On Armando Galarraga, Brian Cushing, and Revising History

“Revisionism is not just one point of view; most broadly, it is the readiness to change your views. Historical interpretation is a work of the imagination, and the best history is bound to be revisionist.”

–Robert V. Daniels

What’s so bad about revising history?

It’s a question I first thought about a few weeks ago when the Associated Press football writers re-awarded Brian Cushing the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year a second time–even after Cushing was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. “Cushing won the award in January, and I don’t feel like we should revise history,” Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram said. “I am concerned about the precedent.”

This is how a lot of AP voters felt; they were more worried about setting a precedent of historical revisionism than about giving out the award properly. They couldn’t change the fact that Cushing won the award initially, and they feared all the doors such a decision would open for future changes.

I’m thinking about revisionist history again, of course, because of what happened last night in Detroit. Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game, except Jim Joyce made a bad call. Everyone knows this. It was the worst way a perfect game could end.* It was heartbreaking to watch. I was with a large group of experienced and some would say jaded baseball devotees, and we all audibly gasped. I’ve never felt worse after a Major League game that didn’t involve any rooting interest; if anything, I was rooting against Galarraga moments before, if only to prevent The Perfect Game from becoming a complete slut.

*I thought a while about the absoluteness of this statement, and I agree with it. A pitcher could get hit in the head to end a perfect game, but that would mean the ball was hit firmly (and it would probably have been a base hit anyway).

Now, there’s the debate whether Major League Baseball can go back and fix everything. Several baseball managers–including Tony LaRussa and Joe Girardi–have already said Bud Selig should overrule the call on the field and grant Galarraga a perfect game.

The reaction to this sentiment has been typical and predictable: You can’t change the past. That is, if I remember correctly, the lesson of The Great Gatsby after all.* But there’s a big distinction to be made here. Everyone knows you can’t change the past. What happened, happened.** But you can change history, or at least the capital-H History we study in school.

*Or is that “repeat the past”?

**I’m not even trying to make these Lost connections anymore.

History is open to interpretation, and interpretations change over time. This, in fact, is a good thing about History. Otherwise, we’d still think the Spanish blew up the Maine and the Chicago Tribune would have had to play out an alternate universe with President Dewey.  Why it would be wrong to “revise” History, especially after the revelation of new information, is nothing short of bewildering. Being a revisionist is only a problem when it’s aligned with anachronism or an unscrupulous ideological agenda–both, for instance, were in play during the Texas textbook deal earlier this year.

Changing last night’s ruling in Detroit is absent of such baggage. In fact, the best thing about it is that Armando Galarraga retired the next hitter, too, which means the outcome of the game was not altered by Joyce’s call. This, then, stands apart from other famous bad calls in baseball history. A lot of people in and around the game have talked about how changing Joyce’s call at first opens a Pandora’s box or a can of worms about changing all sorts of other calls.* It’s not like you can go back and change Don Denkinger’s infamous blown call from the ’85 Series; you can’t assume the Royals wouldn’t have come back anyway. You can’t give the Orioles Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS because the Yankees might have tied it anyway. Every other major missed call has this element of uncertainty. Galarraga’s doesn’t, though, because it was the last out. Even if it had happened one batter earlier, we could legitimately ask if Jason Donald’s approach as the 27th batter would have been different with the perfect game broken up, if the infield would have been positioned differently with a runner on first, etc. But since it was the last out, none of these things matter. Armando Galarraga retired all 27 batters in order. There is no anachronism, there is no agenda, there aren’t any negative ramifications from this single change.

*As far as clichés go, I’m a Pandora’s box guy. I mean, that’s all the evil in the world. A can of worms? Ehh, they’re not really getting away too fast. It’s a mild inconvenience.

The only thing at stake, then, is the game’s historical standing; that is, how it goes down in History. And Major League Baseball has already shown a willingness to alter aspects of its History, be excluding players from the Hall of Fame or retroactively changing the definition of a no-hitter in 1991 that erased 31 no-nos (and Harvey Haddix’s perfect game) from the books.*

*Seriously, can we give this back to Harvey? Dude pitched TWELVE perfect innings!

