After the storm

FINALLY, ARMANDO GALARRAGA is that much closer to perfection. One warm night in August, he's about to make his second start for the Astros, this one against the Braves at a glowing Turner Field. Much better, he thinks of the view when he climbs the dugout steps. Definitely much better. It has taken the onetime top prospect more than a year, including long stays in Triple-A towns like Reno and Oklahoma City, to return to the game that had made him famous for having been flawless in the eyes of everyone but a single umpire. Since that night and the frenzy that followed, Galarraga has struggled to find that form. But now he's just steps from another opportunity to show he belongs on a major league mound -- when he spots an almost spectral presence standing near third base.

"I didn't even know he was here," Galarraga says the next afternoon, leaning over the dugout railing. "Nobody told me. I just thought, Is that Jim Joyce?"

The two men had not shared a field since Sept. 10, 2010, a few months after Joyce had missed the call at first base that would've been Galarraga's 27th consecutive out. Early the next season -- after Galarraga had been traded from Detroit to Arizona and after he and Joyce had co-authored a book called Nobody's Perfect -- Major League Baseball pulled Joyce from one of Galarraga's starts, hoping to avoid "the appearance of impropriety." Galarraga was soon demoted to Reno for the rest of 2011, and impropriety was suddenly low on his long list of concerns. He was more worried that he'd never return to the majors, reduced to life as a baseball footnote.

"The almost perfect game, the almost perfect game, the almost perfect game," he says. It still comes up all the time. "I am more than that. I believe that with all my heart. I just need to prove it."

His greatest test came early this past spring. After the Diamondbacks had let him go, the Orioles signed him with the promise of a shot. He pitched only a handful of innings in spring training before he found himself with his pregnant wife, Christin, in their truck, making the 14-hour drive north from Florida to join the Triple-A Tides in Norfolk, Va. It was only after they'd arrived that he was told he'd been released. The stunned Galarragas got right back into their truck and drove home to Austin, Texas, where four weeks passed without a whisper. Already 30 years old, Galarraga couldn't help feeling that his time was running out. "I remember sitting in my house, watching TV, but baseball I can't," he says. "It was painful. Not because I wasn't in the big leagues but because I wasn't even playing baseball."

At last, Houston called, and Galarraga soon joined its farm club in Oklahoma City. He pitched well there this summer, or at least well enough. On July 24, Wandy Rodriguez was dealt by the reeling, rebuilding Astros, and Galarraga wondered whether he was about to get his chance at redemption. But nothing happened. On July 27, he drove home to Austin and watched Christin give birth to a girl, Savannah, named after one of his happier minor league stops. Then his phone rang. The next morning, he was making yet another sleep-starved drive, this time to Houston. In less than 24 hours, Galarraga had become a father for the first time and received a second life as a major leaguer. Everything had changed in an instant, the way it had once before.

We talk about the calm before the storm. In Galarraga's native Venezuela, they're more optimistic. "We say after the storm, the calm comes," he says. "For me, the storm was those four weeks in my house, sitting on my couch. My baby, my first game back, that was the calm."

He smiles all the while he's talking. He was solid that first game back; he wasn't nearly as sharp against the Braves, slipping in and out of his rhythm. But he threw a pair of perfect innings, 1-2-3. Jim Joyce watched from just across the diamond, his hands folded behind his back. "We feel sufficient time has passed," an MLB spokesman told me of their reunion. It does all seem like such a long time ago. For many of us there in Atlanta, those two innings were a reminder of what was. But for Armando Galarraga, they were more like a vision of how things might be, and he savored every moment. He knows, better than most, just how precious is the calm.

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