The 2012 baseball season, though not over yet, can be remembered for at least three things: the new one-game wild-card playoff, seven no-hitters and, surprisingly, the
infield fly rule.
As winners of the National League wild cards, the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves faced each other in a sudden-death playoff on Friday night. With the stakes and tensions already running high, a call in the eighth inning was what really started a commotion at Turner Field. Down 6-3 with one out and runners on first and second, the Braves’ shortstop Andrelton Simmons hit what looked like a routine fly ball toward Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday. However, shortstop Peter Kozma also called for the ball as he sprinted onto the outfield grass. Whether it was a breakdown in communication or some other unforeseen circumstance, the ball dropped between the two — much to the delight of the Braves and their fans. But that joy was short-lived because left field umpire Sam Holbrook called the infield fly rule on the play.
The infield fly rule was established mainly to prevent infielders from purposely dropping an easy pop-up to induce a double or triple play.
As a result of Holbrook’s call, the Braves had two runners on base with two outs, instead of one out with the bases loaded. As one might expect, Braves fans did not take kindly to this turn of events, littering the field with beer cans, trash and whatever else they could throw. This lead to an almost 20-minute in-game delay.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez took advantage of the delay by filing an official protest, which Major League Baseball executive vice president Joe Torre quickly overturned, stating it was a judgment call and not a play that could be appealed.
Most people were quick to blame the umpires for messing up yet another seemingly easy call. In the postseason, the umpiring roster expands from four to six, adding an umpire down each foul line; one would assume this lowers the margin of error. Some put blame on the application of the infield fly rule while others argued that Holbrook took too long to make the call.
The hit was a towering pop-up, and Holbrook did call it while the ball was in the air. Even if Holbrook waited too long to signal the call, it went in favor of the Braves in the sense that both runners advanced to second and third. If the ruling had been made immediately, perhaps both runners would have stopped in their tracks and not advanced.
The umpire’s judgment, which cannot be officially contested, has still faced criticism. But the situation was not as simple as a runner beating the tag of a ball falling in fair or foul territory. The play could be reviewed many times, and each review would yield a different conclusion about how much effort the player took the make the play. Regardless, once the call was made, it could not be overturned.
Again, Holbrook did nothing wrong because he interpreted the play correctly and made the right call. In fact, all five of the other umpires said they agreed with his ruling.
Ironically, over the next three days of playoff games, the infield fly rule was called at least four more times in what can only be explained as the baseball gods messing with us.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 10 print edition. Brittany Yu is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.