Politics & Media
Jun 07, 2010, 07:13AM

Peggy Noonan Whiffs on a Baseball Column

The Wall Street Journal pundit reaches for a profound social message in the aftermath of umpire Jim Joyce's missed call.

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Most weeks, I find Peggy Noonan’s weekend column in the Wall Street Journal an entirely sensible take on whatever political rhubarb has embroiled Washington in the previous seven days, an antidote to the media hysterics on both the left and right. On occasion, though, Noonan can’t resist a feel-good story and this is when she falls flat, the prose Pollyanna-light and the moralizing more appropriate for a Sunday morning turn at the pulpit. Noonan began her June 4 essay with this inadvertent warning: “We needed some happy news this week, and I think we got it.” In reality, there’s no shortage of “happy news” in any given week and it wouldn’t be difficult to pluck one from the heap and then run with it; it’s just that some stories instantly explode and hog all the attention. Noonan got caught in the trap.

Which in and of itself is okay, because Noonan’s topic—MLB umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call last Wednesday night in Detroit that deprived the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga of a perfect game—really was, in an increasingly rare combination of live and virtual conversation from the moment the incident occurred, a head-turner. My son and I were watching a Red Sox ballgame that night and, as often happens when something historic (in the baseball world, at least) is taking place, Boston’s commentators mentioned it, and so we switched channels just in time to see Joyce flub a close call at first and catch Galarraga’s 100-watt smile of befuddlement. Booker immediately reacted like most everyone else, I suppose, who saw the play: fire the ump! My jaw did drop upon seeing the multiple replays that the stunned Detroit broadcasters played over and over, and wondered why Joyce, in a 3-0 game, just didn’t give the benefit to the defense, let the pitcher and his teammates celebrate and that would be it.

As millions of Americans know, the story then, in the space of the next 12 hours, transcended baseball and took on the national importance of the last episode of Lost or a movie star caught with a hooker. Joyce, after retreating to his quarters, looked at a replay, recognized his blunder and then met with Galarraga to apologize and make the best of an unfortunate situation, even while baseball purists were calling on MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to overturn the call. As the New York Times’ excellent sportswriter George Vecsey noted on June 3, “Joyce and Galarraga are now forever linked; they could even be the odd couple at memorabilia shows decades from now.” And who would be surprised if the duo showed up for an hour at the White House next week, with Barack Obama sharing a beer (or maybe something stronger for Joyce) with the pair and briefing them on his administration’s plan to clean up after the damage caused in the Gulf of Mexico.

So that’s swell. But Noonan, for whatever reason, took the opportunity to elevate Joyce’s demonstration of honesty into a full-blown sermon. She writes: “What was sweet and surprising was that all the principals in this story comported themselves as fully formed adults, with patience, grace and dignity. And in doing so, Galarraga and Joyce showed kids How to Do It.”
Pardon me, Peggy, but aren’t you pilfering one of the left’s favorite themes, invoking The Children for everything that’s on their political agenda (global warming, tax hikes on the devious rich, health care, tolerance for Iran while castigating that brute state of Israel, and a 10-fold increase of regulations on private business)?

She continues: “A lot of adults don’t teach kids this now, because the adults themselves don’t know how to do it. There’s a mentoring gap, an instruction gap in our country. We don’t put forward a template because we don’t know the template. So everyone imitates TV, where victors dance in the end zone [which actually started in the 1960s, with the New York Giants’ Homer Jones the first to “spike” a football into the ground after scoring a touchdown]… where victims of an injustice scream, cry, say bitter things, and beat the ground with their fists. Everyone has come to believe this is authentic. It is authentically babyish. Everyone thinks it’s honest. It’s honesty undignified, self-indulgent, weak and embarrassing.”

Pundits often are guilty of gross generalization, but Noonan’s fantasy is, distressingly, out of Pat Buchanan’s Ozzie & Harriet playbook. I don’t quarrel with the columnist’s lament that American culture is coarser than when we were both young, but this devolution didn’t begin in the last couple of years. Some of the Journal’s editors, no doubt, would trace it all to the counterculture of the 1960s—public nudity, flowers in the long, unwashed hair, students taking over classrooms—but I’d say Tom Wolfe was more accurate when he dubbed the 1970s the “Me Decade.” I believe this is when Americans stopped wearing their Sunday best to church and funerals; loud leisure suits burned your eyeballs; disco and cocaine whores took over nightclubs; and People magazine began publishing, instantly captivating the public and providing a more respectable digest of trivial celebrity scandals than the National Enquirer.

Since that time, Donald Trump emerged as the most obnoxious developer in New York; the “Greed is good” tagline from the film Wall Street was both denounced and embraced; “casual Fridays” began at the workplace and eventually became the norm; Bill Clinton set a new low bar for boorish behavior in the White House; frivolous litigation increased dramatically; political correctness ran amok; and the phrases “thank you” and “you’re welcome” seemed to go the way of the top hat. Yes, Noonan’s right in lashing out at television and the cesspool of fools demeaning themselves on a daily basis, but this isn’t breaking news.

