Back in the day I could pitch a pretty good softball game. I had an inside and outside spin depending on which side of the plate the batter stood. I had pretty good placement too. Several pastors warned me that pastoring a church and playing on the church team don’t mix well. I thought I knew better and continued playing competitively through my first years as a pastor.
The awful day came at a game where the umpire didn’t show up. I wanted to play. I wanted to pitch, but I offered to umpire since no-one else wanted to and because I was a steward leader after all.
Part-way through the game a foul ball glanced off the mitt of our first baseman who was standing in fair territory, but the ball was clearly foul when it landed. I hesitated a beat and emphatically made the call.
It doesn’t matter which call I made, because an argument broke out immediately, with emphatic, red-faced men screaming that the runner should be given a strike or that he should be safe at first. In the best tradition, I ignored everyone and told everyone to “Play Ball!” For the record, however, I made the wrong call.
One gentleman in our congregation never could overlook my blown call. His son had been the first baseman my bad call victimized. Our relationship deteriorated over several months and then went cold. When I came to him one evening after a music rehearsal at church, and asked what I had done to offend him and how I might make it right, he told me he would never tell me and that I was not a big enough of a man to make him. That was the last time I saw him at our congregation.
With this experience of broken relationships in the middle of softball games that matter nothing, it was refreshing to read of Armando Galarraga’s response to the blown call by Jim Joyce that ruined his perfect game performance in the 9th inning. Even more refreshing was Mr. Joyce’s admission of his error and the heartfelt and tearful apology he offered. It’s nice to know that some gentlemen still play the game.
A key leadership dynamic pokes through the soil of these stories: that of experiencing perfection of those who lead us–an impossible expectation citizens, congregants, customers, clients and fans have of those who win elections, are appointed to leadership roles, open businesses, or are paid unimaginable amounts of money to run, leap or throw.
When the leader makes a mistake the doorways to hell are opened and loud voices volunteer to throw the leader to perdition. In such a moment and with great irony, the way for the leader to live and see another day is not to try to protect themself by denying the mistake (or perception of a mistake). Instead, they do well to admit their error, their desire to learn from it, and their hope they will have another chance to grow as a person and as a leader.
Jim Joyce umpired from behind home plate the next day. Armando Galarraga brought him the lineup. The fans cheered.
It could have been worse. Much worse.
-mark l vincent