06/13/2010 05:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Life Should Be More Like Baseball

We owe a debt of thanks to Jim Joyce. On June 2, with two out in the ninth inning, and home town pitcher Armando Galarraga one out away from throwing a perfect game, Joyce called Cleveland Indians batter Jason Donald safe at first on an infield grounder. Video replays showed that Donald was out, but it was too late to change the call. Galarraga lost his bid for a perfect game. "Kill the Umpire," that heralded phrase of fan fury, took on new meaning as some angry Detroit residents apparently made threatening calls to Joyce's home that night.

Calling Donald out would have been the "safe" call for Joyce, especially before a home town crowd. Calling it as he saw it, the job of an umpire, took courage. Being able to block out all the emotions in the stadium and in his own head to focus only on the play itself took courage. Not worrying about whether calling the runner safe would lead to criticism took courage. So did what came next. Before the night was over, Joyce apologized publicly to the 28-year-old pitcher for costing him the sport's 21st perfect game. To his everlasting credit, Galarraga had the grace to forgive him.

Jim Joyce gave us a lesson in a nation where moral courage - doing the right thing despite all the scorn you may face - seems in short supply. It's not that Americans don't admire courage. We do. But sometimes we condemn it, and sometimes we confuse it with something else - daring.

When Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) told a town hall meeting earlier this year that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (R-CA) was a "nice person," his conservative constituents castigated him for his apostasy. When President Obama proposed in March that vast areas off the Atlantic Coast be opened for off-shore drilling, many of his liberal opponents, not to mention environmental groups, attacked him mercilessly. In a democracy, it's fair game to disagree, but when disagreement turns to vilification, we breed cowardice not courage. That's not the outcome we profess to want when we routinely criticize our politicians for caving in to special interests and failing to stand up and do the right thing. If umpires had to stand for re-election, how many Jim Joyces would there be?

Moral courage is not just taking risks either, though risk taking is usually involved. Americans love people who make big bets (especially if they win). Wall Street traders made big bets on the derivatives market. Engineers and politicians who allowed New Orleans's coastal defenses against hurricanes to weaken over time made big bets. BP made a big bet on its Deepwater Horizon oil rig. But these risks demonstrate foolhardiness, not moral courage. We should not confuse the two, since no society can tolerate too many people who are willing to bet someone else's farm in their effort to be daring. Jim Joyce took his risk in service to a moral principle - protect the integrity of the game by calling them as you see them. He understood that his reputation was at risk, that he would face an angry crowd if he got it wrong, and that there would be no spokesman to explain things for him - and no golden parachute.

Societies can breed or bury courageous behavior. If we want more Jim Joyces, especially in public life, we need to do at least four things. We need to define in more precise terms the kind of behavior we want - service to moral principle instead of blind obedience to majority opinion. We need to be patient and not rush to judgment (despite how easy 24/7 news and texts and Tweets make it), since the fear of instant criticism is a barrier to acting courageously. We need to acknowledge and be thankful for courage when we see it. We need to forgive those who demonstrate courage but fail. Yet, in too many cases, we confuse courage with daring (Wall Street traders and BP drillers were daring buccaneers). We also mistake cowardice for courage. It's hard to believe some have the "courage of their convictions" when they risk absolutely nothing and even solidify their base of support by taking extreme stands instead of searching for politically risky compromises.

On June 3, Tigers manager Jim Leyland, sent Galarraga out to home plate to turn in the team's lineup card to, who else, Jim Joyce. Joyce wiped tears away, and most of the crowd applauded the demonstration of both courage and forgiveness. Long-time Detroit Tigers play-by-play sportscaster Ernie Harwell, who passed away on May 4, once said that "baseball is a lot like life." There is truth in those words. But perhaps life should also be a lot more like baseball.