10 years later, ex-Tiger Armando Galarraga 'lucky to not be lucky' in brush with perfection

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — It was June 2, 2015, and Major League Baseball's new commissioner, Rob Manfred, was in Detroit, the latest stop on his visit to all 30 teams' ballparks.

Prior to the game, Manfred stopped in the umpires' room, just behind the tunnel behind home plate at Comerica Park, and made some small talk.

Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga walks away from first-base umpire Jim Joyce (right) moments after Joyce's call denied him a perfect game. Joyce later admitted he had blown the call.

"How is replay going? Do you like it?" Manfred asked, a season after MLB added expanded instant replay to include more than just home runs.

"I wish we had it five years ago," said that night's second-base umpire, Jim Joyce.

Five years earlier, on that very night in that very ballpark, Comerica Park, one of the sport's most famous blown calls was made, when Joyce, with two out in the top of the ninth, said "safe" when Cleveland's Jason Donald was clearly "out" — denying Detroit's young pitcher, Armando Galarraga, MLB's 21st perfect game.

But the call also made Galarraga, and Joyce, forever famous. Dallas Braden wasn't given a tricked-out new Corvette. Phil Humber didn't get to present at the nationally televised ESPYs. Nobody writes anniversary stories on Charlie Robertson's perfect game.

Meanwhile, back in that umpires' room in 2015, it took Manfred a split-second to make the connection.

"He looked at me, and then it clicked, here we were," Joyce said. "And he just kind of snickered, laughed a little bit, and said, 'Yeah.'"

The Galarraga-Joyce story has been told countless times, in countless publications, and from countless perspectives — and especially recently, with Tuesday marking the 10-year anniversary of when one call robbed a 28-year-old from Venezuela his rightful perfect game, but ended up affording him so much more.

There have been just 23 perfect games in the history of MLB, none since 2012, and good luck naming more than a handful of those who've thrown one.

Galarraga's name, that sly smile, that exceptional empathy, almost immediately after Joyce's arms went up beyond the bag at first — now all that, baseball fans will never forget.

"You know what," said Galarraga, "I've been lucky to be not lucky, if that makes any sense."

'Any time, you can see greatness'

It was a Wednesday night in June 2010. The Indians were in town, a young, rebuilding team that then-manager Manny Acta recalled was prepared "to get our a-- kicked every night." The Tigers were treading water, slumping recently. There were just 17,738 tickets sold. Justin Verlander wasn't pitching, nor was Max Scherzer, or Rick Porcello, or Jeremy Bonderman.

It was Armando Galarraga, and even he wasn't really supposed to be pitching. After a good rookie season in 2008 and an OK followup in 2009, he started 2010 in the minor leagues. Galarraga was called back up in mid-May, made a great start against Boston, and then a bad one against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was pulled back out of the rotation for one turn, but a June 1 trade cemented his place back in the starting five, when the Tigers sent Dontrelle Willis to Arizona.

Nothing ever prepares for you for a perfect game, but in this case, that was especially true.

But then again, yeah, baseball.

"That's baseball for you," Acta, now the bench coach for Seattle, said with a laugh. "Any day, any time, you can see greatness. It wasn't Verlander. It wasn't Scherzer. Any of those guys. It was Armando Galarraga."

Acta first came across Galarraga in 2000 in Venezuela, and two years later worked with him when both were in the Montreal Expos' system. Acta remembered him as a "tall, skinny kid who could throw strikes."

In 2010, Galarraga was still tall, 6-foot-3, but hardly skinny, at 230 pounds.

But he sure could throw strikes. Interestingly, the first two pitches of that game were balls. Sixty-seven of the next 86 pitches were strikes.

Galarraga worked his fastball early — "Probably the best I had it seen it, locating really well," said his catcher that day, Alex Avila — and then turned to his slider late. He shook off Avila once early, once a bit later, and no times in between. The outs came mostly easy, and almost always quick, though watching the game again all these years later, some moments stand out.

There was Austin Kearns' mildly hard-hit liner to Miguel Cabrera at first. There was a slow roller to the hole at shortstop that Ramon Santiago handled nicely and got the out, thank goodness an aging catcher, Mike Redmond, was running. Also in the third inning, Jason Donald (remember that name) just missed a double to right, the flare just outside the line. Shin-Shoo Choo barely avoided getting hit in the foot in the fourth. Galarraga went 3-2 on Travis Hafner in the fifth, his only three-ball count, before Hafner flew out to left. Also in the fifth, Russell Branyan hit a grounder up the middle that hit Galarraga's right heel, deflected to third baseman Brandon Inge, who short-hopped it and made the perfect, strong throw to just get the out. Donald (that guy again) hit a deep liner to Magglio Ordonez in right field in the sixth. Avila made a fantastic stop on a slider in the dirt that struck out Jhonny Peralta in the eighth.

