ATLANTA – All right, NFL replacement refs: You're off the hook.
Baseball's new one-game wild-card shootout began with a nationwide bang, but surely not in the way MLB intended. In a sport that prides itself on holding onto the human element, an umpire's catastrophic judgment call could have cost the Atlanta Braves a shot at beating the St. Louis Cardinals and advancing in the National League playoffs. At the very least, it's put the sporting world's focus squarely on baseball's culture of judgment calls and brought into question the very idea of a single-game playoff.
The situation: In the eighth inning, the Braves, down 6-3, had put men on first and second with one out. Andrelton Simmons rifled a ball high in the air to short left field. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma backed toward it as leftfielder Matt Holliday ran in. At the last instant, Kozma backed off the ball, and it dropped between both players.
Bases loaded for All-Star catcher Brian McCann, right? A chance for Atlanta to rally late in dramatic fashion, right? Not quite.
An instant before the ball hit the turf, left-field umpire Sam Holbrook lifted his right hand signaling the infield-fly rule was in play. Simmons was out, and the Braves' chances at a rally took a huge hit.
Wait a second … infield-fly? When the ball was closer to the left-field fence than the Georgia clay infield? What in the name of Biff Pocoroba just happened?
The issue lies in both the wording of the infield-fly rule and in the judgment call of an umpire. As written, the infield-fly rule comes into effect with fewer than two outs and a force play in effect at third base. It's designed to protect runners, preventing an infielder from "dropping" a ball and doubling or even tripling up runners. The batter is automatically called out.
However, the infielder has to be able to make the play with "ordinary effort," and that's where the controversy comes into play. Kozma was racing out to make the grab on the sky-high fly, but had slowed and was very close to getting into position. He backed off the ball, hearing something and thinking that Holliday had called him off.
MLB Rule 2.00
An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.
When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare "Infield Fly" for the benefit of the runners. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare "Infield Fly, if Fair."
Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder – not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire’s judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder. The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpire’s judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately.
When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk. …
ORDINARY EFFORT is the effort that a fielder of average skill at a position in that league or classification of leagues should exhibit on a play, with due consideration given to the condition of the field and weather conditions.
"I just stopped," Holliday said after the game. "He thought he heard me. I was looking at him, he was looking at me."
Speaking after the game, Holbrook was resolute and unwavering about a call that is the epitome of judgment: "I saw the shortstop go back and get underneath the ball. He would have had an ordinary effort to make the catch. That was when I called infield-fly."
"I'm not going to say I've never seen anything like that," Chipper Jones said, "but I haven't seen one called where the guy wasn't camped." Review the video: Kozma's feet never stop moving as he's angling on the ball.
Baseball aficionados will be reviewing this one like the Zapruder film: Kozma was there! Kozma flinched! The ump waited too long to make the call! The ump was right on it! Lost in all the hand-wringing is that this is a play that never should have been allowed to reach an umpire's judgment in the first place.
"Our guys would've made it a whole lot easier," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny sighed, "if they'd made the play."
Still, all the rational, rule-based explanations in the world weren't enough to satisfy the sold-out Turner Field crowd. Atlanta fans have a longstanding (and well-earned) rep as being passive observers more content to watch ballgames at home than at the ballpark. But on this night, a little of the college-football atmosphere that dominates the South bled into the professional ranks, as fans rained beer cans and bottles onto the field in the wake of Holbrook's call. Public-address calls for fans to stop throwing objects on the field went unheeded, and the game was halted for 19 minutes while Turner Field staff picked up the trash.
[Photos: Controversial NL wild-card game]
Players gathered around the pitcher's mound out of the reach of fans. "I went under the awning," Jones smiled. "Momma didn't raise no fool."
After the game, several Braves officials condemned the fans' actions. "I was a little disappointed with those fans," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "That was uncalled for. I understand their disappointment, but we can't do that."
The crowd eventually did calm down, and even fired off a wicked bit of gallows humor in the top of the ninth. As Shane Robinson flied out to deep center, the crowd chanted mockingly, "Infield-fly! Infield-fly!"
Atlanta lodged an immediate protest, but shortly after the game, baseball officials denied it, saying a judgment call in itself is not grounds for such a protest.
The infield-fly controversy overshadowed one of the most significant events in Atlanta sports in years: The final game fo Jones, who is likely Cooperstown-bound. But for a guy who made his name coming through in big situations, Jones was uncharacteristically small on this, presumably his final night on a major-league field. His throwing error in the fourth allowed the Cardinals to take the lead for good. At the plate, he was all but invisible.
"Going 0-for-5 and making an error that cost us three runs wasn't the way I wanted to go out," Jones said afterward. (Jones actually went 1-for-5, the lone "hit" being a final-career-at-bat squibber to second that an exceedingly generous scorer didn't call an error.)
Still, Jones acknowledged that the Braves couldn't pin their woes on the call. "Ultimately when I think we look back on this, we need to look into a mirror," he said. Even down three runs, the Braves brought the tying run to the plate in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, and couldn't score in any of those situations.
The Braves' defensive miscues and offensive frailty, as well as the Cardinals' now-traditional raise-your-game postseason play, are about all that saved this game from being a debacle on the scale of Packers-Seahawks. Even the most diehard Braves fans have to concede there's no guarantee Atlanta would have scored any runs in the eighth inning, With a gimpy McCann at the plate, it's possible he would have grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Still, this controversy is why a one-game playoff, as enjoyable as it might be for unaffiliated fans, has no place in a sport so dominated by judgment calls as baseball. There's too much room for men who don't play in the game to have an impact on a team's entire season. A team riding a single starting pitcher to the next round is one thing; a team receiving the benefit (or detriment) of an umpire's judgment calls, whether in the field or behind the plate, is something else entirely.
Joe Torre, executive vice president of Major League Baseball, takes a different stance, indicating that controversy alone is not enough to entice baseball into lengthening the series: "I didn't think there was enough reward for winning the division," he said after the game. "I like the one-game playoff. It's Game 7, all hands on deck. I'm sorry about the controversy. But I think this is an exciting format, myself."
"Exciting" is indeed one word for it. The Braves and their fans have an entire offseason to come up with a few others.
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