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The Almost-Perfect Game: Lessons in Civility

A botched call changes baseball history, and the participants react with... grace. An example we should all notice.

The world feels so contentious these days. Maybe it's always been that way, but today tensions seem particularly high. Left vs. Right. The Tea Party doing whatever it is that it does. Main Street vs. Wall Street. Israel and Palestine. North Korea provoking South Korea. Iran facing off against much of the world. And, of course, Tony Hayward and his infamous BP team, while working furiously to cap its gushing well, spinning and posturing in an effort to limit corporate liability.

In the midst of our profoundly defensive inclinations, something remarkable happened last month: a heartfelt apology and its acceptance in America's greatest pastime: baseball. For the non-sports fans, on Wednesday night, June 2, 2010, in Detroit, Michigan, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga threw an almost-perfect game against the Cleveland Indians. In a perfect game, no opposing batter reaches base. It has only been done 20 times since the modern era in baseball began in 1900.

In what should have been the final out in a night of flawless pitching, umpire Jim Joyce, one of the best in Major League Baseball, botched a call at first base, robbing Galarraga of one of his sport's highest achievements.

With so many firestorms raging in so many places, this story looked like more kindling. But something unexpected occurred: an apology, and then ensuing acts of grace. Neither umpire nor pitcher (nor the entire Tigers organization, for that matter) spewed venom, but rather they offered civility.

Joyce, having watched the replay in the locker room after the game, acknowledged his mistake and immediately apologized. "It was the biggest call of my career and I kicked the s--- out of it. I just cost that kid a perfect game." As Bill Geist of CBS Sunday Morning noted in his commentary, "He didn't make up excuses, didn't say the devil made him do it, didn't announce that he was going to umpire rehab." Galarraga returned the favour. "He (the ump) probably felt more bad than me . . . nobody's perfect."

A genuine mea culpa, the story flies in the face of modern-day events and practice (and legal counsel to boot). Wall Street firms aren't offering apologies. BP's been mostly mum. Even the Catholic Church is stingy when it comes to confessing its sins. The cover story of the June 7, 2010 issue of Time is entitled Why Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry.

We'd all benefit by paying attention to baseball's act of generosity. Civility breeds good will, and good will generates trust, and trustworthiness contributes to human flourishing.

This is true across the professions, including business. The umpire and player's response to a volatile situation reminds me of an interview with Ken Melrose, former CEO of Toro, the lawn and landscape care company.

Melrose, with other senior leaders, committed the company in the early 1990s to a policy of alternate dispute resolution. Whenever a customer was hurt by a Toro product, including injuries sustained from their own gross negligence, the company dispatched a team to visit the injured person, said they were sorry it happened, and then offered to satisfy the customer's needs. The team was expected to offer empathy, but also empowered to pay medical expenses, lost work time, and even reasonable trauma costs.

In the case of Toro, civility and integrity bred trust, leading to positive outcomes for all parties involved. Cases going to court dwindled. Settlements were paid more quickly. And lifetime customer loyalty was cultivated. You can read more about the Toro's approach in the Ethix interview with Mr. Melrose.

While oil still gushes in the Gulf—with, thankfully, some abatement yesterday—and livelihoods and habitats are being destroyed for years to come, I, like so many others, feel angry and frustrated. Outrage is expected, but I wonder if the public response might have been a bit different if BP had pursued a more genuine approach to dealing with its mistakes. Transparency and contrition feel risky in a litigious world, but it is these very traits that ultimately lay the groundwork for the rebuilding of trust and long-term healing.

Baseball has its own share of problems, but on an early June night it modeled grace and civility. The story reminds me of a wonderful exchange between Terrance Mann and Ray Kinsella in the 1989 classic movie, Field of Dreams:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America is ruled by it like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again...

If you will build the field, Terrance says, "Oh, people will come, Ray. People will come, most definitely come." Like a field of dreams that invites our deepest hopes and aspirations, acts of civility invite grace, renew our trust, and infuse us all with enriched life.

Help us spread the word:
John Terrill John Terrill
John Terrill is the Director for the Center for Integrity in Business (CIB) at Seattle Pacific University. ... read more »

Posted in Business, Justice.

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