And then came the ninth, the fans now very much into it — and Galarraga made his worst pitch of the day, a fastball right down the middle to leadoff man Mark Grudzielanek, who smashed it to deep left-center.

"In my mind," said then-president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, watching from his box high above the field, "this is probably it."

But Austin Jackson, a rookie center fielder acquired seven months earlier in the blockbuster trade that also brought Scherzer to Detroit, got a great jump, raced 16 full strides and made the over-the-shoulder catch.

"OH, JACKSON!" Rod Allen said on that night's broadcast, one of his most-legendary calls.

"Looks like a young Willie Mays."

"At that point," said Dombrowski, "OK, there's a pretty good chance this is going to happen. As I recollect, with most of those times there's a no-hitter or a perfect game, there are plays that just stand out that save them. Up until that time, I don't remember any of those. 

"Then came Austin's play, and I was like, 'OK, here we go.'"

The next batter, Redmond, grounded out routinely to short, and the crowd was on its feet, eager to see history — history that, as a bonus, the mostly sober fans would get to remember, too, given the game lasted just one hour and 44 minutes (the Tigers' only sub-two-hour game since 2007, and their shortest since a Jose Lima gem clocked in at 1:41 in 2003). Alcohol sales are cut off after the seventh inning.

History happened. Just not the kind of history anybody expected.

Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga follows through on a pitch in the sixth inning.

Perfection stolen

That brought up Donald, a rookie infielder from Fresno, California, playing in his 15th major-league game. Galarraga was notoriously tougher on right-handed hitters, thanks to that darting slider, and Acta, despite a young roster that also was missing its superstar, Grady Sizemore, had options on the bench. He could've pinch-hit for any of the three in the ninth inning.

But he never considered it.

The Tigers had just scored twice in the eighth inning off a darn-good Fausto Carmona (now Roberto Hernandez), extending the 1-0 lead, via a solo home by Miguel Cabrera in the second inning, to 3-0.

"No, no, no," Acta said. "You're rebuilding and stuff. The pinch-hitting had to take place in a situation where you can win the game. You don't want to be taking the bat out of kids trying to develop in that type of situation. 

"You're not pinch-hitting just to break up the perfect game."

The first pitch was a strike (duh; almost every Indian saw a first-pitch strike). The second pitch was a ball.

And then, on a tumbling slider off the outside edge of the plate, Donald swung and hit a slow roller to the hole between first and second. Carlos Guillen, by then playing second base, could've made the play, but Cabrera was known to range farther to his right than most first basemen.

Cabrera gloved it with the backhand, set himself and fired a tailing throw to an in-position Galarraga, who made the 12-stride race to first, caught the ball and then found the bag. He raised his arms. Cabrera celebrated. Guillen celebrated.

Mario Impemba made the call.

"He's out! ...

"... No! He's safe!"

In this image taken from video and provided by MLB.com, Cleveland Indians' Jason Donald, right, runs to first base as  Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga takes the throw during the ninth inning. First-base umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe on the play, then said he got it wrong.

Joyce, a major-league umpire since 1987 and considered then and now to be among the best, if not the best, at his craft, had made the call — and with little hesitation.

And throughout the ballpark, hands hit heads. On the field, Cabrera's hands were on his head, and Donald's hands were on his head. In the executive's box, Dombrowski's hands were on his head. In the dugout, Brennan Boesch's hands were on his head.

And in the Fox Sports Detroit truck, where there's often chaos, well, there was chaos.

"At the time, I thought, 'Oh my God, I blew this ... oh, sh--,'" Impemba said. "But our crew is pretty good, and they were right on it. The replays pretty quickly showed he was out.

"Looking back on it, it might've been the perfect call for me."

Everyone was stunned, including Galarraga, who had the most amazing reaction. He didn't swear, he didn't say a word in fact. He simply smiled — perhaps the only one in the ballpark who did.

Manager Jim Leyland took the slow stroll out to first base, and had a very brief conversation with Joyce, with few words said by either man. At that time, Leyland and the players hadn't seen the replay, so few in the ballpark, outside of the broadcast crew, knew what had happened.

Galarraga thought he knew. He thought he was out, but still had doubts.

