Outta’ Right Field: You be the judge

By Robert Riches
October 10, 2012

Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez appeals to umpire Sam Holbrook, left, and umpire Jeff Nelson during a disputed infield fly call that favored the St. Louis Cardinals in the eighth inning of the National League Wild Card game at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia, Friday, October 5, 2012. (MCT)

For many baseball fans, the infield fly rule is one of the parts of baseball that was difficult to understand. We presume it to be one of those things that just seemed like a good idea at the time it was created.

Therefore, it’s only fitting that one of the bigger controversies in recent Major League Baseball history involved the infield fly rule.

The MLB defines an infield fly as “a fair fly ball…which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out.”

In the bottom of the eighth inning of Friday night’s NL Wildcard game between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals, the Braves had runners on first base and second base with Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons at the plate. He hit a pop fly to shallow left field. A miscommunication between Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday and shortstop Pete Kozma led to the ball dropping to the grass. But instead of loading the bases, left-field umpire Sam Holbrook called Simmons out because of the infield fly rule.

Many television viewers including myself were dumbfounded, wondering how such a call can be made when outfield grass dominated a majority of the television screen. Fans at Atlanta’s Turner Field responded in anger, pelting the field with trash, which resulted in a 19-minute delay while the grounds crew cleaned up.

Braves manager Fredi González demanded an explanation from the umpires and filed an official protest. However, due to MLB’s limited use on instant replay, infield fly calls are unable to be overturned. MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre denied the protest after the game, stating that Holbrook’s call was a judgment call.

Holbrook’s call may have been a mistake. After all, umpires have hundreds of calls to make per game and won’t get all of them right. However, this mistake poses several questions that demand answers.

Does wading backwards 30 yards into the outfield truly constitute as ordinary effort? Should the MLB expand the infield fly rule or instant replay? Could the Braves rally from a 6-3 deficit and win the first Wildcard playoff game if the call was never made?

That’s what makes the game so beautiful – how one simple call can set off a humongous chain of events. But once again, controversy reared its ugly head into another game of great circumstances. That’s what will ultimately be remembered.

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Robert Riches

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