Armando Galarraga handing Jim Joyce the lineup card on June 3 in Detroit Credit: Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When I was 16 I spent a summer as an umpire in a kids’ baseball league. I stood behind the pitcher so I could call the pitches and the bases, and I did the best I could. Which wasn’t especially good. The coaches gave me long looks over an erratic strike zone, and the players kicked a lot of dirt. But who ever appreciates the ump?

Toward the end of the summer there was a team that did more than the usual amount of grumbling as it packed its gear. A week later I had this team again. They hadn’t won a game all season, so no wonder they were surly. But this time they went into the final inning leading by a run, and the kids were beside themselves with excitement. My own fingers were crossed.

The opposition came up for its last at bats and the leadoff hitter singled. The pitcher gave the next batter a long stare and threw ball one. As the catcher was tossing the ball back to the mound the runner decided to light out for second. It was madness. It was the sort of foolhardy impulse some say separates ten-year-olds from their elders. The kid wasn’t even especially fast. What does he think he’s doing? I thought, as he chugged toward second. The pitcher took the catcher’s toss, whirled, and threw to his second baseman. When the runner finally slid into the base the ball was waiting for him.

I made the mistake of thinking the moment through. This makes no sense! I thought, followed by He must know something I don’t. And on that assumption, when the runner stopped sliding I called him safe.

There was a lot of screaming but I stuck to my guns. The runner went on to score, of course. In fact the floodgates opened. And when the game was lost, I drove home turning the matter over in my mind. My principled refusal to change my call had been admirable, but how much more admirable would it have been to get the call right in the first place?

Over the years there would be other incidents in which character outpointed competence, and eventually I drew a distinction: We all make mistakes. But there is a difference between making a mistake and really fucking up. The problem with really fucking up is that other people usually get hurt, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Yet once in a while something can be done. And when that’s the case, get down on your knees, thank your lucky stars, and do whatever it takes to repair the damage.

Life teaches different people different things, and apparently kids who grow up to be sportswriters learn that to err is both human and sublime. As if reversing a call were as fraught with difficulties as deciding to go to war, sportswriters tell us to abide even the most egregious and correctable of fuckups—as we saw last week in their reaction to the call at first by umpire Jim Joyce that cost the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

Joyce called Cleveland batter Jason Donald safe on what should have been the last play of the game. Donald was out; everyone in Comerica Park but Joyce knew it, and as soon as Joyce watched the replays he knew it too. His heart full of remorse, he admitted his mistake and apologized to Galarraga.

Most fuckups are so swiftly followed by complications that there’s no going back, but in Joyce’s case, miraculously, there were none. If Joyce had reversed himself on the spot the Indians might have beefed: mistakes happen, and the Indians, trailing only 3-0, might have insisted on the opportunity to take advantage of Joyce’s. But the call stuck and they got that opportunity, and Galarraga retired the next batter to end the game. This meant a postgame reversal of the call would have done justice to Galarraga at no cost to anyone or anything except our subservience to fate.

But that’s not how the scribes saw it. “Since the 1850s, this was the worst call, ever,” George Vecsey wrote on the front page of the New York Times. But you know what? “Imperfect umpires are as much a part of this sport as imperfect infielders . . . or imperfect runners.” Vecsey sentimentalized imperfection to justify doing nothing about it. Suppose, he went on, baseball commissioner Bud Selig “tried to overturn Joyce’s ghastly call; where would that lead? A commissioner sitting in the stands overturning a call in a World Series—or doing it the next day, when everybody is flying home?” This is the slippery-slope argument, which imagines every medicine in lethal doses.

Chris De Luca, the Sun-Times sports editor, wrote the same thing. “Baseball needs its human element,” he reasoned. “It’s a game full of imperfections. Just because we all know Galarraga was perfect doesn’t make it so.”

De Luca continued, “Had Selig deemed Galarraga’s outing perfect—something that looked like a real possibility when the commissioner agreed to study the idea—baseball would’ve been bracing for utter chaos.”

And in the Tribune, Phil Rogers explained, “You can’t change what happened. Donald reached first base, and that means Galarraga did not throw a perfect game. You can’t change the call after the fact. The rules of baseball say that judgment calls cannot be appealed.”

