Bad call, unruly fans mar Cards' win

When a rule is barely understood, that’s a problem. When a rule is applied in seemingly counter-intuitive fashion, that’s a problem. When a rule cause fans to flip out, littering the field with debris and causing an 18-minute delay, that’s a problem.

The umpires, their supervisor and baseball executive vice president Joe Torre assured us that the infield fly rule was correctly interpreted, that left-field umpire Sam Holbrook made the proper call, that everything was fine.

Only it wasn’t fine.

The call – on a ball hit well beyond the infield, to short left, by the Braves’ Andrelton Simmons - marred the Cardinals’ 6-3 victory in the National League wild-card game Friday night.

The ruling bewildered many of the Braves players, enraged the crowd, amounted to the wrong decision at the wrong time.

When a rule is barely understood, that’s a problem. When a rule is applied in seemingly counter-intuitive fashion, that’s a problem. When a rule causes fans to flip out, littering the field with debris and causing an 18-minute delay, that’s a problem.

The conduct of some fans at Turner Field was inexcusable, and the reflexive, blame-the-official response by fans in all sports is growing more disturbing by the day. Problem is, people had a right to be upset. Not trash-the-field, jeopardize-the safety-of-others upset, but upset nonetheless.

The infield fly rule, which applies when a force is possible at third and before two are out, is intended to prevent infielders from dropping popups on purpose to start double plays. Does anyone seriously think that Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma was masterminding such a move?

Holbrook’s call violated the spirit of the rule, even it was correct according to the letter of the law — a point that is subject to debate.

Afterward, a number of the Braves were glued to the clubhouse televisions, shouting in frustration repeatedly as they watched Torre, Holbrook, crew chief Jeff Kellogg and supervisor Charlie Reliford explain the call at a joint news conference.

Simmons, the rookie who hit the popup, said he had never seen the infield fly rule called on a ball hit that deep.

“It stunned me,” Simmons said. “I didn’t know why they were telling me I’m out, at first. I didn’t understand. I heard it was an infield fly call. I couldn’t understand it even more. I was even more confused.”

Join the club.

When a popup drifts some 70 to 80 feet into the outfield, it’s reasonable person to ask whether the infield fly rule should apply, even if the rulebook states that the umpire is not bound by “an arbitration limitation” such as the outfield grass in making the call.

When a shortstop such as Kozma runs about 15 steps into left field, calls for the ball and then backs off at the last moment, allowing the ball to drop, it’s reasonable to ask if the play could have been made with “ordinary effort,” as the rulebook requires.

More than 50,000 fans at Turner Field were screaming, adding to the degree of difficulty for the fielders. Left fielder Matt Holliday was closing on the ball, and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he thought there was miscommunication between the two, with Kozma perhaps thinking at the last instant that Holliday would make the play.

Ordinary? Hardly.

Gonzalez argued to no avail, the Braves played the game under protest, and the protest was swiftly denied. Torre said that he needed to act quickly with the Cardinals set to start their Division Series against the Nationals on Sunday, and he ruled that Holbrook made a judgment call.

The whole thing merits further explanation, but first, let’s get a few things straight:

• The Braves did not lose because of the call.

Yes, they would have had the bases loaded and one out in the eighth inning if the play had been allowed to proceed, instead of runners on second and third with two outs for pinch-hitter Brian McCann.

Still, a team that makes three errors, goes 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and fails to execute a questionable safety squeeze is in no position to dwell upon an umpire’s call, no matter how objectionable.

“We need to look at ourselves in the mirror,” said third baseman Chipper Jones, who made one of the errors in the final game of his career.

• Instant replay would not have solved the problem.

Replay currently is used on boundary calls for home runs. Baseball next plans to apply it on trapped balls and fair/foul calls down the lines. The interpretation of the infield fly rule is about the last thing that needs to be reviewed.

• The new single-elimination, wild-card format is not to blame.

Jones, an outspoken critic of the format, correctly prophesized last week that “anything can happen in one game — a blown call by an umpire, a bad day at the office.” Still, both teams knew the deal going in. And there is no guarantee that the Braves would have erased their three-run deficit if the call had gone in their favor, not when they playing so poorly.

Now back to the call.

Reliford said the infield fly rule actually is designed to benefit the runner. Once an umpire declares infield fly, the runner knows he no longer can be forced, and it is his choice  to run or not.

The question, Reliford said, is whether a fielder is in position to intentionally drop an infield fly. The umpire watches the fielder, and he watches the ball descend. If he determines that a fielder is “camped” under a ball, then he calls infield fly, and the batter is out.

Reliford said that Kozma “clearly” was under the ball. Jones disputed that, saying, “I haven’t seen one called where the guy wasn’t camped. You know, normally when you’re that far out, nobody’s camped.”

Kozma looked as if he was about to be camped, but he peeled off at the last minute. Some Braves thought Holbrook made the call too early. Holbrook said he was “absolutely” sure that he got it right.

“I saw the shortstop go back and get underneath the ball where he would have had ordinary effort and would have caught the baseball, and that’s why I called the infield fly,” he said.

“Camped” or not, “ordinary effort” or not, we can debate the particulars. The bottom line is, an outfield fly turned into an infield fly, and a whole lot of people — including some players — had no idea what the heck was going on.

The umpires can quote from the rulebook, but there comes a point when they need to exercise common sense.

Alas, common sense was in short supply Friday night.

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