Armando Galarraga, Perfect Games, and Major League History

With the United States back on top of the basketball world after its stirring run to gold in Beijing, the '72 controversy remains just that: a controversy that's forever open to debate.
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Before the Dream Team dominated basketball at the Barcelona Olympics in '92, and before the '08 "Redeem Team" took gold in Beijing, the most famous U.S. national basketball team in history was Coach Hank Iba's 1972 Munich squad. The American players, all amateur college stars, go largely unremembered today; Doug Collins, coach of the Philadelphia 76ers and sometime color commentator for TNT Sports, is perhaps the most celebrated former member of the team, and in 2010 the roster derives more notoriety from the absence of Hall of Famer Bill Walton (at the time, the undisputed best player in college basketball) than from the presence of anyone else. What's more, in the wake of the Olympic Village massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, the outcome of that men's gold medal basketball game between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed trifling and petty, yet another stupid proxy fight in an endless Cold War. But as Major League Baseball struggles to deal with what has become the most infamous blown call in the history of the sport, I'm reminded of the bizarre conclusion to that game in Munich, a sequence of events that put an end to unqualified American dominance in international basketball and laid bare the connections between sports, memory, and history. Team USA entered the game with an all-time Olympic record of 71-0. They left Munich 71-1.

Nearly forty years later, no member of the U.S. team has claimed his silver medal from the International Olympic Committee. The medals currently sit in a Swiss vault, unloved and unwanted. "I have placed it in my will that my wife and my children can never, ever receive that medal from the '72 Olympic games," says Kenny Davis, the American captain in Munich, and whenever the subject comes up during his duties as on TV, Doug Collins expresses the same sentiment. After the Soviet Union's 51-50 victory, the long platform for second place at the medal ceremony remained vacant; the Soviets claimed their gold medals, Cuba received bronze--and the United States was absent.

Now, the Americans weren't pouting; they were protesting. In the strangest conclusion to any basketball game that's ever been played, the U.S.-U.S.S.R. final ended three times. Not because the buzzer rang at the end of the second half and twice more after two overtimes. This game featured one final play--then two controversial do-overs of that final play. With three seconds remaining, the United States led the Soviets 50 to 49 and appeared to have the game wrapped up. Until all hell broke loose. It was U.S.S.R. ball, and with the clock at 0:03, they seemingly had one last chance to score.

Take one. The Soviets inbounded the ball and the clock started. Then it stopped. R. William Jones, the secretary general of FIBA, international basketball's governing body, had run down from the stands to the scorers' table to insist that the Soviets be granted a timeout that they may or may not have called during the previous play. No one can say for sure whether or not the Soviets had asked for a timeout, but at the time, Jones was adamant. So, timeout. Though Jones, secretary-generalship notwithstanding, had no authority to make such a determination during the game, his ruling stood anyway. Do-over! But when the Soviets inbounded the ball for a second time, though, the scoreboard clock hadn't been reset, and with Jones hovering about the scorers' table, it was decided to give the underdogs a third chance. Take three. On their third try, Ivan Edeshko threw a full-court pass to teammate Aleksandr Belov, who caught the ball and put in an easy lay-up as the buzzer sounded. This third, and final, ending gave the Soviets a 51 to 50 victory and the gold medal. The Americans appealed, and a five-person jury voted 3-2 to uphold the result of the game. Not surprisingly, Hungary, Cuba, and Poland sided with the Soviets; Italy and Puerto Rico voted to support the American appeal.

Fast-forward, now, to Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga's would-be perfect game last week. After retiring the first twenty-six Cleveland Indians batters in order, Galarraga appeared to have the twenty-seventh--and final--out in hand. The Indians batter hit a grounder, sprinted to first base, was out by a full step. It wasn't even close. A half-second after Galarraga's teammates began to celebrate perfection, though, first-base umpire Jim Joyce adamantly swept his hands to the side. "Safe" at first, perfection quashed. Amazingly, Galarraga smiled and promptly retired the next batter, thus completing what has now become the most famous 0ne-hitter in baseball history. The next day, after every baseball fan in the nation, including Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, weighed in on whether or not to disallow Joyce's call and to give Galarraga the perfect game, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig refused to overturn Joyce, and the ending of the game remained--and forever will remain--the imperfectly perfect game.

Baseball loves history. It is supposed to be pure and numerical and nostalgic, all at the same time. Do-overs don't pass muster in baseball, a game in which every pitch and every swing of the bat is recorded for posterity. Should that twenty-eighth hitter's at-bat be struck from the historical record? We all saw him in the batter's box; we saw him thrown out at first to end the game--are we now to believe that this never happened? Is it appropriate to change the historical record in order to make up for mistakes? And isn't that kind of Stalinist--or at least Orwellian?

The best part about sports is that debates over technicalities--including wins and losses--are about the debates themselves, not the technicalities. Gallons of ink and billions of bits have been devoted this week to the Galarraga and Joyce affair. The story hopped from the sports pages to the front page, and even the least-inclined sports fan at least knew that something fishy had gone down on the diamond in Detroit. The lovers loved and the poets dreamed; die-hards and casual fans debated the role of retroactively changing the record. The public forum opened loud and wide, and Americans, shockingly enough, were discussing the vagaries of historiography and epistemology. Joyce's blown call spurred more intelligent, non-shrill, non-snarky commentary among Americans than Deepwater Horizon, Gaza, or North Korea. No one accused anyone of not being a patriot or "tea-bagger." No one asked to see anyone else's birth certificate. Sarah Palin bashing was nowhere to be seen. Debate was smart, to the point, reaffirming of the Jeffersonian ideal.

With the United States back on top of the basketball world after its stirring run to gold in Beijing, the '72 controversy remains just that: a controversy that's forever open to debate. And with Bud Selig's decision to let the game stand as it was played (and called), Galarraga's "perfect" game will also be forever open to debate. I can't imagine how that's a bad thing.

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