The imperfect game, Part 2: The paradox of changing the rules to award the perfect game

Posted on June 10, 2010

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The passionate debate shows how much we all interpret baseball players as competing against all of their baseball ancestors as much as they are against their rivals this season. The blown call made absolutely no difference to the result — that is, to the result of a relatively meaningless game in the midst of a 162-game regular season.

A perfect game is significant because there have been only 20 of them since 1880, and because it strikes us as not just some quirky rare event (like a triple play or hitting for the cycle) but rather as the flawless and sustained execution of the task of the most important player on the field. There isn’t really such an easily defined possibility of “perfection” in most sports. There is the shutout in sports with net-minding, but they are too common to be that special. Same with bowling 300.

There will always be debates in every sport of the form “who was greater, Mr X this year or Mr Y from two generations ago?” But we seem to care a lot more about how a baseball player stacks up against all the players who have played his position than we do about cross-generational rankings in other sports. (This is also, surely, the reason there is so much fuss about steroids in baseball than in the NFL.)

One of the reasons we feel like we can make these direct cross-generational rankings of baseball players is that the basic rules of the game have changed very little, especially since the dawn of the so-called live-ball era in 1920. Baseball’s guardians are extremely conservative, a trait they share with the soccer gnomes at Fifa; but in stark contrast to the caretakers of the other major North American sports, who tweak rules on a regular basis and allow their products to evolve significantly from one decade to the next. (The other major reason we can make cross-generational rankings derives from the fact that virtually every significant aspect of offensive performance, and of the prowess of pitchers, is quantifiable.)

This suggests something of a paradox for those who would immediately have the Commissioner change the rules (to overrule umpires’ calls after the fact on a case-by-case basis, or to introduce the use of video replay for this kind of call): we care about things like perfect games only because we feel we can compare players across generations; we can compare players across generations only because the league has a strong default setting against changing rules every time there is some controversy or irregularity.

So in order to honor Galarraga’s de facto perfect game, we are advocating doing away with the “legal conservatism” that is responsible for a perfect game being meaningful…

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