The Imperfect Game

The Imperfect Game

Kol Nidre Sermon, 5771/2010

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

I dedicate this sermon to Moe Fox, zichrono livracha, a member of this congregation who died at the age of 90 just 6 months short of his 70th anniversary with his beloved wife, Helen. He was a baseball lover and devoted Jew.

Some of the great religious traditions of the world have a notion of perfection attainable by human beings. Human perfection in a religious sense is the capacity of a person to reach a very high state of consciousness or to fully realize the saving power of a deity. In Buddhism there is nirvana in which the adherent has freed his mind of illusion and has released himself from the cycle of rebirth. In Christianity a believer can attain salvation by accepting in her heart certain fundamental beliefs. What does Judaism say about the perfection of the human being?

Judaism’s insight about perfection can be seen in its sister religion, baseball.

A few weeks before Moe died, a pitcher from the Detroit Tigers, Armando Gallarga, came ever so close to the 21st perfect game in major league baseball history. A perfect game is when a pitcher pitches a victory that lasts a minimum of nine innings and in which no opposing player reaches base. Thus, the pitcher cannot allow any hits, walks, hit batsmen, or any opposing player to reach base safely for any other reason—in short, “27 up, 27 down”.

By definition, a perfect game is both a no-hitter and a shutout. Since the pitcher cannot control whether or not his teammates commit any errors, the pitcher must be backed up by solid fielding to pitch a perfect game. (Wikipedia article on “Pefect Game”.)

Gallaraga was on the verge of a perfect game. He had retired 26 straight batters. Then Cleveland’s last hitter in the ninth inning, Jason Donald, hit a grounder to Detroit’s first-baseman. The first baseman tossed the ball to Galarraga covering 1st base, who had beaten Donald in a routine race to the bag. Galarraga began to celebrate but was stopped in his tracks when he realized that the Umpire, Jim Joyce, had called Donald safe.

Everyone else in the ballpark knew and the instant replays showed that the umpire had completely botched the call. There was uproar at the park and a national uproar after the game for several days. Meanwhile, after the call, the pitcher, Gallaraga, calmly returned to the mound without complaint and retired the next batter to finish the game. He did not challenge the ruling of the umpire. A few hours later in another rarity in baseball, the umpire apologized to the pitcher for making an errant call and deprived him of a perfect game. The pitcher graciously accepted his apology without whining or starting a campaign to reverse the call. He demonstrated another rarity in today’s era of narcissistic sports personalities: sportsmanship and grace.

Ultimately the commissioner of Baseball despite intense pressure and popular sentiment to reverse the umpire’s call, refused to do so out of a sense of tradition that umpire’s calls, even if errant, are not reversed.

So perfection was lost. 

There is something about baseball and what it reveals about the nature of judgments and justice. 

One commentator offered this perceptive observation:  “Sure, unjust officiating is evident in all sports, but not the way it is in baseball. For one thing, baseball offers unrivaled opportunity for injustice. Judgment calls pervade the sport. An umpire passes binary judgment — ball or strike — on every pitch that isn’t swung at. And without these judgments, the pitches have no meaning. In baseball, official judgments mediate your moment-by-moment perception of the game, defining success and failure. In baseball, the big calls take place at center stage — not just when a pitch crosses home plate, but when a line drive lands right on the foul line, when a pitcher balks or when a runner barely beats a tag at second. Everyone in the ballpark is watching.” (Robert Wright, 6/8/10 NY Times)

Imagine the moment when the 27th batter, Jason Donald, hit the ball to first base and scurries down the base path as the pitcher converges with him at first base.   The umpire’s makes a judgment call on a close play at first base,  the fans in the seats are riveted on the action, the players on both teams look on in tense expectation.  With the call comes screams of astonishment and howls of execration.   The umpire botched the call and destroyed the perfect game. 

Baseball teaches us that life isn’t fair.. People make imperfect judgments. We make them about people in our lives and others make them about us. The judgments seem unfair, especially when we feel that we are a victim to them. Imagine you lose a job because of an unfair evaluation. Think about a time when you were unfairly criticized by a loved one.  Reflect on a time when your own unfair negative judgment impacted another person.

Baseball teaches that even trained umpires are liable to faulty judgment. And so it is with us. Life is filled with many little and some big injustices. Now listen how Judaism parallels the truths of baseball. 

The commissioner’s decision not to reverse the botched call and give Gallaraga a Perfect Game may also give us some insight about how God acts toward us in this world. God does not swoop down and reverse the injustices that take place in our lives. Judaism teaches that God saves His interventions for the most consequential of moments. That is what we celebrate on Pesah-that special intervention when God came down and reversed the call. Our tradition preserves the hope, but urges us not to depend on the illusory expectation of God intervening whenever we have tzuris. God is most interested in how we handle what happens to us, how we respond, how we gain wisdom about it.

So the other lesson from the botched perfect game is the question of how we deal with the imperfections that we experience. Both the pitcher and the umpire displayed exemplary behavior in a remarkably vulnerable and stressful situation. The pitcher, Gallaraga, exemplified the teaching in Pirkei Avot. “Azehu Gibbor-Hakovesh et Yitzro-Who is heroic-a person who conquers his impulses.” The pitcher did not blow up in a volcano of anger or whine to the press about the unfairness of it all. He accepted the decision of the umpire with equanimity, dignity, decency. This was the epitome of sportsmanship and what we call mentshlishkeit.

As for the umpire, we learn the power of Teshuvah, of repentance. The first step in making teshuvah is to acknowledge the truth, especially the truth about ourselves and our actions. Pirkei Avot also describes this quality of wisdom-A wise person- Modeh al Ha’emet-admits the truth. The umpire apologized to the pitcher for the botched call. He admitted his mistake not only to the players but to the entire nation that was captivated by this unique and confounding outcome.

What was their reward? The game was not reversed.  The pitcher did not make the record books. The commissioner did not intervene. The fans remained enraged. It is an unlikely statistical chance that Gallaraga will ever pitch a game like this again. This is life.

But our tradition teaches that what we do in the face of imperfection is what defines us. That is why Judaism places little or no emphasis on states like Nirvana or Salvation.   God wants us to engage in mitzvot, make efforts for teshuvah, seek to live with self-control, and strive to be a mentsch.  God does not expect us to be perfect; rather God desires that we work hard to improve our imperfections.  Our tradition appoints a time every year when we need to engage in moral and spiritual fine tuning, what we call the Days of Awe. Every year we try to throw our perfect game and every year we make botched calls, that of others or our own. How we use this holy time to respond makes all the difference.

The irony of the botched perfect game is that it is likely to be remembered as much or even more than the other 20 perfect games.  We will remember the graciousness and dignity of the player, the true remorse of the umpire, and the unique circumstances of this perfectly imperfect game.  One of the themes of these Days of Awe is that God remembers. God remembers the botched calls of our lives and looks to see how we respond.  The ball now is in our breast beating hands.  Play ball!

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