Jason Donald knows he was out

It happened in the twilight, one year ago today. A ball bounced to the right side. A pitcher and runner converged. A call was made. All hell broke loose.

You can call it the Armando Galarraga Game. You can call it the Jim Joyce Game. Either way, you cannot forget the Detroit Tigers’ 3-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians on June 2, 2010.

Even the most casual sports fans can close their eyes and recount what should have been the final play of a perfect game: Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera ranged far to his right — maybe too far — to field Jason Donald’s tapper toward the hole. Galarraga raced over to cover first. The right-hander beat Donald there . . . caught the ball . . . stepped on the bag . . . and waited for Joyce to start the celebration with a clench of his fist.

He never did.

Joyce swept his arms to the side. Safe. Safe? The fans at Comerica Park booed — and not in a token, we-didn’t-like-that-call kind of way. They wailed with the unvarnished emotion of a child whose favorite toy had been flushed down the toilet. Cabrera, along with the rest of the country, reflexively put his hands on his head. Galarraga smiled, a graceful moment of acceptance that made him an instant media sensation.

But what about Donald?

He was playing in just his 15th major league game. His view of the play was rather simple: Once he saw Cabrera commit to fielding the ball, Donald knew that he had to win a footrace to the bag. So he did what rookies do. He put his head down and ran as fast as he could. In that sense, he would know whether Armando Galarraga had thrown a perfect game before anyone else.

“He beat me,” Donald said over the telephone Wednesday. “He had the angle. The play happened right in front of me. I knew I was out immediately.”

Except, of course, he wasn’t. Donald remembers waiting for Joyce to pump his fist — and the feeling of disbelief when he didn’t. He remembers hearing the fans go bonkers. He remembers Tigers manager Jim Leyland arguing with Joyce. He remembers staying very quiet.

Finally, as Donald walked back to the bag, Indians first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. spoke up.

“You were out, bro,” he said.

“I know I was,” Donald replied.

By then, it was already too late. Joyce is one of the most respected umpires in baseball, a big-league veteran of more than 20 years. Donald, a major league infielder for all of two weeks, couldn’t walk over to a man of that stature and tell him that he was wrong.

Donald said he’s seen the commercial — Sportsmanship, pass it on — where the high school basketball player admits to the referee that he touched the ball before it went out of bounds. But that wasn’t the time or place to apply that lesson. In fact, Donald believes he would have sullied the game further — and caused regret for himself — by doing such a thing.

“It wouldn’t be my place to do that,” Donald says now. “It would have been disrespectful. I don’t think I could ever do that. As much as I want to argue with umpires when they call me out, I could never fight with someone who says I’m safe. I didn’t want to show him up.”

After the game, as the frenzy built in Detroit and elsewhere, the media surrounded Donald’s locker. He stayed calm. He refused to say Joyce was wrong — even though he didn’t need to see the replays to know what happened. “It was so bang-bang,” Donald said then. “I thought for sure I was going to get called out, just because of everything that was at stake.” But that’s as far as Donald went in his postgame remarks.

One year later, it’s easier for Donald to convey the emotions — complicated though they remain.

“For me, it seems like a distant memory,” he said. “I get asked about it a lot, and I have no problem answering questions. But it doesn’t cross my mind very often. I’ll see replays on TV, and I almost don’t believe it’s actually me. It’s like I’m watching some other guy run down the line.

“I knew it was a big deal when it happened. But now, I guess it’s just another part of my career, another chapter in my life. It’s not the only thing I’ve ever done or will ever do in baseball.”

Suffice it to say, though, it was the most famous of Donald’s 75 base hits last year. He has not yet added to that total in 2011.

In fact, Donald hasn’t played a game in the majors since Sept. 11. He broke his left hand during spring training, when Chicago White Sox right-hander Gavin Floyd hit him with a pitch. By April, he had returned to the minors. But Donald sustained another injury last month, when he sprained the MCL in his left knee on a takeout slide at second base by White Sox minor leaguer Gookie Dawkins.

So, one year after being involved in the season’s most famous play, Donald is spending his days at the Indians’ spring complex in suburban Phoenix, hoping his rehab work goes well enough that he can be back on the field at Class AAA a couple of weeks from now. The Indians are in first place, living a magical season no one anticipated, but Donald hasn’t been part of it yet.

In that regard, Donald is somewhat similar to Galarraga — who is also in the minors, albeit under different circumstances. Galarraga went 3-4 with a 5.91 ERA in eight starts this season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He had a terse, unprofessional exchange with one reporter during a May 16 postgame news conference in Arizona and was cut the next day.

Galarraga is now pitching for the Diamondbacks’ Class AAA affiliate in Reno, Nev. When asked recently by the Reno Gazette-Journal why he accepted the minor-league assignment rather than become a free agent, Galarraga told the newspaper, “The money. They have to pay me $2.3 million to come here.”

Aside from Galarraga, the biggest star on that June night was Detroit center fielder Austin Jackson, whose spectacular, over-the-shoulder, warning-track catch denied Mark Grudzielanek an extra-base hit to lead off the fateful ninth. Jackson was nearly voted the American League Rookie of the Year in 2010. This year, he’s batting .224.

“It shows you how difficult baseball is,” Donald said, of the collective reversal in fortune. “It’s a humbling game. It’s a grind. All you can do is compete and try to get back to the majors. That’s what he (Galarraga) is trying to do. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Donald and Galarraga haven’t spoken or faced one another since. Donald did, however, talk with Joyce later in the season, when the Indians hosted the Kansas City Royals. Joyce was umpiring at first base (again), and Donald found himself there during a pitching change. Donald wanted to check with Joyce to be sure that he had handled the situation properly, in his reaction and postgame comments.

Joyce assured Donald that he did.

“He’s a great guy,” Donald said. “He told me not to worry. He joked around a little. He just said, ‘You were doing your job. You were running as hard as you could. It’s not the guy who hit the ball. It’s the guy who made the call.’”

The Call will be analyzed and remembered for years to come, which, really, isn’t all that bad. Even on Wednesday, Cabrera admitted that he heard second baseman Carlos Guillen call for the ball himself — which, in retrospect, would have been the easier play. But Cabrera had already decided that he was going to get the ball. It was too late. So, rather than a simple 4-3, we were given one of the most debated and scrutinized plays in recent baseball history.

Donald, in fact, is among those who believe Galarraga’s achievement will be regarded as even “more special” than some of the official perfect games that have been thrown.

But ask Donald whether he considers all of this to be a happy memory, and he isn’t sure what to say.

“I wouldn’t quite say ‘happy,’” he answered, laughing a little. “It was an experience. That’s what I can say about it. At first, I didn’t appreciate the raw emotion of the Tigers’ fans. I didn’t know it was going to generate that much attention. Maybe I was naïve about that. I guess I doubted the power of the media and talk shows. I didn’t realize it was going to be such a big deal. People still talk about it.”

In the end, it comes down to a simple, silly question.

Are you glad you were safe?

“I’ve never been asked that,” Donald replied, before taking a minute to think about it.

And then he answered as any ballplayer would.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m glad. I wanted that hit.”