driving out from the stadium, and another few times to make sure I was okay. Told me to delete my Facebook account.
Hadn’t even thought of that. I said, “Is it that bad?”
She said, “Don’t worry about it, Jim. Just don’t look at it.”
At a time like this, you trust your wife to tell you what to do. She would have canceled the account herself if she knew my password. She only wished she could have gotten the same message to the kids, she said. Already, just a couple hours after the game, they’d each gotten about fifty ugly, threatening messages, and it tore me up to hear this because, of course, those messages were meant for me.
When my mom finally went to bed, I went to the kitchen and grabbed a can of Diet Coke from the fridge, figured I’d sit and sip and smoke. And think. But then when my thinking didn’t take me anywhere I wanted to go, I went up to my old bedroom and changed into a T-shirt and shorts. One thing: my room is set up like it was when I was a kid. Sun comes in through the shades first thing in the morning, same way I remember. Bed, dresser . . . everything in the same place. Different furniture, after all these years, but set up the same way. It’s not a museum or anything, doesn’t look like Richie Cunningham’s room from the 1950s, but some nights I fall down dead tired after a tough game and it’s like I’m back in high school. Like I never left. Only things my mom has kept the same are the bed frame and the picture of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the wall. Must’ve had that picture fifty, sixty years—and here it is, still watching over me.
I wondered where the hell they’d been, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, just a couple hours earlier, when I could have used some watching over.
I killed the lights and sat on my bed for a bit. Then I lay down. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Talked myself into it before even trying, but now I told myself I had to at least try, so I lay there a good long while, eyes closed, trying to drift off but at the same time knowing I wouldn’t.
Hard not to beat myself up over something like this. Hard not to wish it away. There’d only been, what, twenty perfect games in major league history? Twenty, going back over one hundred and thirty years. It’s probably the most difficult thing to do on a baseball diamond, keep the other team from getting on base, and here this big, sweet kid from Venezuela had done just that. Just about. Pitched a beautiful game. In complete control. Didn’t waste a single pitch. Got to two outs in the ninth inning without allowing a base runner.
Twenty-six up, twenty-six down.
No hits, no runs, no errors.
And then the number nine hitter hits a hard grounder to the first baseman and I slide-step into position to make the call. I have a perfect angle on the play. It happens right in front of me. I see the runner bust it down the line, the pitcher bust it across the diamond to cover the bag . . . and I make the wrong call. Can’t explain it. Can’t understand it. I just missed it, is all. I saw it one way and the rest of the world saw it another.
Must’ve been twenty, thirty minutes I lay there like that, visualizing the play, putting myself back on that field. After a while I went back to my dad’s old chair in the front room, where the can of Diet Coke was still waiting for me. Cigarettes, too. And that’s where I am now, rooted to the very spot where my dad used to do his sitting and thinking, and I’m running the play over and over in my mind. It’s all I can think about.
At some point I start to think about tomorrow, which of course is already today. Day game back in Detroit and I’ve got the plate. That’s always a big deal, when you’re calling balls and strikes. I need to be sharp. Today especially. Folks will be looking at me, hard. Riding me, hard. Can’t afford to be off my game. Can’t ever afford to be off my game, but this game especially. I work the clock in my head, figure I’ll have to leave the house by eleven, eleven-fifteen, to be in the locker room my usual hour and a half before the game. Then I look at the clock and see that it’s already five o’clock in the morning, so now the idea of sleep has a little more urgency to it. I don’t want to be horseshit for the game. I know I’ll have to face some heat when I get to the stadium, so I shuffle back to bed.
I hit the pillow and I’m gone.
Next thing I notice it’s five-thirty and I’m all the way awake, and I tell myself again there’s no way I’m catching any more sleep. Doesn’t even feel to me like the sleep I managed to grab has done me any good, so I haul myself out of bed and into the kitchen. Make a pot of coffee. Sit myself down at the dinette table. Same spot I used to sit at when I was a kid. Fire up my first cigarette of the day, even though it really isn’t. Get back to sitting, smoking, thinking, wondering how I can possibly work the plate this afternoon on so little sleep—and how I can possibly not.