Tuesday, October 9, 2012

First-ever MLB League Wild Card Game engulfed in controversy

The first wild card one-game playoff showdown in Major League Baseball history was held up for about 20 minutes on Oct. 5 when the hometown Atlanta Brave fans showered Turner Field with debris. The fans were reacting to a perceived blown call by the umpires in the eighth inning that may have helped the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals defeat the Braves 6-3.

The drama came when the Braves’ Andrelton Simmons popped up a fly ball into the outfield with runners on first and second base. It should have been a routine catch for St. Louis left fielder Matt Holliday, but he had trouble finding the ball. Shortstop Pete Kozma ran into the outfield to help him, but the ball fell in between them.

While the Braves thought they had loaded the bases with a single, Sam Holbrook, the left field umpire, stunned the team and the fans by calling Simmons out due to baseball’s infield fly rule. However, he made a late ruling on the play and it looked to be anything but a routine fly ball. This meant the runners were still at second and third with two out instead of the bases loaded with just one out.

The home fans didn’t take too kindly to Holbrook’s call and the diamond was soon covered in cups, bottles, and all other sorts of easily-throwable items. The game was then delayed while the stadium crew cleaned up the mess. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez then told the head umpire Jeff Kellogg that the game would be played under official protest. After the game he said he didn’t agree with the infield fly call since the rule says the ball would be caught by a fielder making a normal effort to catch it.

However, Gonzalez, like most fans watching the game, believed the shortstop had to cover a lot of ground to reach the fly ball and it shouldn’t have been considered a normal effort. The rule was put in place to stop the fielders from dropping the ball on purpose when there are men on first and second base or if the bases are loaded with less than two out. If a fielder drops the ball he can then easily generate a double or even triple play. However, since this was a playoff game and would be a logistical nightmare to reschedule etc., Joe Torre of MLB rejected the protest.

Torre said the normal procedure calls for a decision to be made in 24 hours and a written report to be made, but it wasn’t possible in this case. He said he asked Gonzalez and Atlanta general manager Frank Wren what the protest was based on. Torre added that he disallowed the protest since it was a judgement call by the umpire. Once the Braves heard that Torres said it was the umpire’s call, they dropped the official protest.

Holbrook said he thought the shortstop would usually have caught the ball and that’s why he made the ruling. However, the ball was about 90 feet into the outfield when it fell and Holbrook didn’t make the call until a split second before the ball hit the ground. The Braves argued that the umpire didn’t make the call fast enough and the shortstop had to make more than an “ordinary” effort to reach the ball.

The call may have had an impact on the game, but nobody will ever know. It will be debated for years to come, but the Braves weren’t blaming the umpire for the loss. They made three errors in the game and didn’t do enough to win it as they were trailing 6-2 at the time of the incident. But ironically, while the infield fly rule is actually meant to benefit the batting team, the fielding club definitely prospered from this call.

Ian Palmer
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