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Sunday, February 20, 2011
A tale of two near-perfectos

By Geoff Young

You know the story: A young right-hander dominates for nine innings. The only thing standing between him and baseball immortality is a weak infield grounder that ends in a bang-bang play at first base.

Armando Galarraga & Jim Joyce
Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, left, and umpire Jim Joyce attended the 2010 ESPY Awards on July 14 in Los Angeles.
You're probably thinking about Detroit 's Armando Galarraga, who just missed a perfect game against the Indians on June 2. The story gained national attention because of the way perfection was denied (an umpire's blown call) and the feel-good forgiveness fest that followed in its wake.

Time Magazine called the game the top sports moment of the year. Galarraga and Jim Joyce, the umpire who blew the call, have written a book together.

The story fascinates for many reasons. Beyond the game's surreal ending, there's the fact that Galarraga never was accused of having "no-hit stuff." He was a journeyman pitcher, an everyman figure, and who doesn't love when a guy like that does something great once in his life?

Two weeks earlier, on the other side of the continent, something similar happened. On May 13, San Diego 's Mat Latos came within inches of throwing a perfect game against the Giants. Although the results were nearly identical, the circumstances differed enough that one man will forever be associated with "The Galarraga Game", while the other is relegated to a footnote glossed over by all but the most careful readers.

I once believed that numbers were the whole story, but subsequent experiences have forced me to revise my stance. Consider the lines of Galarraga and Latos in their near-historical starts:

          IP H R ER HR BB SO


Galarraga 9 1 0 0 0 0 3

Latos 9 1 0 0 0 0 6

There isn't much separating these two performances. Latos had more strikeouts, but otherwise, they're the same.

The difference lies in the narrative. Details.

Mat Latos
The Padres' Mat Latos during his gem last season in San Francisco.
Galarraga's lone blemish occurred because first base umpire Joyce incorrectly called Jason Donald safe. Latos' came when he fumbled Eli Whiteside's grounder before throwing to first a shade late. One man (Galarraga) was subject to forces beyond his control (Joyce's imperfect interpretation of events), while the other (Latos) has only himself to blame (and forgive) for the event that kept him from pitching a perfect game.

Timing enters into the equation as well. Galarraga lost his perfect game with two outs in the ninth. Latos lost his with no outs in the sixth; he still needed 12 more outs at the time of Whiteside's hit. In terms of drama, Latos' situation doesn't approach Galarraga's.

The result is important, but what sticks in our memory are the moments that led to it. Galarraga's denial by forces beyond his control at the very conclusion of his journey stays with us in a way that Latos' self-inflicted wound in the middle doesn't.

Numbers tell a story, but people are the story. As someone who buries himself in numbers for extended periods of time, I have been known to forget that. Then I come up for air and notice everyone talking about Galarraga's game, but not Latos'.

In many respects, the games are the same. The key difference is, 20 years from now, the one that lacks a compelling narrative will have faded from our memory.

Geoff Young writes Ducksnorts, a blog about the San Diego Padres. Follow him on Twitter.