EGGERS: Talkin' baseball with Beaverton's Jim Joyce, MLB's top umpire
For one moment in time, Jim Joyce was in the center of the baseball universe.
"It was the worst day of my life," Joyce says, "and the best day of my life."
It was June 2, 2010, at Comerica Park. Detroit's Armando Galarraga was an out away from becoming the 21st pitcher in major league history to throw a perfect game. With two outs in the ninth, Cleveland's Jason Donald hit a slow roller to first. Miguel Cabrera fielded the ball and threw to Galarraga covering first. The throw beat Donald to the bag. Perfect game!
Or not. Joyce called the runner safe.
Mistakes happen, but Joyce did not make another one with what happened next.
In the umpires' locker room following the game, Joyce welcomed in the media and offered a mea culpa.
"I did not get the call correct," Joyce told the world. "I kicked it. I had a great angle on it. I just missed the damn call. I thought he beat him to the bag. Now that I've seen it on the replay I missed it.
"This isn't a call. This is a history call. There's nobody who feels worse than I do about it. I take pride in this job, and I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his ass off all night. It's probably the most important call of my career, and I missed it."
If everyone handled mistakes like Jim Joyce, the world would be a better place.
But the one call for which he is known best is not what Joyce is about. A 25-year veteran, the Beaverton resident has long been regarded as one of the premier umpires in the major leagues. In the days following the game at Comerica, ESPN The Magazine polled 100 major-league players for their picks for the game's top three umpires. Joyce was the top vote-getter, mentioned on 53 percent of the ballots.
A Toledo, Ohio, native who pitched at Bowling Green, Joyce has umpired professionally since 1978 and in the majors since 1986. He has worked three All-Star games, eight division series, three league championship series and three World Series, including this season.
Joyce, 58, is speaking at the Friends of Baseball annual clinic Sunday at Concordia University from 1-5 p.m.
The umpire sat down for a question-and-answer session with the Portland Tribune in advance of his clinic appearance.
Tribune: Did you play pro baseball?
Joyce: Three days worth. I had hurt my arm in college. I was invited to the Phillies' spring training to have the organization look at me. I threw to a couple of minor-league catchers and blew my arm out even worse. It was a dream to get to do that, but then all of a sudden, I knew it was over.
Tribune: Did you become an umpire right away after that?
Joyce: I went back to Toledo and talked to my parents about my future. I wanted to be an umpire but needed money to go to umpires' school. My dad was supervisor at the American Motors Jeep Corporation. I spent six months working in the factory there to get enough money. Then I did the five weeks in umpires' school in late 1977 and early 1978.
Tribune: How did you get to Oregon?
Joyce: I met miss Claudia Kay Cochran. I was working the Pacific Coast League. My partner, Kirk Levine, was married to Kay's cousin. Her mom and dad invited us to dinner one night. It was all over. In a year, we were married.
Tribune: What year did you make it to the majors?
Joyce: As a fill-in in 1986. I became a regular in 1989. I worked the American League until 1999, when they changed the format. Now all of us work both leagues.
Tribune: Have you counted how many major-league games you've worked over the years?
Joyce: I'm just short of 3,000, not including playoffs or spring training games. We work about 148 a year, plus spring training.
Tribune: Do you prefer working behind the plate or the bases?
Joyce: The plate is your bread and butter. That's what gets you to the major leagues. It's the toughest position to work, but the position where you're most focused. You're included in every aspect of every pitch. It's much harder to be focused on every play on the bases.
Tribune: There would seem to be enormous pressure to get every call right. How do you deal with that?
Joyce: We get some time off during the season. I call it stress-relief time. (The pressure) can catch up to you. But when you've been doing it as long as I have, it's almost a normal part of life. Guys deal with it in different ways. Some guys work out. I do a lot of reading and listen to a lot of music on the road. One of my partners plays a lot of golf. He gets up at the crack of dawn and hits golf balls. Everybody has a different release mechanism to relieve the pressure.
Tribune: How has the game changed since you began?
Joyce: When I first started, closed-circuit TV was just starting. Now, every game is available. Every play is shown over and over. We are scrutinized to the nth degree. The game has gotten faster. The pitchers throw much harder consistently than when I first started. Every pitcher throws 93-98 mph. When I started, 85 was an average fast ball. The players are truly more athletes now. They're faster, they're stronger, the bat speed is quicker.
Tribune: How has umpiring changed?
Joyce: The relationship between us and players and managers is much better. It has to do with education. A lot of these guys are more educated now. As a group of umpires, we have become more educated, also. Things are not nearly as confrontational from either side as in the past. In the old days, that was a key part of the game. The firebrand manager like Billy Martin or Earl Weaver, there are not many of those around anymore. I can't come up with even one now. They're just as intense today, but more reasonable.
