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Before there was The Call, there was The Catch

@jonmorosi
June 1, 2020

On the longest days of the year in Michigan, even the Tigers’ night games can be completed in daylight. Such is the magic of Detroit’s position near the western edge of the Eastern time zone. Of course, precise circumstances must exist for the lights atop Comerica Park to be rendered

On the longest days of the year in Michigan, even the Tigers’ night games can be completed in daylight. Such is the magic of Detroit’s position near the western edge of the Eastern time zone. Of course, precise circumstances must exist for the lights atop Comerica Park to be rendered irrelevant. Pristine pitching -- or something close to it -- is one of them.

That was true on June 2, 2010.

And so, in the bottom of the eighth, twilight filled the sky as Austin Jackson surveyed the field from the on-deck circle. His teammate, Armando Galarraga, was three outs from a perfect game. Jackson, the Tigers’ rookie center fielder, had a feeling.

“I remember telling myself, ‘You’re going to have to make a play,’” Jackson recalled in a recent telephone interview. “Just from watching baseball, you know that when someone’s chasing a milestone, there are always plays that have to be made. I said to myself, ‘Be alert. Make sure you go for everything.’”

Jackson laughed.

“Right away,” he said, “it happened.”

What happened remains the greatest defensive moment in a 20-year-old ballpark where the expansive outfield is custom-made for brilliant catches. Had it not been for the infamous moment that followed, Jackson would be celebrated nationally as having authored one of this century’s most dramatic defensive plays.

For those who witnessed it firsthand, though, the passage of a decade hasn’t diminished the awe. Consider the words of longtime Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who’s spent nearly six decades in professional baseball.

“In my 58 years, it’s one of the best catches I’ve ever seen,” Leyland said recently. “No question: top five.”

As we approach its 10th anniversary, surely you remember The Call.

Let’s remind ourselves about The Catch.

*****

Less than two months removed from his Major League debut, Jackson had established himself as the Tigers’ center fielder and leadoff hitter by the time Galarraga threw the evening’s first pitch at 7:07 p.m. ET.

Jackson, then 23, faced high expectations at the outset of his career: He arrived from the Yankees in a trade for All-Star outfielder Curtis Granderson, and would be Granderson’s immediate successor in both center field and the leadoff spot. The early returns were encouraging: Jackson began the night with an .809 OPS and had been embraced by Leyland, hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, and a veteran core that included Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Magglio Ordóñez, Carlos Guillen and Brandon Inge.

Galarraga’s start was only his third for the Tigers that year, as he began the season at Triple-A following a poor Spring Training. He was known for having a calm demeanor, on and off the mound; Jackson didn’t perceive anything unique about the game until around the sixth inning.

“I was so focused on other things -- trying to get on base, making sure I’m in the right position defensively,” Jackson recalled. “At one point I looked over at Galarraga in the dugout. He was sitting by himself. That’s what pitchers do when something like that is going on.

“I don’t remember if I was going to sit next to him, or if I just asked, ‘Why is he sitting over there?’ But I heard someone say quietly, ‘Keep it down! Look what’s going on.’”

The Indians didn’t have a hit -- or a baserunner. After glancing at the scoreboard, Jackson thought to himself: Oh, man!

As the tension built -- inning by inning, out by out -- Jackson readied himself to make the game-saving play he’d envisioned. DeWayne Wise’s wall-scaling, juggling catch to preserve Mark Buehrle’s perfect game -- on the first batter of the ninth inning -- had taken place less than one year earlier and fewer than 300 miles away. As Galarraga’s gem unfolded, Wise’s play crossed Jackson’s mind. There was no way to know how closely he would come to replicating it.

*****

The crowd at Comerica Park stood and applauded as the top of the ninth inning began. Mark Grudzielanek, a 39-year-old who would play the final game of his Major League career four days later, was leading off.

Grudzielanek, a 15-year veteran, was a natural candidate to break up Galarraga’s bid for perfection. He’d played in an All-Star Game, won a Gold Glove, and reached the postseason with the Cubs and Cardinals. He dug in calmly and seemed to have a plan.

The Tigers did, too. Outfield coach Tom Brookens wanted Jackson to take away the possibility of a bloop single. Particularly because Galarraga’s sinker had been veering inside to right-handers, Brookens wanted to guard against the possibility of a jam-shot single.

“He was trusting me that I could get back on something over my head,” Jackson said. “I remember scooting in and thinking, ‘This could be one of those hits over the second baseman’s head.’ I wanted to be close enough to go for it.”

Brookens’ plan was sound -- until Galarraga made a rare mistake. For the first pitch of the ninth inning, catcher Alex Avila called a sinker, low and on the inside corner. Instead the ball arrived thigh-high and center cut. Grudzielanek pulverized it into the gap in left-center -- the precise area made vulnerable by Jackson’s pre-pitch positioning.

Remember what Jackson had told himself during the eighth inning? You’re going to have to make a play. Here was his chance. As the ball leaped off Grudzielanek’s bat, one thought ran through Jackson’s mind: Let’s see if you’re really all about what you were saying.

“Probably one of the best jumps I’ve ever had on a ball,” Jackson said. “In that situation, the only thing keeping me from getting there and putting my glove on it would have been hitting the wall. I wasn’t going to let the wall determine whether I went for the ball. This wasn’t a regular Tuesday where you might think, ‘Oh, I’m going to play this off the wall.’ I’m either going to hit the wall and miss it, or I’m going to catch it.”

As the ball sped toward the wall, the second most important person on the field hurried toward Jackson: Don Kelly, the Tigers’ reliable super-utility man, had replaced 36-year-old Johnny Damon in left field for the ninth inning. Among the 17,738 voices in the ballpark that night, Kelly's was the one Jackson tuned into.