And it’s the same deal with Cushing. It was a different vote for the same award with new knowledge. To vote for him again because you did before is just like saying in 2004, “Well, I liked this Bush guy in 2000, so I guess I’m stuck with him now!” Enough of the context of Cushing’s vote changed that it was different. And saying “I voted for Julius Peppers similarly eight years ago” or “Jairus Byrd wasn’t very good” or “They’re all on steroids anyway” aren’t valid excuses. To say that this “opens all the doors” on awards* is ignorant of its specific context.

*And honestly, what’s the problem with this? They’re awards, not virginity; you can take them back. Don’t you think a bunch of voters wish they hadn’t voted Barry Bonds for MVP those last three times?

You may not be able to change the past, but there is always time to change History. You can do it, Bud (even though it looks like you already decided not to).

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on June 3, 2010 at 5:42 PM

    I definitely agree with pretty much everything you said. The resistance to overturning the call is really part of the same sentiment that resists Instant Replay in general. Basically, MLB treats umpires with a reverence that no other professional sport treats its officials with. In every other sport, instant replay has been embraced to some degree, but even after this, players have resisted the idea with stupid arguments based on “slippery slope” and “the human element.” This call is clearly wrong, and yet for some reason we are all bound to one man’s mistake (although, it’s worth noting that both Joyce and Galarrage handled this with such aplomb that it’s hard to really be upset with Joyce, and Galarraga’s reputation has only benefitted from this)? Fixing this call is not really Revisionism, it’s just correction.

    Oh, and the point of The Great Gatsby is: Be Yourself.

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on June 3, 2010 at 10:37 PM

      Right, I wrote about the acceptance of instant replay in Aught Lang Syne (https://npinopunintended.wordpress.com/2009/12/12/aught-lang-syne-trends-of-the-decade/). The idea that, since human error is inherent to the playing of the game, it should be inherent to the officiating of it is perplexingly entrenched in baseball’s Establishment. Think of how we would have responded if there were replay and it overruled Joyce last night: “Yeah, I guess they got it right, but I kinda liked the human element of him messing this whole thing up.”

      Further, I thought about writing, “It’s not revising history; it’s correcting it” before I remembered it was almost verbatim a line from “Thank You for Smoking.”

      Reply

  2. Posted by Wey on June 3, 2010 at 6:30 PM

    “Well, I liked this Bush guy in 2000, so I guess I’m stuck with him now!”

    Isn’t that incumbency in a nutshell?

    Reply

  3. Posted by Douglas on June 3, 2010 at 7:13 PM

    When you open a can of worms, they don’t “get away” at all….while the expression doesn’t properly convey it, to open a can of worms refers to the ill-advised, short-sighted tactic of using a can opener to remove the lid, thereby shredding the worms. This is the inconvenience, and it’s quite disgusting…but compared to Pandora’s box, I’d still imagine that it’s slightly preferable. Oh, and right on about that baseball stuff.

    Reply

  4. Posted by zeus on June 3, 2010 at 8:25 PM

    What if someone got 28 straight batters out, but the same thing had happened in the middle of a game or at the beginning?

    What if the 28th, 29th, and 30th batters had all gotten home runs?

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on June 3, 2010 at 10:25 PM

      In both those scenarios, there’s nothing you can do. As I said, if Mike Redmond is the beneficiary of that call in the ninth and Donald follows him, then Donald’s at-bat will play out differently than it would have otherwise (based on things such as defensive positioning, Galarraga from stretch, etc.). We don’t have to consider such things for Crowe’s ninth-inning at-bat, because if the call were made correctly, it never would have happened.

      And if Galarraga had given up back-to-back-to-back home runs to lose the game, the rest of the baseball season would have been cancelled due to heartbreak.

      Reply

  5. […] Continuing the sports theme, here’s Jack McCallum on the Dream Team reunion as they go into the Hall of Fame and Dana O’Neil (continuing her own strong summer) on the impact of Ali Farokhmenesh’s shot at Northern Iowa. The highs of both of those sporting events were perhaps countered by the low at Sunday’s PGA Championship, where Dustin Johnson was penalized on the 72nd hole due to a technicality. Golf.com’s roundtable discusses an event that has already been compared ad nauseam to Armando Galarraga’s imperfect perfect game. […]

    Reply

  6. […] once we got to about Week 9; it inherently can’t be when two teams are doing it. Much like the allure of the perfect game, approaching a 16-0 season can’t be properly appreciated if it occurs too frequently. Last year, […]

    Reply

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