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Inside Baseball: Game's charm is in its imperfection

Who says being a closer is the toughest job in baseball? Or a pinch-hitter? Or the poor sap who has to pluck the dirty laundry off the clubhouse floor?

Who says being a closer is the toughest job in baseball? Or a pinch-hitter? Or the poor sap who has to pluck the dirty laundry off the clubhouse floor?

Actually, as this week's Armando Galarraga-Jim Joyce incident pointed out, there is no more demanding job in baseball than umpiring.

That's why on Friday, Joyce was standing in a basement hallway at Citizens Bank Park surrounded by reporters who wanted him to relive his nightmare.

Major-league umpires make a good salary - from $100,000 to $300,000 annually - though it's a fraction of what the players earn. Their travel schedules are horrendous.

And baseball fans have long been taught that it's OK to abuse, abase, even - if the age-old cry to "kill the ump" is to be believed - slay them.

Some made death threats against Don Denkinger, a former crewmate of Joyce's, after he infamously erred on a pivotal call in the 1985 World Series.

Fortunately for Joyce, in part because of the dignity with which he and Galarraga have handled themselves, he hasn't had to experience what he called "the dark side," though he fears he will forever be labeled as the guy who goofed up Galarraga's gem.

But many others have experienced that dark side and will continue to suffer it, especially now that they are under constant electronic scrutiny. Technology has broadened the target on umpires' backs.

Baseball uses the Pitch FX system to monitor their ball-and-strike performances. ESPN superimposes its K-Zone over the strike zone to instantly judge an ump's accuracy. TV stations routinely replay every close pitch during games. And afterward, that one missed call - and not the 99 percent that were correct - are given national airings.

"That's a tough job," Phils manager Charlie Manuel said about umpires. "I would never want it."

In the aftermath of Joyce's regrettably blown call Wednesday night, which kept the Tigers' Galarraga from a perfect game, umpires again found themselves easy targets.

While Joyce's quick and honest reaction has been widely praised, ESPN and even baseball's own MLB Network have replayed his and what seems like every other mistake the men in blue have made over the last few decades as they turn up the heat for an NFL-like instant-replay system.

Forget the fact that a few years ago players named Joyce the second-best umpire, or that for 135 years, these umps have gotten most of their calls right, whether they were meaningless, meaningful, or, as Joyce said of the one he missed, historic.

All we hear now is that we've got to get more replays. We've got to get it right. We've got to make baseball flawless.

What these people are really advocating is turning baseball into a soulless video game. As Manuel pointed out, the umpire - and the notion that he's not going to get every call correct - is, and has long been, part of the sport's appeal.

Perfect games aside, it's not a game of perfection. The best hitters fail seven of 10 times. Since the 162-game schedule was instituted in 1962, no team has ever lost fewer than 46 games.

In fact, you could argue the contrary, that baseball is more about imperfection. Bad pitches decide games as much as home runs.

Today's umpires have reacted to the "big brother-is-watching" nature of their jobs in a number of ways.

Many are more cautious, and, behind the plate at least, that cautiousness is a big reason games last 31/2 hours.

Some are more defensive, which is a big reason so many are needlessly confrontational (see West, Joe).

Others are far more deliberate than their predecessors.

Watch one of those MLB Network games from the '50s or '60s. Umps make calls so quickly that, to modern eyes at least, it seems they can't possibly have seen the play.

But they were taught that being decisive could mask a lot of mistakes. There were two kinds of umpires, that generation liked to say, the quick and the dead.

That was a wise and effective strategy through baseball's first century. But then came the assault of technology.

Today, there is no worse job in sports than being a baseball umpire. It's no wonder so many are hypersensitive or seem perpetually miserable - and an even greater wonder that Joyce, his mistake spread across the universe in an instant, is so magnanimous.

In a curious sense, given the severity of the error, the graciousness displayed by Joyce and Galarraga might help flip the ugly umpiring paradigm.

"I can't believe the support and response I've been getting," Joyce said. "I was expecting the dark side. . . . I couldn't be more [grateful] and thankful."