And on to the slippery slope. “If Selig had announced Galarraga, in fact, did have a perfect game, he would have to make a few other changes too. The Cardinals would be awarded the 1985 World Series, which was changed forever by a Don Denkinger call. Milt Pappas would get his perfect game, because everyone knows Bruce Froemming squeezed him . . .”

Rogers gave more examples, but these will do. Denkinger’s fuckup (which he conceded) put the tying runner on first in the ninth inning of the sixth game of the World Series, which the Cardinals would lose in seven games. Denkinger’s call unleashed a cascade of contingencies, and these determined the series. Pappas walked the 27th batter on a 3-2 count, and he and Froemming, the home plate umpire, will go to their graves disagreeing about the pitch. So what can you do? Joyce’s fuckup was uniquely correctable, and anyone who doesn’t see that doesn’t want to.

A couple years ago I wrote something that now I’m not so sure of: “The law is one thing, common sense another, but we like to think of the two of them as living together in harmony, each the other’s biggest supporter.” My subject was Alton Logan, who’d spent 26 years in prison for a murder he hadn’t committed while two attorneys whose client had admitted to the crime remained silent because of the attorney-client privilege. Their knowledge tortured them—the agony of Jim Joyce is surely a small thing by comparison—but they saw no way out. And my point was that their silence offended common sense, and when law and common sense go their separate ways most people side with common sense.

Herrera v. Collins was a capital punishment case in Texas 17 years ago. The condemned man asked for a hearing on the grounds that he had new proof of his innocence. The Supreme Court turned him down, but the majority was willing to give him this: “We may assume, for the sake of argument in deciding this case, that in a capital case a truly persuasive demonstration of ‘actual innocence’ made after trial would render the execution of a defendant unconstitutional.” But even that sop was too much for Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote his own opinion: “There is no basis in text, tradition, or even in contemporary practice (if that were enough), for finding in the Constitution a right to demand judicial consideration of newly discovered evidence of innocence brought forward after conviction.” Nor did he think there should be. I want to believe Scalia’s cold-blooded assessment strikes most of us, not just me, as a violation of common sense.

But perhaps the occasional execution of an innocent man is the sort of serious fuckup that most people believe we need to abide because some sort of higher wisdom demands it. The law, they may feel, is as mysterious and mighty as the baseball rule book, and we flout its internal logic at our peril. And if the law, like the mysterious and mighty gods of yore, requires the occasional human sacrifice, rather than mourn the sacrificial victim we should hail him if he’s stoic and compliant.

In recent years a spate of innocent men have been cut loose after years in Illinois prisons, and the more docile and forgiving they are the more we like them. Joyce was apologetic and Galarraga forgiving, and the media promptly turned the fuckup into a celebration of character. “We Need More Jim Joyces in the World,” read an AOL headline. Joyce “did something highly unusual in this day and age,” columnist David Fagin wrote under it. “He accepted responsibility and apologized.” Phil Rogers wrote that “one of the beauties of sports is that it provides us teaching moments,” and explained that we’d just been seen a rare one. In a gesture of reconciliation, the next day Tigers manager Jim Leyland had Galarraga bring out the Tigers’ lineup card to Joyce, who was that day’s home plate umpire, and Galarraga gave the ump a pat on the back. “It was one of the great moments of the season,” Rogers wrote.

Every so often, sports insult the laws of probability. There have been 20 perfect games in the history of the major leagues going back to the 1870s, but Galarraga’s would have been the third in a month and the fourth in less than a year. Something similar once happened in horse racing. There have been just 11 Triple Crown winners, none since 1978, yet there were three in a six-year period in the 70s. If the perfect game Galarraga was rooked out of had been the first in 33 years, maybe the press box wouldn’t have been so quick to find sportsmanship even more precious than perfection.

For me, Joyce’s apology didn’t go far enough. Once he’d checked the TV monitors after the game he should have said, “Sorry, I was wrong, so I’m changing my call. The batter was out. Statisticians, make the necessary corrections.” Wouldn’t that have been interesting? Instead of sympathy, he’d have stirred up consternation and given us a different kind of teaching moment.

Kids, there’s an old saying your parents hold dear. It goes, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” When you hear that you can tell them this: “Swell, but if there were more wisdom in the world there’d be less serenity.”