Conflict Resolution

Perfect Game Pitcher: "Nobody's Perfect"

Even those who find American baseball deadly dull will acknowledge the grip the sport has had on the American imagination.  Its impact on the American language alone is beyond cavil, and students of the sport have been moved to profound philosophical observations.  Now it has contributed to our understanding of conflict management.

“Baseball is like church,” said Dodger manager Leo “the Lip” Durocher, “many attend,  few understand.”  “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” Yogi Berra is alleged to have said, along with smackers that capture the core truth of the entertainment industry: “If people don’t want to come to a ball game, you can’t stop ’em” and “That restaurant is so crowded nobody goes there any more.”

(These Yogi-isms have entered American myth, but are impossible to prove.  As he himself protested,  “I didn’t really say everything I said.”  Yogi lives in my town of Montclair, New Jersey, and his directions to get to his house are absolutely accurate:  “Go along Edgewood Road, and when you come to a fork in the road, you take it.”)

More to the point of this essay is Bart Giamatti‘s famous warning:  “Baseball breaks your heart.  It’s designed to break your heart.”  And it has done it again.

Young Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers pitched a perfect game the other day — 27 batters, three per inning for all nine innings, and got out every one.  This feat had been accomplished only 18 times in baseball history until this year.  The 27th batter boinked a grounder to the infield; the first-baseman grabbed it and Galarraga himself ran over to first base, caught the ball a full stride before the runner with his own foot on the base and jumped in ecstasy….

Until he saw that the umpire called the runner safe.  The man was now on base, the perfect game would not be had, and history had blown a kiss and fled.

A moment of incredulity paralyzed the kid, and then… he smiled.

As you see in the clip above, the kid smiled as only someone about to get hit by a truck could smile.  His fate was known, his joy was gone, and it was time to live with the memory of what had happened — he was reconciled to the fact that he would never have the thing he deserved.

So blatant was the umpire’s mistake that even he knew it.  Within minutes of the game’s ending he went to the Tiger’s locker room and personally apologized to Galarraga.

Now, baseball is surely the most over-regulated game imaginable.  Every play is called safe or out.  Every pitch to every batter is adjudicated either within or outside the hittable zone.  Every hit ball is declared fair or foul.  And while all players are demerited with “errors” for their mistakes, the umpires never are.

It would be entirely understandable to appeal this game to the Baseball Commissioner.  To condemn the umpire at fault.  To insist on instant replays of close (or in this case not-so-close) plays.  To “get it right.”  It would certainly be understandable if fists and spit flew; it has happened before.

But that’s not what happened this time.  When he was interviewed after the game, Galarraga said he knew the umpire was a veteran, was doing his best, and had made a mistake.  “Nobody’s perfect,” said the perfect-game pitcher. 

And at the start of the next day’s game, Detroit’s manager didn’t go out to hand the line-up card to the umpire, as is customary.  He sent Galarraga.  The pitcher gave the ump the card and shook his hand, and the ump wept.  “Play ball” went the shout, and Major League Baseball moved on.

There are at least two hard truths nestled in all this sentiment, from the perspective of a problem-solver and a conflict manager.  One is that it’s better when you recognize, early on, when things are out of your hands and beyond your control.  Whether they are fair is an independent consideration: if they are beyond correction, then rational  options are narrow and should be accepted as being narrow.

The second is a saying even older than Bart, Yogi and Leo the Lip.  American notions of justice and the assurances of vindication notwithstanding,

“the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise… but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  Ecclesiastes 9:11

  1. Peter,

    Great piece. I had a little fun with the last big decision error in baseball during the American League playoffs in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review last fall. In what ESPN dubbed “the worst umpiring performance at an Angels game since Leslie Nielsen in “The Naked Gun”, Tim McClelland’s missed calls sparked the fire for instant replay then too.

    You’re right. We all make mistakes, including in negotiations. Instant replay may mitigate errors in baseball and there are deliberate steps negotiators can take to debias their own cognitive errors. More about that soon.



  2. One of the things that is interesting about baseball is that we keep track of so many kinds of statistics, many of which have no effect on the game whatsoever. It shows you how much we value individual, historical achievements, and that the question of which team wins or loses is usually secondary to our appreciation of the game. This umpire’s bad call, for example, affects only the record books, by keeping a deserving pitcher out of the very small company of pitchers who have pitched a perfect game. But it had no effect on the outcome of the game. And there are lots of other deserving pitchers who have been kept out of the record books due to factors totally beyond their control, such as whether one of their teammates makes a play or not. We have to value the role that human error and that luck plays in every game of baseball. I don’t think it would be good for baseball if we installed an electronic strike zone, even though it might be more accurate than the umpire’s calls.

    What I especially like about this story is how Galarraga went out of his way to let the umpires know that he accepts the fact that they make mistakes. Every player knows that is just part of the game, just as they accept the elements of chance that might make the difference between a home run ball and a foul ball.

    It goes almost without saying that this post has everything to do with mediation, and I’m sure I’ll find a way to use this story in that context somehow.

  3. Peter,
    What a great example of how the parties in a dispute have so much more influence over the process and the outcome and the perceptions of others than it may first appear. In the moment, Jim Joyce’s mistake was unbelievably horrid and cruel. Yet, in the moment, Armando Galaraga’s response was so effective that the stage was set for healing even as Detroiot manager Jim Leyland and the Tigers protested in vain.

    I always say to folks with whom I work that the choices we make in the moment and in the seconds and minutes just after “the moment” have incredible power. Had I been in Galarraga’s position, I’m not sure I would have chosen the response he did. If there is anyone who deserved to react with anger it was Galarraga. Instead, he chose to smile. He chose to walk away confident that the one true thing about baseball is that it’s a game of errors, chance, and mistakes as much as it is a game of skill. His acknowledgment of our human condition (“We all make mistakes”) enabled the umpire to have a place from which to admit his mistake and apologize. And kudos to Jim Joyce for doing exactly that.

    Is is sad that a pitcher was denied a place among so very few who have thrown a perfect game? Absolutely. But I believe that Armando Galarraga’s achievement is even more memorable now.

    I hope I choose my responses more eloquently in the future. I am sure I’ll use this example frequently in my work with individuals, teams and organizations dealing with conflict. Thanks for a great piece Peter.

    All the best,


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