ATLANTA — While ballpark debris and half-empty aluminum beer bottles littered Turner Field’s stage, umpire Sam Holbrook stood resolute in his split-second decision.
He never second-guessed: Not when he worried for his safety — “Yeah, when cans are flying past your head, yeah, [you worry] a little bit.” — not when he and his fellow umpires huddled together near the pitcher’s mound, and not when Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez exercised every last power a manager has to change a call.
Holbrook, the left field umpire in the Atlanta Braves-St. Louis Cardinals one-game wild card playoff, which St. Louis won 6-3, made the biggest, and perhaps most controversial, call of the baseball season Friday night. Given the circumstances, his decision to motion for an infield fly rule nearly halfway to the outfield warning track will remain a point of contention for years in Atlanta. He understands that. But as he and other baseball representatives sat behind microphones following the debacle which caused many of the 52,631 Braves fans in attendance to unload their belongings in protest, Holbrook’s expression never changed.
He did not back down, either.
“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,” Holbrook said.
The point of grief for Gonzalez is the interpretation of “ordinary effort.” The point of contention for most in attendance without clear understanding of Major League Baseball’s rulebook was that the shortstop, Pete Kozma, and his left fielder, Matt Holliday, suffered a miscommunication. The ball dropped to the ground, apparently giving Atlanta a one-out, bases loaded situation trailing by three runs. Turner Field erupted in delight at the Cardinals’ misfortune.
“It’s an infield fly rule,” Gonzalez said. “I was arguing or protesting that it was not an ordinary effort. I thought that the shortstop had to go way out there to make a play on that fly ball, and I think we’ve got to take into account the crowd,” Gonzalez said. “Fifty thousand people yelling, and I thought there was some miscommunication between Holliday and Kozma.”
Once the overwhelming sense of joy dissipated into disgust, fans began throwing beverages and other items onto the field. After a heated discussion with home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg, Gonzalez officially protested the outcome of the game. Kellogg then went to the phones to discuss the unique, and somewhat scary, scenario he and his fellow umpires were in. After a 19-minute delay, the call was upheld, although the protest — for a short while — stood.
Braves general manager Frank Wren officially withdrew the protest during postgame press conferences.
The disappointing result will not change for the Braves, but Holbrook’s call remained front and center. How can an umpire make that call when the infielder drops the ball? How can he make that call so far into the outfield? Ultimately, how could this happen?
According to the MLB rulebook, an infield fly rule does not have to take place in the infield at all. The rule, which automatically registers an out for the defense on high-hit balls with two men on base, is enacted if an infielder gets under a ball by making an “ordinary effort.” The rule, ironically in this scenario, is meant to benefit the offense. If defenses were allowed to let high popups drop, then unfair force outs could occur. So it did not matter that Kozma and Holliday botched the play. Once the ball was on its downward flight, and Holbrook made his call, that fly ball’s fate was sealed.
Baseball stuck to its guns and its rulebook in the aftermath. MLB executive vice president Joe Torre, head of umpires Charlie Reliford and Kellogg all backed Holbrook’s call. Reliford and Torre held court for 10 minutes following the press conference explaining that even the timing of Holbrook’s call was correct, as an umpire can not make a judgment of “ordinary effort” until the ball is, in fact, on its downward flight.
“If I was grading a minor umpire who didn’t make that call on its downward flight, I would mark him off for that,” Reliford said.
Exacerbating the matter Friday night was the moment itself — the bright lights, the emotion, the tension, the stakes. Baseball is one of the few sports remaining that does not make substantial use of instant replay, so such reactionary judgment calls carry even greater weight. That can be tough on an individual, and that pressure showed on Holbrook’s face following the outcome that knocked the Braves out of the postseason and, notably, ended future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones’ career on a sour note.
“We’re certainly looking at expanding replay, but we’re trying to make sure if we do expand it through the technology that it makes sense for baseball,” said Torre, a former Braves player and manager. “But, again, baseball has been played a long time, and I’m not looking to hide from this. But the fact that because there’s a controversy, baseball has been controversial for a long time.”
If “baseball has always been this way” is the argument, it is a rather weak one, but, as Jones stated following his final game, the call resides in a gray area. Despite baseball officials circling the wagon around Holbrook, protecting one of their own, there is no black-and-white answer for the Cardinals’ defensive predicament. One could easily argue, as Gonzalez did for 19 minutes, that Kozma’s long trek back into the outfield was far past “ordinary effort.” There is the playoff setting; there are the distracting home fans. Too many factors come into play to say, without a shadow of a doubt, that the right call was made.
But the painful admission for Braves players, coaches and fans is that the call was not the game’s deciding factor. The Braves’ defense was atrocious, committing three errors that directly led to five runs. That was the true difference in the game. The assumption can not be made that, even with bases loaded and one out in the eighth, this Atlanta offense could deliver — it left 12 men on base against the Cardinals.
“Ultimately, three errors cost us the ballgame, mine probably being the biggest,” said Jones, whose fourth-inning throwing error kickstarted a three-run Cardinals inning. “Did [the call] cost us one out? Did it cost us one run, possibly more? Yes. But I’m not willing to sit here and say that that cost us the ballgame.”
In the end, there is no deciphering the unknown.
Gonzalez and his players will likely carry some form of protest to their graves. Braves fans will argue tooth and nail that, with all that playoff momentum, Atlanta would have won the first-ever playoff wild card — if only it weren’t for the left field umpire’s interpretation of one particular play at one particular time.
Sam Holbrook ducked off stage and out of the spotlight as quickly as possible Friday night, turning right where the media turns left, face flush with either excitement or unwanted attention. It didn’t even take an ordinary effort to see the man wanted little to do with what transpired at Turner Field Friday night.
Right or wrong, baseball paints with shades of gray. Sam Holbrook was just an artist in an unwanted spotlight.