June 11, 2010

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Pitcher’s sportsmanship embodies the wisdom and virtue of late Coach Wooden

It’s hard to say how important June 2, 2010, will be in the history of Major League Baseball.

But in the history of how public sports figures can have a positive influence on our society, it should become a day to be remembered for years to come.

On that day, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from baseball immortality: pitching only the 21st perfect game—allowing no hits and no walks, and no batter allowed on base because of a fielding error—in the history of Major League Baseball. Then Cleveland Indian shortstop Jason Donald hit a ground ball to the right side of the infield.

Tiger first baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded the ball then tossed it to Galarraga who ran to cover the base. He caught the ball and tagged the base about a step before David reached it. Perfect game, right? Wrong. Umpire Jim Joyce called David safe.

As soon as Galarraga caught the ball and tagged the base, he started to raise his arms in celebration of his great achievement. At the same time, he turned to look at Joyce to see his call. When he saw the umpire motion that David was safe, his arms dropped.

And then an amazing thing, a good thing, happened. Galarraga just stood there and smiled. He didn’t scream at the top of his lungs, and get in Joyce’s face like baseball players and managers often do when they dispute an umpire’s call. He just smiled.

After the game, Galarraga saw a replay of the disputed play, which clearly showed that he tagged the base before David did.

In comments to the press, Galarraga continued the goodness that he had shown on the field. He didn’t lash out at Joyce or bemoan the fact that a perfect game was stolen from him. Galarraga calmly and charitably said that he understood that everyone makes mistakes and that no one is perfect.

So Galarraga won’t go down on that short list of pitchers to have completed a perfect game. But, in some respects, that game on June 2 was more perfect because of the character that Galarraga showed in the face of a bitter disappointment. We should value his display of virtue more than a pitcher retiring all 27 consecutive batters.

That’s because this 27-year-old pitcher from Venezuela may very well have taught countless baseball fans across the country, especially young ones, what it really means to be a good, virtuous person—on the field and off.

In a time when sportsmanship often takes third place behind money and fame, Armando Galarraga reminded us at the end of his truly perfect game that character and virtue are far more important than those two fleeting and illusory attractions that this world has to offer.

Two days after Galarraga became such a good role model, another iconic and virtuous sports figure died: legendary Hoosier basketball player and coach John Wooden.

Although he coached 10 national championship basketball teams at the University of California, Los Angeles, Wooden, who died on June 4 at age 99, may be equally known for the wisdom, and ultimately good Christian principles, that served as the foundation for his coaching excellence.

Now Armando Galarraga had not been a standout pitcher before June 2. And he may never come close to pitching another perfect game. But he certainly embodied the wisdom and virtue that Wooden expressed in one of his many proverbs:

“Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”

From what we all saw on June 2, Armando Galarraga has not yet given himself conceit.

Oh, and for you parents out there who are striving to live out your vocation according to the values of the Gospel and to pass those values on successfully to your children, consider the following Wooden saying. Replace the word “coach” with “parent” and the saying still rings true:

“A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter and columnist for The Criterion.)

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