Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Defining Moments

Sometimes fate boils down to nothing more than a split second or a half an inch. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

No one knows for sure when a moment in time will be thrust upon him or her in such a way that it will change their life forever. Sometimes it comes and goes without so much as a blip and it’s not until much later that the significance is even realized.

Sometimes the moment happens by not happening at all. The plane you didn’t board, the road you didn’t take, or maybe you avoided a horrific crash just by leaving somewhere 10 minutes early … or 10 minutes late. Every fiery crash you see on the highway could have been avoided by either party if not for bad timing.

I’ve thought a lot about defining moments lately. Not just my own, but other’s as well. Especially last week when Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers came within a whisker of pitching a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians. His defining moment came on what should have been the last batter of the game, Jason Donald, who hit a routine grounder to second base.

Only it wasn’t quite that easy. The Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera ranged far off the bag to try and field the grounder instead of letting the second baseman take it. Now, realizing no one was covering first, Galarraga hustled over to cover the base and try to cement his place in history.

Donald was busting up the line to try and beat the throw, but Cabrera threw a perfect strike to Galarraga, who got there a step ahead of the Indians’ runner. The stadium was set to erupt, the players were set to erupt, but then came the parallel arm motion of first base umpire Jim Joyce. It seemed puzzling at first because it wasn’t what anyone expected – not even Jason Donald.

Joyce had called him safe.

Stunned silence filled the air. It couldn’t be. Television replays started showing the play from a million angles, and every angle showed the same thing – Donald was out by a wide margin and Joyce had blown the call costing Galarraga his shot at the history books.

Fans began to boo Joyce as Tiger manager Jim Leyland and first baseman Cabrera gave the ump a tongue-lashing. But not Galarraga, he seemed unaffected as he walked calmly back to the mound to record his 28th out of the night.

Later, Jim Joyce, regarded as one of the best umpires in the American League, would see the replay and break down in tears. He now knew he had blown the call and he felt terrible. So terrible he did something unprecedented for an umpire. He payed a visit to the Tigers clubhouse to seek out Galarraga and he apologized.

Joyce wouldn’t sleep that night; in fact, he still had tears in his eyes the next day as he tried to ready himself to be the home plate umpire for final game of the Tigers and Indians three-game series. In a show of true sportsmanship, Galarraga walked the lineup card out to Joyce. When he arrived at home plate, he gave the tortured umpire a pat on the back. Joyce wiped away his tears and returned the gesture. It was nice moment between the two who now were forever linked by a routine grounder with two outs in the ninth inning of what would have been a perfect game.

It’s become their defining moment. A half an inch higher on the bat and Donald pops out to right field – no controversy. A half an inch lower and he strikes out - a perfect ending to a perfect game. If anyone other than Jim Joyce was umping at first that night, he probably calls Donald out and Jim Joyce could tell his grandkids about the perfect game he got to work one night in Detroit.

I feel for both men, but especially Jim Joyce because I know what it’s like to lose sleep over a mistake – to question your worth, even when you know you’re good at what you do. Galarraga’s almost-perfect game couldn’t have come at a stranger time because I had my own defining moment the same week and it nearly cost me my job, and just like Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga, I had no clue that something so routine would turn out to be so huge.

Of course mine wasn’t a ground ball to second base, mine was my normal drive home from work – something I’ve done on the same route, five days a week, for the past 16-years. Only on this particular day I saw something that wasn’t routine at all - a dead man. It was so striking to me, I wrote about it a few weeks back in my piece called “Slipping into Silence.”

Originally published on my blog with little fanfare, the piece took on a life of its own when my employer, AnnArbor.com, published it. Some people loved it – others not so much. I was called a racist, a terrible writer, a terrible person, a liar, etc. Some thought I made up the whole story. When I was asked to verify the details of the man I thought was dead, I found out I was wrong. The man I assumed to be dead, was indeed lifeless and unresponsive, but only because he had just suffered a seizure.

Maybe he died later, maybe not. I’ll never know because HIPPA laws prevent hospitals from giving out information about patients. But it didn’t matter. My employers deemed my error unacceptable and I was sent home for two days while they tried to decide my fate.

It’s hard to put into words how you feel sitting at home on a beautiful day not knowing if  you’ll have a job or not when the phone rings. I couldn’t really enjoy the weather because I felt like I might puke. I couldn’t really get up enough energy to do anything but worry. After 25-years as a photojournalist, I had a hard time believing what was happening.

How could my career come down to one mistake?

How could an anonymous man control my destiny?

Was my job really going to boil down to if a man was alive or dead? How could I possibly hope for someone's death just to save my job?

In the end I kept my job. But not until I was smeared publicly by a gaggle of commentators who were, and still are, calling for my head. I’m now forever linked with that elderly black man on the bench who I thought was dead - just like Galarraga and Joyce are forever linked. The only difference is the man on the bench, if he’s even still alive, doesn’t know it.

It’s been a strange few weeks. People keep asking me what happened and I keep telling the same story over and over again. I’m no longer allowed to write for AnnArbor.com, but that’s all right because I’ll continue to write on my own blog as I’ve done all along - at least through the end of July. At that point I plan on starting a book about my childhood.

In the meantime I’m rediscovering the joys of running and working out and breathing air again. I love to write and I love to take pictures, and coming up with something fresh and new every week for four straight years was a hell of a challenge. I’m proud of what I produced in that time span, and I plan on doing it for a while longer, but then it will be time to move on to try something new.

Who knows, maybe that will become my true defining moment.



  1. Wow... this is an excellent piece of writing.

    There are times where the bromides about how it is during the difficult times are when we find out what we are made of, are easily said by others who aren't in the middle of their storm.

    I imagine that you were able to draw a lot from the blown call that Joyce made... and at this date and time, what Helen Thomas said too.

    Sounds like you are doing well, and I certainly hope that is the case for you. Be well, Lon!!