The first ever Wildcard Round Playoff game took place at Turner Field in Atlanta on Friday evening. The game was historic because it was the first of it’s kind. It also featured two of the National League’s most successful franchises, the defending World Series champs taking on the team they eliminated on the last day of the season last year. This would have been the matchup we saw last year if there were a second wildcard. It was the final game for Chipper Jones, one of the greatest switch hitters in baseball. His next stop is Cooperstown. And the final game of his career, a game played in his home stadium in a town where he spent his entire career, a game so historic for him that his number 10 was cut into the outfield grass, is going to be remembered for the all important “human element” that Bud Selig wants to protect more than the integrity of our national pastime. A game rife with potential headlines is instead dominated by the memories of a call bad enough to make me wonder if the NFL’s replacement refs found work in MLB’s postseason.
For those of you who didn’t see the game, the Braves were trailing 6-3 in the bottom of the 8th. There was one out in the inning with men on first and second. The young shortstop, Andrelton Simmons, hit a shallow sly into left field that dropped between the Cardinals shortstop and left fielder. The shortstop, Pete Kozma, called off the left fielder as he raced back for the catch. However the ball continued to travel, further into the outfield than Kozma thought, and he lost it. The ball dropped between Kozma and Matt Holliday for what looked like a bloop single, with the runners moving up. The bases were then loaded with one out for Brian McCann and the crowd was going crazy. But then the unthinkable happened. Sam Holbrook, one of the two extra umpires provided by major league baseball for playoff games put his hand up at the last possible second, invoking the infield fly rule as the ball landed on the grass.
The crowd was understandably disgusted, and after watching the replay on the jumbo-tron, proceeded to shower the field with trash, perhaps hoping no one would notice with all the garbage Sam Holbrook was spewing. The call was so bad that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez finished the game under protest, though major league baseball denied an appeal on the play saying judgment calls aren’t up for review. While the sentiment is true, the Braves were arguing that two aspects of the infield fly rule that they believe weren’t met. First, the infielder had to make more than an ordinary effort to get to the ball, a ball that he actually couldn’t get to. In addition, the rule states that the umpires shall call the infield fly rule immediately, not a half a second before the ball strikes the outfield grass. However, ambiguous wording of a complex rule ended up being advantageous to MLB, as they have absolutely no interest in overturning any on the field rulings after the fact, as they want to avoid that can of worms. The fact is that while the Braves are correct in saying that two aspects of the infield fly rule weren’t met, both the determination of ordinary effort and the determination of what an “immediate” call is are both judgment calls. They are up to the judgment of the umpire. Most people would define an immediate call as within about 3 seconds of the ball striking the bat, not 10 seconds later as the play has almost reached a conclusion independent of official interference. But, again, the concepts of immediacy and effort are both left up to the umpire’s judgment, and judgment calls are not under the MLB umbrella of appeal. Even if it was, I’m sure they wouldn’t overturn the call, claiming that there’s no proof that the call had a direct effect on the outcome of the game. I agree, but I would also point out that there is no proof that the call WOULDN’T have an effect on the outcome of the game. And the aftereffects of this call look like they’ll have more staying power than the memory of this first wildcard game. Already we’ve seen a wave of criticism and discussion about the call. I personally enjoyed this article by Jay Busbee of Yahoosports. Or you could check out this article here. And don’t forget about this one here. Or even this more reasoned article from Tomahawk Take.
Now, as a Braves fan, I can tell you that this play is not the reason Atlanta lost the game. They couldn’t hit a thing and made three throwing errors leading to 4 unearned runs. But, the team that plays the best doesn’t always win the game. And regardless of the way the game went down, now there will always be some aspect of doubt as to what would have happened. Any time an umpire potentially changes the outcome of a game it’s bad news, especially when he changes it with a terrible call. The Braves were already the guinea pigs of this single game playoff experiment, which does more to de-value the regular season than any nightmare scenario dreamed up by the CEOs of the BCS. The Braves won 94 games and had a 6 game lead over the Cards for the first wildcard. And in one day, their season ends after a great year. Baseball diehards already were shaky on a 5 game playoff series because they thought it devalued all the good work a team did in the regular season. One game is a crapshoot, where any team can win. It’s moderately exciting for baseball fans that aren’t rooting for either team involved in the playoff. But it’s maddening to fans of a team that played great all year and has their season decided by a roll of the dice. And if your starter gets hurt in the first, or your best hitter pulls in a muscle in BP, or, God forbid, an umpire changes the game with a bad call, there is no time available for you to fix it and make up for the mistake or bad fortune. It’s one and done. It’s not baseball. It’s a football mentality in a non-football world. Baseball is loath to change, except in situations that could earn it more money, even if that’s not what’s best for the game. Honestly, the Commissioner’s Office is an analog player in a digital world. But the answer isn’t to keep everything the same, hop in a time machine and see how you do. The way to keep up is either to hold true to your essence or make small changes that improve the game itself. Instead they try to keep everything the same but change its format. Not a recipe for success.
I’m okay with baseball being slow to change. I think they have a good product and they’ve been around a long time with a lot of success. They should think hard about any changes they want to make. But the problem is, they do change things. They change plenty of things. And the things they change are all built around money. Again, that’s fine. But don’t refuse to change aspects of the game that could feasibly make it better, while claiming that the game is too sacred to handle any adjustments, even the positive ones. Instant replay is a controversial issue in the game. I’m not sure where I end up on it. But claiming you don’t want it because you want to protect the human error element is backward and shortsighted. Sticking to that claim while making commercial breaks between innings longer and adding commercial breaks between pitching changes in order to sell more add time is insulting and hypocritical.
The world has changed around baseball. The introduction of television, steroids and instant replay has an effect on the game. To ignore that effect (steroids) is not a good idea. To claim that its introduction will negatively affect the game (instant replay) is blatantly untrue. To do both of those things, then bend over backwards making changes to reap the awards of television is nothing short of offensive. The only reason this play didn’t shake the world in the same fashion that the Packers/Seahawks Hail Mary travesty did is because this play didn’t directly contribute to one team winning or losing. Well that, and because it wasn’t on Monday night football. (P.S. My favorite NFL team….the Green Bay Packers. The gods of officiating hate me). At the end of the day, a potentially great game is largely forgotten in the midst of one of the worst calls I can remember. Adding to the dismay is the fact that this was an historic game for major league baseball, though not a popular game that hurts the brand more than it brings in viewers. But at least baseball found a way to protect the all-important human element of the game, the reason I think most of us tune in to the playoffs.
P.S. Baseball’s official Twitter page used to have a sentence on it’s page saying “We don’t understand the infield fly rule, either”. I’m not overly surprised. They took it down shortly after Friday’s game. I’m sure that’ll solve everything.