Cabrera had no doubts. He jarred with Joyce for nearly a minute, even when play resumed.

"He was out f---ing out," Cabrera said. "He was out."

Meanwhile, Galarraga went back to work. There was business to finish, not that he was overly focused. So much in a fog, he continued to pitch out of the windup, allowing Donald to take second base, then third, before Trevor Crowe grounded out to third base to finally end it.

That's when the boos poured down, and seconds later, Joyce knew he blew it.

By now, they had seen replay, and several Tigers players let Joyce hear it with a series of profanities, Gerald Laird and Jeremy Bonderman among them, before Leyland interjected and had his heated say. Joyce stood there and took all of it, every last word.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland yells at first-base umpire Jim Joyce (right) after his call cost Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. The Tigers won 3-0 over the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park in Detroit.

"I started walking off the field after the 28th out," Joyce said (note his term). "I knew then."

Galarraga, once again, didn't say a word, however. 

He simply accepted a hug and some whispered words from Avila, before finishing the hand-shake line, trying to take solace in what would be the first of two complete games he would throw in his six-year major-league career, and his only shutout.

"I just told him I was proud of him," Avila said. "Battling back and forth for that rotation spot, we all knew how hard he was working. I just told him I was proud of him, a great game, and that he did it."

The game was over, but the real story, for all intents and purposes, was just beginning.

Joyce worked his way back to the umpires' locker room and Jim Schmakel, the Tigers' longtime clubhouse manager, already had a TV there, and the replay cued up ready to go. He told Joyce — "in a very respectful way," Joyce recalled — he could hit the button whenever he wanted, and Joyce wasted no time. It took one viewing to confirm what so many already knew.

He blew it, and he'd have to live with it.

The big MLB news of the day had been the retirement of future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. Not anymore. A storm was coming — and a savior.

Quiet moments

While Galarraga was still smiling during his post-game interview with FSD's Trevor Thompson, even after Thompson told him the call was blown, Joyce was an emotional wreck in the umpires' clubhouse. All the while, dozens of reporters — only a small segment had been assigned to cover a rather-benign weeknight game; others descended in the late innings as bosses in the later innings started frantically ordering backup — were gathering outside. MLB protocols called for one media member, or a designated "pool reporter," to ask questions of umpires when pertinent. The crew chief, Derryl Cousins, told the reporters as much.

But Joyce interjected.

"Let them in," he said.

Distraught umpire Jim Joyce reacts as he speaks to reporters before the start of the San Diego Padres against the Philadelphia Phillies baseball game Friday, June 4, 2010, in Philadelphia. On Wednesday night, Joyce got the call wrong on what would have been the final out of Detroit Tigers' Armando Galarraga's perfect game at Detroit's Comerica Park.

Cousins complied, and Joyce proceeded to spill his guts — and uttered the now-famous line: "I kicked the sh-- out of it. And I took a perfect game away from that kid who worked his a-- off all night."

That was the first step in the healing process. Joyce, now 64, didn't hide. He spoke from the heart, spoke with remorse — he freaking spoke, the main point here.

The second step came quickly, from the Tigers.

As a team, they quickly gathered in the locker room to watch replays on a big-screen TV, and all of them stood, in stunned silence. There was anger still, to be sure, but then Galarraga finally made his way into the locker room for another round of press, this time with the entire media contingent. And his demeanor hadn't changed, even after he saw the replays with his own eyes.

The rest of the Tigers took their cue for him: If he's not throwing a fit, then we can't either.

They then proceeded to shower Galarraga with beers.

Down the hall, there still were tears.

First, Leyland went to visit Joyce. The story has been told that Leyland brought Joyce a beer and a cigarette, but that didn't really happen. Leyland said, "Let's have a beer and a cigarette." Joyce skipped the beer, but had a Winston Light, while Leyland puffed on a Marlboro Red. Then Jeff Jones, the Tigers' bullpen coach and a former teammate of Joyce's at Bowling Green, came in. Then Dombrowski, too. That's when Joyce asked Dombrowski if he could speak with Galarraga.

Dombrowski went back down the hall and asked Galarraga, who was immediately receptive.

The two men met, Joyce said, "lo siento" (I'm sorry), and Galarraga patted him on the back.

"It wasn't very long," Joyce said. "I couldn't talk."

"I see him completely destroyed," Galarraga said. "He feels really bad."

