The Umpires Got it Right, Atlanta Fans Got it Wrong
In a game where the rulebook meaning of “ordinary effort” was drawn into question, it was the less than ordinary defensive effort by the Atlanta Braves that cost them the N.L. Wildcard Playoff against the St. Louis Cardinals last night.
The big moment came with one out in the eighth and with two Braves on base, when umpire Sam Holbrook invoked the infield fly rule on a fly ball that fell between Cards’ shortstop Pete Kozma and left fielder Matt Holliday in shallow left. Kozma got to the ball in plenty of time and should have made the catch. Holbrook declared the infield fly rule just before Kozma backed off the ball, and his interpretation of the play and application of the infield fly rule clearly fit within the definition of Rule 2.00 of the Major League Rulebook:
An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball…which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort… 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.
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 infieldernot 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 umpires judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder.
Holbrook’s only error was that he did not immediately declare the infield fly rule in effect. The rule is worded to allow a very flexible interpretation and in my opinion Holbrook made a correct, although borderline, call. Kozma travelled a moderate distance from his shortstop position to get to the ball, but he never sprinted or ran hard to get under the ball. The fly ball was one which every Major League shortstop should have been able to catch with ordinary effort. Atlanta played the rest of the game under protest, but this was denied by MLB after the game.
The reaction from the Atlanta fans following Holbrook’s call was utterly shameful, as fans cascaded debris on the field resulting in a 19 minute delay. Umpire Holbrook even admitted to being scared for his safety as debris flew past his head and onto the field. Regardless of whether or not Holbrook got the call right, nothing entitles spectators to throw debris onto the playing field and jeopardize the safety of players, umpires and coaches. The Cardinals were also denied the opportunity to celebrate on the field after the game ended because Atlanta fans pathetically threw more garbage on the field. The Braves issued an apology after the game, but the damage was already done.
Just as it was ludicrous for the Cubs to blame Steve Bartman for losing the 2003 NLCS to the Marlins, the Braves cannot blame this loss on the umpires. But for Holbrook’s call, the Braves would have had the bases loaded with one out, but it is impossible to predict if they would have scored. The Braves had four more outs to work with after Holbrook’s call, and had three more at bats with the tying or go ahead run at the plate. Michael Bourn struck out with the bases loaded in the eighth, and Dan Uggla grounded out with two on in the ninth. The Atlanta mob also conveniently forgot that errors by Chipper Jones, Dan Uggla and Andrelton Simmons had gifted the Cardinals at least three runs earlier in the game.
Unfortunately, crass behaviour by the Braves and their fans is nothing new for baseball. In Game 2 of the 1992 World Series, U.S. Marines flew the Canadian flag upside down as they marched on the field before the game (just one night after getting the flag right in game 1). Although this incident was not the sole responsibility of the Braves, it is hard to fathom how team officials allowed the upside down flag to be marched around the stadium for the entire pre-game ceremony. The Braves also continue to champion the controversial Tomahawk Chop, a chant which mimics the supposed war cry and hammer swings of American Indians and has long been considered demeaning by many, though not all, American Indians. And let’s not forget that Atlanta continued to employ John Rocker for 1.5 years after he made hateful, derogatory remarks in a Sports Illustrated Article.
The infield fly call wasn’t the only difficult, correct ruling the umpires had to make last night. Home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg correctly declared Simmons out for running outside of the baseline when he was hit by Lohse’s throw while trying to leg out a hit in the fourth. In the second, Atlanta’s David Ross called for time just as Lohse was delivering the ball to the plate, and received time just before he swung through what would have been strike three. Ross hit a two-run home run on the next pitch. It’s funny how borderline calls only matter when they go against the Braves.
As LWOS writer Ben Kerr has happily pointed out to me on multiple occasions, never count out the Cardinals when it comes to post-season success, and it appears that a Herculean effort will be required to knock them off the top of the baseball world in 2012.
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