Coach John Wooden’s feat of ten national championships stretched from my seventh grade efforts to walk and chew gum at the same time well into graduate school. Many of those years through high school I played ball under a streetlight at the south dead end of Fifth Avenue in New Brighton, PA. In the winter we’d bring our snow shovels to clear the street, though the slick spots made a jump stop an amusing spectacle.
I grew to love and admire the UCLA Bruins and while marveling at their accomplishments I wondered how they managed to maintain such a high level of play over such an extended period of time. John Wooden was indeed a remarkable coach and teacher, but first he was a man of character…a fierce competitor but always under control. For someone I never met, he had a most profound influence on my life. My love of the game of basketball and my tendency to apply its lessons to most of life is probably his fault. He was a man of grace in victory or defeat, and I’ll always be grateful to him for his example. He died last Friday at age 99.
Some 48 hours before Coach Wooden’s passing, another drama was unfolding in Detroit that would bring me to the edge of tears, much as would the news of this great coach’s death.
The runner was out. The game was over. We all saw it. Over and over. From every angle. Out. Out. Out.
In what will likely be remembered as one of the most
unfair moments in sports history, the veteran umpire at first base called him
safe, snuffing out one of the rarest accomplishments in all of sports – the
perfect game. Armando Galarraga
was the victim, and while that is a word I rarely allow myself to use, if it is
to ever be used in the arena of sports, this would certainly be that
But it was not the blown call at first base that brought the
mist into my eyes, but the amazing grace displayed by Armando Galarraga in the
wake of a sudden, massive, and universally unfair disappointment. While the rest of us yelled and
screamed and possibly cursed the umpire, Galarraga smiled, kept his composure,
went back to the mound and got the final out. What a display of grace in a moment when he was robbed of a
place in baseball history not only by losing his bid for a perfect game, but
also losing out on several other firsts in the record books.
It didn’t end there. Being interviewed after the game by voracious reporters Armando smiled and said, “We’re human, we all make mistakes.” What? Are you kidding me? What kind of response is that when you have clearly been shafted with all of sports America witnessing and decrying the unfairness of the umpire’s call. And then there was umpire Jim Joyce who seeing the replay after the game sought out Galarraga to apologize for blowing the call and costing the young Venezuelan his place in baseball history.
The following day Joyce would draw home plate duties, and rather than one of the managers or coaches taking the starting lineup out to the home ump, Galarraga asked for the duty. Joyce once again apologized and when Galarraga gave him a respectful pat on the shoulder, the gracious umpire wiped his eyes, once again overwhelmed by the character displayed by this young competitor from South America, and gratefully returned the respectful gesture.
With the mess in the Gulf, in Washington, and on Wall Street it was good to be reminded of those who remain big when smallness is so prevalent.
Goodbye Coach Wooden.
Hello Armando Galarraga.
And thanks to you both.
PS. And to umpire Jim Joyce a grateful "Well done" also.