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A Leadership Lesson from Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce and an Imperfect Game

June 4, 2010
To err is umpire. To forgive is divine.

I have always hated umpires…at least, hated umpires that I didn’t agree with.  The rest I tolerated, but only temporarily.  I remember being on the Little League field and staring open- (and foul-) mouthed at the umpire who dared to call me out.  I frequently found myself asking the high school basketball ref, “How is that a foul?” after he blew his whistle at me.  Plus, I’m a self-admitting “homer” that “root, root, roots!” for the home team: the Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics.  And as a true Boston sports fan, I don’t discriminate against umps, refs, and officials – I dislike them all!  They’re all blind and being paid under the table by the opposing team when we lose (something that would never happen with my team – we only win fair and square, of course).

As I have matured, I have toned down my sentiment toward umpires from ‘hatred’ to ‘frustration.’ This frustration stems mostly from what I see as ineptitude, incompetence, or just confusion during games.  It seems to have actually escalated again in recent years – that is, the perception of umpire/referee ineptitude has become more prevalent and newsworthy (at what point can I call it “official official incompetence?”).  I know I’m not alone in this – conspiracy theorists and rational humans alike believe that NBA referees “have issues with consistency,” to put it nicely (or bluntly).

Recent news, especially in professional baseball, has focused on the incompetence of officials and they have become the story (never a good thing!).  Such stories include Joe West’s comments on the length of Red Sox/Yankees games, battles between managers, players, and umps, and now most famously, “The Perfect Game That Wasn’t.”


I didn’t see the game in question Wednesday night, but I heard and read about it yesterday morning: A Detroit Tigers pitcher lost a shot at a perfect game (no baserunners) when an ump made a glaringly bad call on what should have been the last out.  It wasn’t the first time an ump blew a call, nor will it be the last, but general consensus is that it’s the first time a bad call ruined a perfect game on the should-have-been-last batter.

Even more newsworthy is the response from both the ump, Jim Joyce, and the pitcher, Armando Galarraga.  Maybe even the manager, teams, and fans.  Okay, maybe not the fans.  The play in question involved Galarraga directly – covering first base and catching the ball right in front of the ump, only to have his celebration cut short at the call of “Safe!”  I would have been in the ump’s face shouting “Are you kidding me!?” right away.  Apparently that was the immediate response of the other players, coaches, and many fans.  And who can blame them?  The ump ruined the kid’s shot at history!

But there’s a catch with the possibility of a happy ending.  Everyone showed some amazing leadership qualities.  Galarraga, the man with the most to lose in that situation, had an immediate response of a wry smile and a “back to work, get the next guy” attitude.  Even later, when I’m sure the gravity of the situation sunk in, his response was more dreary than angry.  “You don’t see an umpire after the game come out and say, ‘Hey, let me tell you I’m sorry,’ ” Galarraga said. “He felt really bad. He didn’t even shower.”  Galarraga might have already forgiven the mistake!

The ump held himself accountable, to the point of tears, and even an apology before the night was over.  “It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the [stuff] out of it,” Joyce said, looking and sounding distraught as he paced in the umpires’ locker room. “I just cost that kid a perfect game.” But he got a hug from the pitcher!  Players don’t hug umpires!  Cats and dogs don’t get along!

The manager, a man known for his fiery, dirt-kicking response to calls with which he disagrees (flashback to my Little League years), was livid in the moment but lucid and even reasonable later.  “The players are human, the umpires are human, the managers are human,” Leyland said.  Sounds like a great lesson from a Hall-of-Fame coach. Marshall Goldsmith would be proud,

So what can we learn from this?  Yes, people are human, they make mistakes…but the next step is crucial.  Leaders own up to those mistakes.  Leaders forgive the mistaken.

But the NBA refs still have a long way to go before I compare them to Jim Joyce.  Go Celtics!

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