Joyce, to this day, doesn't remember how long he sat in his locker room after the game. The rest of the umpiring crew, including Marvin Hudson and Jim Wolf, were showered and dressed and ready to get on with their night, and waiting for Joyce — but he told them to go ahead. Eventually, Joyce was ready to go home, or back to Toledo, where his mom lived, and where he stayed when he did games in Detroit. Schmakel offered to drive him home, and Joyce said no. Schmakel offered a second time, but Joyce said no.

The Tigers did have security escort Joyce to his car, and he made the 45-minute drive south on Interstate 75. Almost the entire drive, he spoke to wife Kay, who asked if he was OK — "No, I am not OK" — and told him to stay off social media. He also had a brief call with longtime umpire Joe West, who also asked if he was OK; the answer hadn't changed.

He arrived back in Toledo and walked through his mom's door just as the evening news was coming on. His mom, then in her 80s and battling early signs of dementia, didn't grasp what had happened, so Joyce explained and they watched the news.

"Then she just said, 'OK, I'm going to bed,'" Joyce said.

Joyce never went to bed. He tried to lay down, but that futile effort lasted about barely a half-hour. He eventually paced the dining and living rooms into the wee hours, smoking every Winston Light in sight.

"At the time, I was a smoker," said Joyce, who quit more than a year ago. "That night, was a very heavy smoker."

Meanwhile, a little more than a hour north, in Royal Oak, Galarraga finally was back home, and quite exhausted. He frequently was seen at Royal Oak bars and restaurants, but not that night. He didn't particularly feel like being around crowds.

So Galarraga and his wife at the time simply drove over to Sonic, where he sat in the parking lot devouring a burger and fries.

Two men, about to forever linked in history, had their own quiet moments, and their own internal thoughts, one coping, one celebrating, both contemplating.

Good thing for Joyce, who never did sleep, the next game was a day game. So he got an early start, arriving back at Comerica Park more than two hours before first pitch for the series finale. He was scheduled to be behind the plate that day, an unfortunately visible assignment the day after the call. Galarraga, of course, was technically off that day, but ended up being on his game again — the previous night's game already was a big, big story, and the eyes of the nation were tuning in to see the fallout.

There was none. There was just forgiveness and empathy.

"You're proud of the way it was handled," Dombrowski said. "Tremendous. It was tremendous."

Umpire Jim Joyce shakes hands with Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga after his blown call in the ninth inning cost the pitcher a perfect game the night before. Galarraga brought out the lineup card the following day.

A meeting at home

It was Gene Lamont's idea. Leyland and Lamont, his longtime friend and coach, stayed up late that Wednesday talking things over, and Leyland knew the Tigers had to come up with a plan to try and continue diffusing the situation. Thursday's fans were going to be angry.

So Lamont suggested Galarraga take out that day's lineup card to Joyce.

Galarraga didn't know about it, until shortly before it happened. Still happy-go-lucky, he was receptive. Joyce didn't know about it either, until Galarraga emerged from the dugout steps. Leyland planned it all out. He knew the moment Joyce started emerging from the tunnel behind home plate, the boos were going to come, loud and heavy. So Leyland told Galarraga he wanted him emerging from the dugout at the same time, to turn the boos into cheers. The plan worked to near-perfection.

"We were a little concerned," Leyland said. "I thought that really diffused the situation."

"Jim Leyland," said Galarraga, "he explained it really well."

"That's one of James Leyland's greatest PR moves in doing that," said Joyce, who was shown on live TV, in tears, giving Galarraga a hard pat on the back after the exchange. "My peripheral vision, when I saw that, that's all I needed. I couldn't talk. 

"Somebody said, 'Did you read the lineup card?' I couldn't. I couldn't see."

That moment has been cited over and over through the years as a prime example of sportsmanship, of goodwill, of humanity.

The healing could begin, not that it did right away for Joyce. His next assignment was four games in Philadelphia, and in that series finale, he found himself behind the plate as Cole Hamels, would you believe it, was working on a no-hitter. Hamels took it into the seventh inning and got the first out, before he gave up back-to-back home runs.

Joyce was actually relieved.

He said he never felt normal for the rest of that season, and even part of the next season, which was interrupted as he dealt with an ACL injury.

"I had to struggle with it every day," Joyce said. "The ballpark reminded me of it, my job reminded me of it." 

He even thought of retiring, though never seriously considered it — before finally hanging it up prior to the 2017 season. Every news story of the announcement, predictably, led with the Galarraga game, a rare instance where an umpire is forever remembered for a singular moment, like Don Denkinger in the 1985 World Series, or Rich Garcia and the Jeffrey Maier play in the 1996 American League Championship Series.

