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By Jon Weisman
The umpire shall declare, “Infield fly, if fair.”
But what if it’s unfair?
That was the vexing question that arose in the eighth inning of an inaugural National League wild card playoff game whose chaos will stand the test of time for generations of National League wild card playoff games.
What follows is an UNSPOILER ALERT. You are hereby warned that even though many of you witnessed this at the ballpark or on television, you’re going to be forced to relive the madness.
St. Louis led Atlanta in the bottom of the eighth inning, 6-3, by means that themselves were unsuitable for framing, unless three Braves errors are your idea of a Monet. But Atlanta put David Ross and Dan Uggla on first and second with one out, bringing the tying run to the plate in Andrelton Simmons.
And then Simmons popped out, the Braves’ rally fizzled and the Cardinals sashayed through the ninth into a Division Series matchup with Washington.
That, in any event, is the way the official history of baseball will see it.
But the official history of baseball wears blinders.
Because when Simmons hit that pop to left field, nobody actually caught it. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma went back for the ball, but at the very last moment, he peeled off thinking that left fielder Matt Holliday had called for it. Simultaneously, with the ball well past the peak of its arc and not even a half-second from returning to earth, left-field umpire Sam Holbrook signaled for the infield fly rule.
Though many watching would complain that Kozma was too deep in left field for the infield fly to apply, that wasn’t really the issue. Kozma could have easily caught the ball, and had Holbrook made his signal seconds earlier, there would have been nothing to argue about.
Moreover, the central purpose of the rule, which is to prevent infielders from tricking baserunners into double plays when only one out is truly earned, could have been applicable. If Uggla and Ross had tagged up, one can imagine Kozma picking up the ball and relaying it through third baseman Matt Carpenter to second baseman David Descalso for the twin-killing. It’s a speculative scenario, but a viable one.
But that’s not what happened. What happened was that of the six seconds that the ball was in the air, 5½ of them went by before Holbrook or anyone else activated the infield fly rule. So it wasn’t St. Louis playing a three-card monte on Atlanta -- it was the men in black. And no, you can’t blame this one on Roger Goodell.
Euphoria in Atlanta over having the bases loaded with one out turned to fury (as it also did across the World Wide Web) as the two-on, two-out scenario became apparent. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez steamed like a tea kettle; Twitter sizzled like a fried egg in summertime.
Twenty minutes then passed in which everything imaginable was thrown on Turner Field except the next pitch of the baseball game (recalling memories of an August 1995 game the Cardinals won by forfeit at Dodger Stadium because of an unruly crowd). Twenty minutes of the surreality that has become distressingly commonplace for the American sports fan, to wit: How can the officials of the game not see the same thing so many of us are seeing?
I mean, yeah, it’s not unanimous. It’s never unanimous. And the lone voice in the wilderness isn’t always the wrong one. But did six umpires really not realize that the timing of Holbrook’s call came as late as the ball drop in Times Square? That they, not the Braves, were the guilty party? Had the call been changed, there’s no chance that the argument from the Cardinals would have been anywhere near as vigorous -- or righteous -- as the Braves’ case.
Whatever your opinion of instant replay might be, there’s no denying the satisfaction when a choppy call is reversed. It’s not quite “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in its turnabout magnificence, but it’s about as good as we get in this run-amok age. Owning up to a bad call isn’t a moment of shame, it’s an opportunity for catharsis. Nothing surprises me more than how rarely game officials seize this opportunity.
Perhaps -- and this is really the only thing I can think of -- the umpires felt that Holbrook himself had created the distraction that pulled Kozma away from the ball, because Holliday never appeared to open his mouth at all. As a result, perhaps, the umps decided to administer their own version of frontier justice and uphold the initial call. But even that slim possibility doesn’t serve as a viable defense, as it’s Kozma’s responsibility to be able to distinguish between his teammate and the umpire.
The much more plausible verdict is too-stubborn-for-their-own-good umps, leaving us with little more than this whale of a conversation piece … and a Bob Lanier-sized footnote: The call didn’t cost Atlanta the game.
No win or loss is ever all about a single umpire’s decision, and it couldn’t be more apparent that the Braves played a huge role in their own demise. Those three brutal errors, by Simmons, Uggla and retiring third baseman Chipper Jones, bled three unearned runs off Atlanta starting pitcher Kris Medlen, who had gone 23 games since the Braves last dropped a game he had started. If they make their plays, they don’t fall victim to this umpire haze.
And even after the debacle, incoming Cardinals reliever Jason Motte walked pinch-hitter Brian McCann, meaning that Michael Bourn still got to bat with the tying run on base. But after working the count to 3-1, Bourn struck out. Then, the Braves got another shot at tying the game in bottom of the ninth, but with Freeman at second and Jones on a valedictory trip to third, Uggla grounded out, ending their season.
More debris from the stands drizzled the field, scattered Atlanta fans doing their unseemly, pointless best to commemorate the detritus of their 94-win campaign and steal their share of the anti-glory. They are left at home, while St. Louis -- and the umpires -- advance to their next game.
Weisman, a freelance sportswriter who has covered the Dodgers for 10 years at Dodger Thoughts, serves as Awards Editor at Variety.