Saturday, October 6, 2012

When an Infield Fly Rule Ruins a Baseball Game

It was the middle of the 8th inning...the St. Louis Cardinal team had played well enough to have a well-deserved 3-run lead against the haplessly-error-ridden Atlanta Braves.  Yet, the Braves were at bat, they had men on 1st and 2nd, and only one out.

Braves batter Andrelton Simmons hit a fly ball into left field, but hung there long enough to give three men time to converge on it--Cardinals left-fielder Matt Holiday, their shortstop Pete Kozma (who'd just made an error throwing to first), and the man who turned out to be more important to both Cardinals players, and every player, team, and rule, as it turned out--left-field umpire Sam Holbrook.

Kozma had made an exceptional effort look fluid and easy by running more than mid-way into deep left field quickly, reaching the ball's target area with 2 or 3 seconds to spare, so it was apparent that Matt Holiday was preparing to let the SS redeem himself from his earlier error (a bad throw to first) by letting him take the ball.

Then--literally at the last second, with the fly ball just 30 feet over Kozma's head--ump Holbrook decided to call the fly ball an out by invoking the infield fly ball rule.

I saw the play live, and it was not just 'protestable' was detestable--a poorly-made, mistaken, blown, call, from the split second the ump's hand haplessly went up to make it.

Sadly, it ruined the outcome of this game, the historic first MLB wildcard game, forever.

It was monumentally bad, and I'm very sure the actual umpire's poor call--so wildly inappropriately MADE and TIMED--was the full cause for the SS letting the ball drop in the first place, leading Kozma--who obviously knew he'd never expect any ump to be hollering out the infield fly rule--to mistake umpire Holbrook's voice for his own teammate Holiday's, calling him off to make the catch himself, as it was well within his range and the common territory of any major league left fielder.

My measly, brief experience as a LITTLE LEAGUE scorer/announcer (alongside all I learned about baseball rules from my dad, who himself was a local ump in my hometown) was more than enough to help me realize immediately (within 2 minutes of seeing Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez nearly get thrown out of the game over this 'travesty') that I needed to 'tweet' something vital, which happily 'went down' in real-life, within 5 mins of my tweet--that this game needed to go on 'under official protest', for two reasons:

  1. to make sure the wrong call by the ump went on the record as one that should indeed cause this game to be replayed from this vital moment onward, and
  2. to help keep order on the field and not lose the rest of the game to 'fan outrage'.
What price disco? Around 98¢ (and one forfeited playoff game)
The call was so bad that I quickly became sick of the TV announcers RIGHTLY shaming the fans for the scene that followed--the worst scene in the MLB since the famous 'Disco Demolition Night' at Comiskey in Chicago in '79.

Tonight's fans were MUCH more orderly than that--they were [rightly] really...erm, peeved, you might say, and merely kept waiting 'til the ground crew cleaned the whole play area up, to begin throwing more bottles, cans (and I think I even saw some kittens and newborn babies, too) was a scene, and only the official protest even ALLOWED Braves fans the courtesy to carry on the delusion they hadn't been absolutely robbed...because they were.

No, nobody threw their babies and pets...just almost everything else they had on 'em.

I couldn't believe it when I heard who would be 'the deciders' on the protest (Joe Garagiola, Jr, and Joe Torre, both of whom have direct ties with the St. Louis Cardinal organization, and so both of whom are totally improper choices to make this important decision.  I mean, it wasn't like this game wasn't scheduled.

The debacle paralyzed game play for nearly 30 minutes while field crew members had to keep returning to the field (especially the left field, for some reason) to clean off more debris thrown by angry fans.

The Braves had definitely been threatening to score, and if the play had been left alone, ironically, the Braves might have failed to score a single run anyway.  But it really killed the hopes of them winning; it was on their faces, especially Chipper Jones, for whom this was to be his last game.

Honestly, I was 'torn' between wanting to judge the fans for their impudent and somewhat immature trashing of their own field, and realizing how they must be feeling, seeing how this all went down, dashing their hopes during their biggest rally of this game.

Sure, those who threw stuff exhibited poor conduct, poor sportsmanship, and likely even broke some litter ordinances in Atlanta, but still--this was such a poor call, and even the protest decision poorly handled, as well.