Joyce, who now lives in Oregon, has grown to accept his legacy, and hasn't turned down a single interview over the last month as the 10-year anniversary approached, and doesn't plan to for the 20-year, God willing.

For Galarraga, now 38, his last full season in the majors was 2010. He pitched briefly the next two years, first with Arizona, then Houston, before officially retiring in late in 2015. He lives in Texas, where he's a youth pitching instructor. He also has granted practically every interview inquiry.

Galarraga, of course, came out on the better end of the whole situation, starting with that very next day, June 3, when Mark Reuss, now president of General Motors, presented Galarraga with the keys to a new Corvette in an on-field ceremony. That wasn't Galarraga's actual car. Reuss gave Galarraga his cell number and told him to call him when he wanted to go to the factory and pick out a personal model. After that day's game, the Tigers flew to Kansas City. On the flight, the Tigers' resident car guy, Verlander, talked Galarraga's ear off about what model to get. Verlander, of course, recommended the most expensive.

After the trip to Kansas City, the Tigers went to Chicago, before arriving home late Thursday, June 10. The next morning, Galarraga was on the phone with Reuss, and soon was driving to the factory. He inquired about the preferred Verlander model, the ZR1, with a sticker price of $109,530, and wanted in gray. GM gladly obliged, Galarraga paid the taxes, drove off, and still has the car today.

"It was crazy," Galarraga said.

Avila, by the way, got an inscribed Rolex from Galarraga, and he still wears that today.

Galarraga and Joyce went on to appear together at the ESPYs in July 2010 in Los Angeles, presenting the "Best Moment" award (to soccer star Landon Donovan), and the two men co-authored a book together, "Nobody's Perfect," which came out in 2011 and has a near-perfect star rating on Amazon. They were featured in a Fox Sports 1 documentary in 2019.

And here they are again, all these years later, reliving an unforgettable moment that — both have come to accept it, even if Joyce wishes it never would've happened.

"For Armando, it's great," Joyce said, laughing. "For me, it's not great. But it's not bad."

Armando Galarraga shakes hands with General Motors executive Mark Reuss after Reuss presented the Tigers pitcher with a brand new Chevrolet Corvette, a gift and consolation prize for his "excellence on the field and his professionalism and sportsmanship" after a blown call denied him a perfect game.

'This is history'

Galarraga made headlines recently when, in an article by The Athletic, he was quoted as having said he would like to see the call overturned someday, seemingly suggesting he would lobby MLB in some way, maybe with a letter. The story was picked up by outlets across the country, and in Galarraga's homeland of Venezuela. Galarraga, though, said that's not what he meant, there will be no letter, but he takes sole responsibility for how his words were interpreted.

Clarifying to The News, Galarraga said, if MLB does decide to one day do it, "Give it to me when I'm alive."

That won't happen, of course.

MLB never considered changing the call back when it happened — the Tigers inquired immediately after the game, though Dombrowski said he didn't make that call; Joyce brought up the possibility to an MLB official the following day, and it wasn't just shot down, it wasn't even acknowledged — and certainly won't now, even though a recent Twitter poll by The Detroit News, receiving 1,461 votes, showed 64% of fans want to see the call overturned, to 36 opposed.

If you change one call, though, where do you draw the line? The precedent is dangerous, and therefore, really, a nonstarter.

Instead, the call will go down as one of the examples MLB used in arguing for expanded replay, which went into effect in 2014.

The only way the call could've been fixed, most in baseball agree, is if Joyce had ruled that Galarraga pulled his foot off the bag. Then, a conference could've taken place with the plate umpire, Hudson. 

"We've had that changed before," Leyland said.

It actually happened the following June at Comerica Park, when Andy Dirks was ruled safe. Eventually, umpires conferred, and the call was overturned, incensing Leyland (and making for a dandy YouTube clip).

But that wasn't Joyce's call here. He didn't rule Galarraga's foot was off the bag.

He simply missed it.

And, amazingly, Galarraga simply smiled — as if he knew right then what he knows now.

"I get more famous because of the game the way it happened, the way me and Jim Joyce handled it," said Galarraga, who technically did something more rare than a perfect game — as one of only 13 men to lose one with two out in the ninth inning (joining former Tigers Tommy Bridges, 1932, and Milt Wilcox, 1983, as well as the most recent to do it, Scherzer with the Nationals, in 2015).

"I don't change anything. This is history."


Twitter: @tonypaul1984