Tribune: Has the strike zone changed?
Joyce: No. I have to qualify that. It's more uniform now. When I started, umpires were considered to have their own strike zones. When we began to work both leagues in 1999, the strike zone became more uniform. We have a computer system that tracks every pitch, and we are given results after each tame. Uniformity is the big thing now, which is good. A player knows what to expect every night out.
Tribune: What are your thoughts on instant replay in baseball? For now, it's just home-run balls down the line, but there is talk of expanding it.
Joyce: I'm not allowed to talk about that right now.
Tribune: Major League Baseball wants to prevent collisions at home plate by banning the runner from trying to plow over the catcher to jar the ball loose. The runner would have to slide. It needs approval of the Players Association. Will it happen?
Joyce: I'm going to our umpires' retreat next week. We'll be briefed on both issues. I'll say this: St. Louis manager Mike Matheny was one of the best catchers I ever had. He was really good receiving the ball. If he had a disagreement about a pitch, he did it in the right way. If I had a complaint about something, Mike took care of it. When Mike retired, I never knew why. I came to find out that he retired because of concussion syndrome from collisions at home plate. The collision issue was highlighted when a high-profile catcher like Buster Posey got hurt. It will be interesting to see what comes from it.
Tribune: You worked your third World Series last October. What is that experience like?
Joyce: It's like all the hard work, going out there every day and busting your hump, has paid off. It's like the euphoria of having done your job and they've recognized it. Every umpire strives to do it every year. If you're lucky enough to be on that crew, it's a pretty big highlight.
Tribune: You were involved in a play in Game 3 that had never happened before in the World Series. In the ninth inning, you called obstruction on Boston third baseman Will Middlebrooks, allowing St. Louis' Allen Craig to score from third with the winning run. What was that like?
Joyce: I did no thinking about it when it happened. It was instinctual. It's stuff we look for. It's ingrained in you to look for that. When it happened, the instincts took over.
Tribune: When you look back at the Galarraga incident, what do you think? Are you glad you handled it as up-front as you did?
Joyce: It made me a better person. It made me a better man. It made me a better dad. It made me a better husband. It made me a better umpire all around. I believe things happen for a reason. I believe that it happened for a reason. I don't fully know what the reason is yet, but other things have happened in my life that I can honestly say are a direct result of that incident. I met a young man with spinal bifida who basically saved my professional life because of it.
Tribune: How so?
Joyce: His name is Nick Hammel. He just graduated from high school in Orlando. He was the first one to write me an email the night (of the Galarraga incident). There were 1,500 of them after his. My wife said, "You have to read this." He had been having trouble walking, and was complaining to his physical therapist, who told him, "You're crying over spilt milk." That's what Nick told me. "This is nothing more than spilt milk." I could very easily have walked away from the game of baseball after that season. I could have slinked away. I beat myself up. If I didn't have people like Nick and my wife encouraging me, I might have. I know Nick would give anything to do what I do for a living. We are friends now. He comes to games. I've met him and his father, Randy.
Tribune: Did you seriously consider retiring after that season?
Joyce: Yeah. Then I decided I wasn't going to let one incident beat me. I made my amends, and hopefully I'm going stronger than ever. It was my worst day and my best day. And it put me in the situation before a game in 2012 where I happened to be the only one who knew CPR, and I was able to give CPR and help save a life at a baseball park. (A game-day employee at Chase Field in Phoenix, Jayne Powers, had a seizure. Joyce tended to her until paramedics arrived with a defibrillator.)
Tribune: Why did you decide to allow the media in to speak with you after the Galarraga game?
Joyce: (Umpire) Darrell Cousins opened the door and said, "Only one guy." I said, "Darrell, let them all come in. Let's get it over with." I spoke from the heart. It was as honest as I could be.
Tribune: What did it mean when the ESPN The Magazine poll of players came out a few days later?
Joyce: Any time you get an accolade, its a great thing to get. I was very appreciative of it. It looks good on the resume.
Tribune: What's the most rewarding thing about your job?
Joyce: It's been a great career. It's been 38 years of my life -- 25 in major leagues. I've seen a lot of things. I've met a lot of great people. I've met a lot of fans. I wouldn't have met Kay if it wasn't for baseball. She's my rock. My dad was a huge baseball fan. Both of my parents got to see me work a Series and an All-Star game. It's been a great run.
Tribune: How many more years do you want to umpire?
Joyce: I have a couple of more in me, if my knees hold up. We'll see what happens after this year. Last year was a great year for me. Got to work another Series. Can't complain with the way it's all worked out.