I only 'dissertate' here because I know that rule SO WELL, and it does NOT just involve whether the ball could be intentionally DROPPED, but also whether the player who intentionally let it drop could also in 'real time' turn this into a double play, cheating a single out into a 'manufactured DP'--hence, the rule in the first place.

In this case, that would have been veritably and nearly undeniably impossible--TWO Aroldis Chapmans couldn't have hurled the ball around the field fast enough for that to have happened.  

If the ball had been caught, with the rule unapplied, any conscientious, responsible, rational, 'team-player'-runners would have been left standing at their bases, as it was an easy judgment call by either runner due to the height of the ball, and the overwhelming likelihood that the ball would be caught (99% of the time, in any sensible outcome, by the advancing left fielder, who'd use his forward momentum to hurl the ball infield for any further potential plays).

The breathless disbelief of the TV announcers when the ball went uncaught is enough to tell you this (along with the scary vacuous noise of 40,000+ Braves home fans gasping right along for the same reason).

In fact, in the first minute after the call was made, TBS TV announcer Ron Darling was clearly 
heard to say "You cannot call that an infield fly.  It's too deep.  He wasn't camped".  He went on, saying "You know, this is what happens occasionally when you add extra umpires down the right-field and left-field lines.  You have extra umpires, and sometimes you have extra calls".

Ron Darling is no stranger to fielding the ball himself.  His wikipedia page says this:
[Darling] was considered one of the better fielding pitchers of the time, and won a Gold Glove Award in 1989. Darling had one of the best pickoff moves among right-handers. An above-average athlete, he was sometimes used as a pinch runner. In 1989, he hit home runs in two consecutive starts.
What makes this call most ridiculous is that the fly ball would have been caught by somebody without the umpire's intervention in the first place.

The 'infield fly rule' is worded specifically so that these things cannot happen (cannot be automatically interfered with by the umpire himself, as well).  Here it is:
The rule applies only when there are fewer than two outs, and there is a force play at third base (i.e., when there are runners at first and second base, or the bases are loaded).[1] In these situations, if a fair fly ball is in play, and in the umpire's judgment it is catchable by an infielder with ordinary effort, the umpire shall call "infield fly" (or more often, "infield fly, batter's out"); the batter will be out[2]regardless of whether the ball is actually caught in flight. Umpires typically raise the right arm straight up, index finger pointing up, to signal the rule is in effect.
The best lesson as to why this call was so bad, would be if--in ANY game in the future, ANY infielder who possessed extraordinary speed and a particularly high level of poise--decided to run down ANY well-hit fly ball in the deepest part of the outfield, while the outfielder there also took part in the 'lesson' and stood motionless, except to avoid the infielder's attempt to catch the ball.

In any such scenario, the infielder could potentially cause a similar 'missed call' if any umpire seeing him make the play decided he made the play look easy.  Over...and over...and over, into the millions.

So soon after the NFL ref issues, this was just so poorly handled (Torre's denial of the official protest was so immediate and flatly dismissive that it reeks of cronyism and team-based bias on his part) that it will now leave an indelible mark on the otherwise wonderfully-implemented wildcard idea.

The saddest part is that the call actually disrupted an actual play that would have almost certainly been made by the Cards SS had he not genuinely mistaken the ump's voice for his very own left-fielder, because he'd been looking straight up, the ump was yelling over the crowd, and the SS then stepped back to let his LF take the ball, and in one painful moment only then realized the ump had been the voice he heard.

So it was one of those things--'wrong on so many levels': the call was 'moot', the call WAS wrong, it was MADE wrong, and then, after all, inexorably made no sense for any reason, other than it was made by an inexperienced 'additional' umpire, DIRECTLY affected the outcome of a 'first-time' type of event, caused such an uproar, and will go on the books with a huge question mark directed at the POTENTIAL for bias in the final decision to deny the protest, which, if not THE most appropriate protest in MLB history, then certainly one of the biggest and important ones.

Baseball needs more work on officiating, 'camera'-involved protests, questioning some major components of the 'judgement call', while still keeping the pace of the game on a reasonable clip.

So many 'non-fans' already hate the pace of this game, and so many 'true fans' gave up on the innocence of the sport after the 1994 strike; and the controversial influence of steroids hasn't helped any (and likely won't).

I wonder how long the game will be able to teach any kind of lessons on any level, to anyone watching it, besides the nonsensical exposition of low-grade flim-flam we saw tonight.