Thursday, June 03, 2010

Perfection in Detroit

Tigers baseball, for me, is a passion and a retreat. I freely acknowledge that I care too much, that it's just a game, and that in my love for a sport played by millionaire privateers, I'm being maniuplated by corporate sports interests who want my money. And yet, I'm fine with that. And I have the great fortune to be married to a woman who also loves baseball and her Tigers, who understands the little things about the game, and who wears her heart on her sleeve when it comes to being a fan.

Last night, from about the fourth inning on, we were riveted to the unfolding perfection of Armando Galarraga's gem. From the seventh inning on, we didn't leave the room, and by the ninth, we were standing in our own living room like we were back in our old seats at Comerica Park. Austin Jackson's catch to start the top of the ninth was greeted in our home much like the family of a condemned man would greet an 11:59 call from the governor.

The intial numb shock of the ruling at first base with two outs quickly gave way to disbelief, anger and then just a deep, deep sadness. The look on Galarraga's face -- a split second of sheer joy and elation in the moment when he knew -- KNEW -- he had completed a perfect game with the ball nestled perfectly in his own mitt, followed by the slack jaw and then the wry smile -- that look haunts me.

Yes, Galarraga was denied his place in the record books. But he was denied something even greater -- the moment of transcendence. Even if the league decides to overturn the call and say, "Perfect!" there is no way to wind back the clock and and allow Armando the long adulation he earned and deserved on that night.

Teresa and I were there -- yes, really, we were there, in Comerica Park -- the night Justin Verlander threw his glorious no-hitter. It was a slow-building crescendo of emotion through innings of growing possibility. Somewhere in the 4th: Hey, he's working on a no-no (you think but don't say). Somewhere in the 5th, or 6th: You realize almost everybody else around you realizes it too. Everyone is riveted on the action -- every batter, every pitch. There are no beach balls or irrelevant conversations with neighbors. The one oblivious lady who wants everyone to do the wave gets shouted down. There are no bathroom breaks; just raised eyebrows, knowing looks and a ridiculous overappreciation for every tiny step closer to immortality.

Somewhere in the 7th, you start calling loved ones asking, "Are you watching?"

The fans, the players, the umpires, we all know that we are witnessing an attempt at something historic. To be in the park is to be intimately part of the experience. The feeling builds over a couple hours, and it can be almost overwhelming. The beauty of that feeling is so acute because you are constantly hypersensitive to your own awareness that the feeling is ephemeral and could be destroyed in an instant by a bobble, an errant pitch, one swing of the bat. By the 8th inning, your heart almost aches.

When a bid for no-hit or perfect-game history reaches the 9th, it is impossible to be unaware of what is going on. It is the moment of truth and resolution. The denouement of the plot is imminent. And in the moment that the last out is achieved, the storm of emotion that has been brewing explodes like Beethoven's glorious 9th from the hearts and souls of the fans.

THIS is the emotion we seek. THIS is the payoff for all the long hours, days and years of disapointment. THIS is why you are willing to cry. Because every one in a great, great while, baseball's rhythms allow you these moments of transcendence. As the adulation pours forth, a player is able to bask in a moment that he knows, immediately, he has secured his place in history. (Yankee fans, with their smug sense of entitlement and completely undeserved good fortune, could not possibly comprehend the rarity of these moments.)

In the instant that Magglio Ordonez tucked away the last out of Verlander's no-hitter, that eruption enveloped the fans, the teams, and Verlander himself. The PA belted out the famous strains of the theme from "The Natural," and although, yes, it was a little bit schlocky, it was entirely appropriate. We cheered wildly, lustily, and without reservation. My wife and I embraced and our tears flowed with joy. After hours of building anticipation, it was sweet release.

Last night was historic, and yes, it's possible the call could be overturned and the record books could be corrected. Conceivably, Galarraga could yet be awarded his perfect game. But the tragedy of the day is that the world was robbed of that transcendent moment, for Tigers fans, for the teammates, and for Galarraga himself.

And in my mind, it is such a moment, moreso than the line in the record book, that motivates fans and players alike to love this game.