“I just remember Donnie saying, ‘Go for it, Jack!’” Jackson said. “And I was able to get [there], awkwardly.”

Awkwardly? Well, yes. Jackson was so focused on dashing to the warning track that his angle was sharper than the ball’s path. So when he reached out to make the catch, his left arm was not outstretched and extended toward the gap. Instead he opened the pocket such that his palm was within his field of vision.

And that's how Austin Jackson came to preserve Armando Galarraga’s perfect game. With a basket catch that was halfway over the shoulder, halfway to the side and all the way breathtaking.

“Normally, you wouldn’t open [your glove] that way,” Jackson said. “At the angle I was running, I didn’t have a choice. You just improvise. I had to make the quick decision to turn my glove that way. I was worried about the ball hitting the heel, because my vision was blocked until the last second. But it was meant to be.

“When I watch the replay now, and the distance I covered, I don’t know if I could do that again. You don’t realize the things you can do in those situations until it actually happens. That’s a memory I’ll always be able to carry with me. It was something I told myself was going to happen -- and then it came true. That’s an unbelievable feeling.”

In a 2011 interview, Grudzielanek said of the play: “I can’t hit it any better than I hit it. It went to the biggest part of the park. I couldn’t believe Jackson ran that thing down. ... It was by far the best catch I’ve seen in my career.”

*****

On the mound, Galarraga grinned. He said in the 2019 FOX Sports documentary “A Perfect Game*” that the catch was “even more motivation, like, ‘OK, calm down. You can do it.’ Like it was almost meant to happen.”

And it did happen. Sort of. With two out in the ninth, Jason Donald tapped a ground ball to the right side. Cabrera ranged over, fielded the ball and threw to a racing Galarraga in time ... for Jim Joyce to make a call that was discussed in living rooms across America, not to mention during a White House press briefing.

“I got a good view of it,” Jackson said. “Honestly, with it being that fast, the eyes play tricks on you sometimes. From where I was standing, I tried to determine the ball in the air, the foot on the bag -- a lot of things go into that play. I still thought he was out. I thought he was going to reverse the call.”

Jackson paused and let out a laugh.

“He has to be out anyway, right? He has to get a hit where nobody’s touching it to be safe in that situation. ... There was just so much emotion right then. He called what he’d seen. He was out, when you slow it all down, but things are going so fast. You know the magnitude. You call what you see. It was just human error, and unfortunately, replay wasn’t around at the time.”

Jackson’s catch was the most memorable moment of Galarraga’s masterpiece for fewer than five minutes, as the fervor surrounding Joyce’s call swallowed every other story in baseball -- and beyond -- for several days afterward.

Did Jackson feel cheated?

“You know, selfishly, I felt that way,” he said, “until I talked to Galarraga.”

Galarraga’s graciousness transformed Jackson’s perspective -- as it did for so many observers around the world.

“He was smiling,” Jackson said. “I remember him moving slowly and being calm -- as happy as he should be. He knew what he achieved. That call didn’t take away from what he worked his butt off to achieve. You could tell by his reaction.

“He hugged me. I didn’t really know how to approach him, or how he was going to react. I didn’t know if he was going to be upset. He was just so happy. He was trying to calm guys down, because they were upset for him. He just kept saying, ‘It’s all right. We won the game. It’s not about that. I’m good. Everything’s fine.’

“That was him as a person. He helped me check my own emotions. I thought, ‘If he’s all right with everything, then I don’t have any reason to be upset.’”

*****

The Tigers finished the season 81-81, and Jackson was runner-up to Neftali Feliz for the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Jackson was a key contributor in Detroit’s AL Central titles over the following four seasons, before his tenure with the Tigers ended in the same outfield that made him famous: He was replaced in the middle of a defensive inning on Trade Deadline Day 2014 after being included in the David Price blockbuster with the Rays and Mariners.

Jackson played 35 postseason games for the Tigers, all prior to his 27th birthday, including every inning of the 2012 World Series. No one in franchise history had played that many postseason games at such a young age.

Jackson reached the playoffs with the Cubs in 2015 and again with the Indians in 2017, when he made another indelible catch -- this one for Cleveland -- into the home bullpen at Fenway Park.

Jackson hasn’t played professionally since the end of the 2018 season, when nagging issues with his left knee limited him to a .624 OPS with the Giants and Mets. He feels healthier now at age 33 and is interested in resuming his playing career under the right circumstances.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson has embraced time at home in Colleyville, Texas, with his wife, Jonna, and children, Bryson and Olivia. He’s also taken the opportunity to reconnect with teammates over the past several months.

“I’ve texted so many guys who I haven’t talked to in years,” he said. “I’ll go down the list in my phone, remembering all the guys I’ve played with, and send them a text. You miss those interactions. That’s meant a lot to me, just being able to reach out and tell people how important they are. This time really makes you reflect on things like that and appreciate those relationships. You want them to know.

“I reached out to Torii [Hunter] after Kobe passed away. Torii is an inspiration to so many young guys coming up -- in different sports -- and I felt like I needed to let him know how much I appreciated what he did for me. .... Prince Fielder was another guy I talked with, and both of them received it in such a positive way. They were surprised to hear from me, and maybe they don’t hear that a lot, but it felt good that they were appreciative.”

And in Detroit, a decade later, they’re still grateful for The Catch -- no matter what happened shortly thereafter, or how many others around baseball remember the daring dash into the left-center gap.

“It doesn’t take anything away [from the catch] that he didn’t get the perfect game,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t make that play any more or less exciting -- or any less difficult, in my eyes.

“[Galarraga’s] situation was a lot different from mine. I don’t know how he feels about it inside today, but it always seemed like he was very genuine [in how he reacted that night]. And in the end, a lot of good came out of that situation.”

Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com and MLB Network.