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Nobody’s Perfect

June 9, 2010

Last week the sporting world and more than a few people who pay no mind to sports whatsoever witnessed something extraordinary. Pitching with two outs in the ninth inning, Armando Galarraga of the Detriot Tigers was facing Cleveland Indians’ shortstop Jason Donald when the hitter stroked a ground ball into the gap between first and second base.  First baseman Miguel Cabrera played it cleanly and tossed it back to Galarraga who covering first toed the bag for what seemed a clear put out.

As Galarraga squeezed the ball tightly in his glove and looked over smiling to umpire Jim Joyce he saw his dreams of a perfect game — only the 21st in major league history and the first for his storied franchise — evaporate as Donald was called safe. Shock and sadness turned to anger and dismay as nearly everyone watching in the stands and on television saw the sequence replayed over and over again. Each time with the same result: Donald was out by at least half a step. Nevertheless, the call stood. A token protest from Detriot Manager Jim Leyland and repeated pleas from Cabrera notwithstanding it was the perfect game that was but never would be.

After the game, Jim Joyce himself reviewed the videotape and concluded as everyone else had that he had erred in calling Donald safe. Rather than letting it end there, though, he did something extraordinary, for baseball at least, and all too sadly rare in life as well, he admitted his mistake. He not only apologized to Galarraga personally but also released a statement through Major League Baseball  indicating his regret and calling it the worst call of his career.

In the end, Galarraga was robbed of the statistical claim to completing a perfect game. Instead he got something even rarer: A chance to restore faith in baseball’s overpriced players and confidence in the human capacity for forgiveness. Still smiling, he accepted Joyce’s apology, and was said to have responded, “Nobody’s perfect.” Combined with his stellar performance, he assured himself a place in the Hall Baseball of Fame at Cooperstown, if not in the record books.

Something about Joyce’s admission, if not Galarraga’s grace in forgiving him, must have been contagious because only this week we saw another amazing mea culpa. Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, resigned with immediate effect Monday after hurtful remarks she made in a private conversation with a rabbi visiting the White House surfaced over the weekend and quickly reached a crescendo.

Thomas, a veritable Washington, DC institution in her own right, served as a White House correspondent since the Kennedy Administration. Her caustic demeanor is well known inside the Beltway if not so much beyond it.  But she was largely seen to have earned the right to her opinions because of her tenure and the tenacity it took to reach that point in what was long a male-dominated domain.

In the few minutes between the blown call and his apology, baseball commentators remarked on Jim Joyce’s standing as a veteran of 29 years umpiring the big leagues, including several coveted playoff and World Series assignments. They made it clear that his tenure and experience were all the more reason why he should have got his call right in the first place.

Less than a week later, the controversy surrounding Jim Joyce’s bad call has largely dissipated though. Sure, people are still trying to use it to promote their arguments for video replay reviews of umpiring decisions, but no one seems inclined to make Joyce a scapegoat anymore largely because of the way he and Galarraga handled themselves and the incident. But this outcome also seems to hinge on the fact that the result of their actions left us with something better than a perfect game.

Thomas accepted responsibility for her remarks, but nothing she said or did will change the fact that no good will come of this incident, least of all a resolution to end the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was the subject of her remarks. Unlike the baseball game, which was nationally televised, recorded and replayed by mainstream media, the video used to out Ms. Thomas was recorded privately and circulated virally on the Internet leaving people of the opinion that had she not been forced to account for her remarks, they might have remained unchallenged as well as unchanged.

Thomas’s defenders cite her age as well as her heritage as explanations for her behavior. But in contrast to Jim Joyce, who many observers admitted must have seen something that tipped his call the other way, nobody seemed all that inclined to defend her remarks beyond saying they understood where she was coming from and felt she might deserve some slack because of her age, which is just shy of 90.

All of this may or may not strike you as interesting, particularly in respect of homeland security. But I think otherwise. For starters, trust and accountability are as much a part of the Deepwater Horizon narrative as they are a part of these stories. What’s missing though is the sense that anybody has learned anything from the mistakes underlying that disaster. Likewise, they are starting to wonder whether the willingness of BP and the White House to accept responsibility is producing tangible much less beneficial results.

Like these affairs, the images of failure keep coming at us non-stop. The replay of the sickening results of the oil spill and repeated failures to stop it or to make much progress cleaning it up leave us wondering whether those responsible are incompetent or simply out-gunned.

This makes the failure to acknowledge the real mistakes underlying the catastrophe all the more obvious and unsettling. No one from BP or the federal government has stepped up to the plate to say that the decision to drill at such depths was a bad call. (And that may be true even if off-shore drilling itself remains the only viable way of meeting our short-term energy needs while weaning ourselves off foreign sources of supply.) Sacking the Minerals Management Service administrator and imposing a moratorium on off-shore drilling communicates immediacy but instills no sense or urgency to develop demand for better options. And no one who has been willing to step up has earned the right to claim any benefit of the doubt much less respect for their past performances.

This leaves us watching as those who want to help are left wondering why no one will let them. Which begs the question often asked by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate (which I paraphrase here for the sake of clarity): ‘When we will stop treating those affected by disasters as victims instead of resources?’

Like the fans and policy wonks watching the other stories competing for air-time this past week, we all know what we saw (and that remains true even if we can’t see what’s really happening). When will someone acknowledge and act upon those reactions? Expressing anger may give voice to our frustrations, but it does not do much to make things better.

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