Oct 6, 2012 Comments Off Pat Dollard
ATLANTA — Six men in black shirts huddled in the middle of the diamond, standing alone as chaos reigned. They were the umpires, the people in charge of maintaining order at Turner Field, but any semblance of order had long been lost.
Discarded water bottles, half-empty cups and partially drunk beer cans came hurtling out of the stands, as a serenade of boos and obscenities rose to a crescendo. The players retreated to their dugouts for shelter. Only the grounds-crew remained, attempting frantically to clean up a mess that had already left a stain.
This was the lasting image from the baseball postseason’s opening act: garbage strewn on the field over an umpire’s call, tarnishing an otherwise thrilling National League wild-card playoff game. The St. Louis Cardinals eventually won, 6-3, and will host the Washington Nationals in the NLDS on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves’ season—and star third baseman Chipper Jones’s career—ends in anger and disappointment.
But that almost seems insignificant compared to the madness that preceded it.
With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons hit a pop-up into shallow left field. The ball dropped between Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma and left fielder Matt Holliday, seemingly loading the bases for the Braves.
Instead, left-field umpire Sam Holbrook invoked the infield fly rule and declared Simmons out, even though the ball traveled far out of the infield.
Moments later, the trash started pouring onto the field. It took almost 20 minutes to restore order.
“I understand the disappointment, but we can’t do that,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “As Atlanta Braves and people from Georgia, it doesn’t look good, and I’m a little disappointed in our fans.”
The Braves filed a formal protest, but it was quickly denied. Joe Torre, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said he disallowed it “based on the fact that it was the umpire’s judgment call.”
Rule 2.00 of baseball’s official rulebook says that when runners are on first and second or when the bases are loaded before two men are out, infield fly should be called on any ball that “can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort.” Holbrook said he saw the St. Louis shortstop “go back and get underneath the ball where he would have had ordinary effort.” Torre added that it looked to him like the correct call.
The Braves had a decidedly different view of it. As Torre defended Holbrook’s call on the television in the Atlanta clubhouse, the players groaned in unison. One player let loose an expletive.
“I’ve never seen infield fly call that deep in left field like that,” Simmons said.
Whether or not Holbrook made the right call, the fans’ reaction almost superseded it. In a statement, Braves president John Schuerholz said that a group of fans “acted in a matter that was uncharacteristic and unacceptable” and apologized to the Cardinals and to the league. But that didn’t make it any less frightening for the players on the field.
“Right as it was happening, all I could see was one of those full metal bottles hitting those guys, and that would have been bad news,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said.
To the Braves’ credit, they refrained from blaming the umpires for the loss afterward. They pointed to their three errors that led to four unearned runs for St. Louis. Jones, who went 1 for 5 in the final game of his career, made one of those miscues in the Cardinals’ three-run fourth inning. Atlanta also left 12 runners on base, squandering key opportunities in the eighth and ninth innings.
Lost in the mayhem of the later innings was that Atlanta fell in a game pitched by Kris Medlen, who allowed five runs (two earned) in 6 1/3 innings. The Braves had won the last 23 times Medlen had started, a major-league record.
“We could talk about the infield fly until we’re blue in the face, but we didn’t pick the ball up and throw it to the right bases,” Braves catcher David Ross said. “If we would have played like we played tonight for 162 games, we wouldn’t be in the playoffs.”
Even if the call didn’t cost the Braves the game, it’s what will ultimately be remembered. In an instant, it showed the potential downside to baseball’s new playoff format, where a team’s championship aspirations can be dashed in one unpredictable game. The Braves won 94 games during the regular season to the Cardinals’ 88, but the Cardinals are moving on.
The play also brings more scrutiny to baseball’s umpires, who have come under fire in recent years for other high-profile controversial calls. Cries for expanded use of instant replay in the sport will again come to the forefront.
That said, considering the beer bottles soaring in from the grandstand, this may not be a game anybody wants to watch again for a while.
“There’s no place for it in baseball,” Ross said of the reaction. “But on the same end, I don’t blame them. I was just as upset.”