It’d be too harsh to call Noonan’s column “galling,” but it was certainly naïve. Never mind that not “everyone imitates TV,” and that there are plenty of parents, perhaps even a majority, who do their best to set proper examples for their offspring, but the idea that the dignified behavior of a contrite baseball umpire and a wronged pitcher might reverberate into a lesson for today’s youth is absurd. In the next month, or week, another athlete will be revealed as a drug-user, wife-beater or drunk and the Joyce/Galarraga lesson in manners will be forgotten.

A final note: as a frequent champion of the Wall Street Journal, which I think is the finest daily newspaper in this country and perhaps the world, it’s only fair to point out there was a “perfect game” editorial in its pages (also on June 4) that was downright silly. Joining the mob, a Journal editorialist got a little dizzy. An excerpt: “What Commissioner Selig isn’t getting is that this taint, this blot, this imperfection will hang over baseball forever. There is no upside to letting it pass because it won’t pass. Like the Black Sox scandal or you-know-who’s home-run record, it will haunt baseball forever.”

While Peggy Noonan’s still on her high horse, maybe she could let whoever wrote that editorial that it was, in fact, “authentically” embarrassing.

  • I think that the situation did work itself out in the end. Joyce publicly apologized, and he did seem sincere. Galarraga was a terrific sport about it and forgave him instantly. Even though he did lose his perfect game, he got a Corvet out of it.

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  • This was an interesting sports story. Why every political pundit had to get their 2 cents in is beyond me. Even the Sunday shows covered it. I have as much interest in Peggy's take on baseball as I do on A-Rod's take on politics.

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  • What I don't understand is why Selig won't reverse the call. it hurts no one! it won't change the game, and the "blot" (not that big of a deal but still it kind of is) will be erased. how stupid can you be, Selig?

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  • What was so interesting to me about the imperfect-perfect game was that so many pundits felt compelled to weigh in. I neither read the Peggy Noonan poiece nor saw the WSJ editorial so all I have, Russ, is your observations on their commentary. Peggy's feel-good point that Joyce's and Galarraga's adult-like and exemplary reactions, given a very difficult situation, provided a fine behavioral role model for kids. Very valid but I wouldn't make much more out of it than that. The WSJ editorial, however, seems like a miss. This highly consequential botched umpire call is hardly a taint on the GAME and deserving to be lumped with true taints such as the Black Sox scandal or the use of steroids and their effects on baseball's records. Human fallability is an integral part of baseball and is one of the characteristcs that makes the game so fascinating. The Joyce-Galarraga situation is more akin to the infamous error by Bill Buckner in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series which permitted an opportunity for the Mets to go on and win the seventh game for the championship.The Buckner incident, like Joyce- Galarraga, is hardly a taint per se; it is simply a very worthy addition to a long, rich and colorful history to THE GAME.

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  • I'm with eureka, but it's too late now. If the results of an instant replay won't change a call, why even have them?

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  • Noonan is just another player in the WSJ's echo chamber. This column of her's is worthless, as is her continued bleating for Obama to, you know, "do something" about the BP spill. My hope is that the inanity coming from her and other Republicans on the spill stems from their embarrassment for promoting such drilling so hard -- by creating the Obama Savior straw man you can rationalize any and all terrible policy position you've supported i the past, I suppose.

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  • Andrew, it was a lousy baseball column. At least it allowed you to vent. But opinions about Obama and the BP spill aren't drawn by party lines. Frank Rich, one of the nation's biggest Obama apologists, is getting nervous about the president. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/opinion/06rich.html?adxnnl=1&ref=opinion&adxnnlx=1275818442-OG3vEJdpXqEGYZ4LbHBKSg

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  • You're throwing Frank Rich at me! Sabboteur! No, but seriously, Frank writes, "But Obama can’t embrace his inner T.R. as long as he’s too in thrall to the supposed wisdom of the nation’s meritocracy, too willing to settle for incremental pragmatism as a goal, and too inhibited by the fine points of Washington policy debates to embrace bold words and bold action." The nation's meritocracy surely includes Mr. Rich, right? OK, trying to be serious again: I think the endless regurgitation of Obama needing to show more "plug the damn hole"-style emotion -- form both sides -- ignores the very real and important question of what sort of powers the president should have in these situations, and how those powers reflect principles of small/big government, free markets, corporate liability, energy policy, and all the other really fucking important issues that this drama actually encompasses, as opposed to 1000 words pleading for some intangible sense of grabbing-the-reigns leadership.

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  • Also, I'm feeling this blog post: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2010/06/art-laffer-make-up-your-own-facts-here/

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