By now you have probably seen the play at least five times: bottom eight, first and second, one out, Cardinals winning 6-3 and Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons at the plate. Simmons hits a very high pop fly into shallow left field. Cardinal shortstop Pete Kozma ran about 30 feet into the outfield, waved to leftfielder Matt Holliday that he had the ball, got under the ball – and then backed away as the ball fell to the ground. It looked like the bases were loaded, one out.
But along the left field foul line, as soon as Kozma signaled that he had a bead on the ball, leftfield foul line ump Sam Holbrook raised his right arm into the air, signaling the infield fly rule. When the ball hit the ground –Holliday would say after the game that he knew Kozma had it and didn’t want to get anywhere near the shortstop – both runners advanced, making it second and third with two outs, not bases loaded with one out.
WAS THIS THE CORRECT CALL?
You bet it was. The fans went ballistic, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez came out to argue (and would eventually protest the game) and there was a long delay. In the TBS booth (and on ESPN national radio), nobody really understood the rule. When they sent it down to Tom Verducci, an excellent baseball writer, he, at least, had read the rule and pointed out the two factors involved in the call.
The first, of course, under the definition of infield fly, is whether the infielder could have caught the fly “with ordinary effort.” The answer, of course, was absolutely. While ESPN, the next morning was putting up graphics about how far the ball was from home plate, the distance from home is totally irrelevant with respect to whether the infield fly rule should be called (think weak pop up versus towering pop up).
The reality is that this was a very high pop-up. Kozma went into the outfield area to catch it and was going to catch it. Frankly, it was an easy play for a major league shortstop.
And the distance from home means nothing.
THE SECOND ASPECT OF THE INFIELD FLY RULE
While few even understood (or understand) the “ordinary effort” part of the infield fly rule, nobody but the umpires understood the second aspect of the rule: “When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare infield Fly for the benefit of the runners.”
As a result of this aspect of the rule, virtually every “expert” criticized umpire Holbrook for taking too long to make the call. Everybody misinterpreted the rule, stating that the call had to be made “immediately.” And, of course, it wasn’t made immediately.
But THAT’S NOT WHAT THE RULE SAYS. The rule says that the umpire must make the call immediately “WHEN IT SEEMS APPARENT THAT A BATTED BALL WILL BE AN INFIELD FLY.”
And that’s exactly what the umpire did, since it could not be apparent that the shortstop could catch this ball with ordinary effort until he got out there, waved off the outfielder and was about to make the catch.
Then, and ONLY THEN, could the umpire invoke the infield fly rule.
And that’s exactly what he did.
OF COURSE THE PROTEST HAD TO BE DENIED
Well, that’s an easy one. The infield fly rule is based upon the judgment of the umpire. It’s like protesting a ball-strike call or a bang-bang play at first. Even though the umpire displayed good judgment (and made the correct call), even if he had terribly botched it (he didn’t), the protest still would have been denied.
Of greater interest is the lack of knowledge of fans and so-called “experts.” On ESPN radio, one of the commentators actually said on the air that the play had to be reversed (preposterous). On the TV telecast, when the home plate ump went over to speak with Cardinal manager Mike Matheny, one of the commentators, jumping the gun, said that the play was going to be reversed (also preposterous).
Well, the fans’ reaction was disgraceful. But, again, very few understand the nuances of baseball, including the infield fly rule. The rule is there to protect the offense, to make sure that a fielder does not drop a ball intentionally to try and get a double play.
In fact, on this play, the offense benefitted as much as it could as both runners successfully moved up. The fact that no run scored in that inning spoke more to Atlanta’s inefficiency (both at bat and in the field – three throwing errors that really cost the Braves the game) than a perceived bad call.
There was no bad call – and some will never understand that. When the Associated Press article calls the play “an umpiring call that only the NFL’s replacement referees would agree with” well, you know that there is a problem – not with the umpiring, but with the “experts” who cover the game.
WHAT ABOUT THE COMMENT IN THE OFFICIAL RULES OF MLB ON THE INFIELD FLY RULE?
The comment to the definition of an infield fly under the Definition section (2.0) of the Official Rules of Major League Baseball states: “The umpire must also rule that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpires [sic] judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder.”
What that means, in this case, is that, if after Kozma called for the ball (and then moved forward as if Holliday had called him off), Holliday ran in and caught it, the infield fly rule STILL could have been called.
And there probably would have been a riot in the stadium.
The conclusion is that the right call was made and virtually everybody didn’t understand it.
The reality is that football “experts” sometimes don’t understand football rules (the Tom Brady “tuck rule” game comes to mind).
The reality is that baseball “experts” sometimes don’t understand baseball rules (if you hear anybody say that the call was wrong because it wasn’t called “immediately” (an impossibility under this particular play), they still don’t understand the rule).
And that’s just the way it is.
ONE FINAL NOTE
While the future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones had a miserable game, throwing errors do occur. Ground balls to second do occur. But it was disgraceful to see Chipper, in his final at bat, jog to first when he made a determination that he was going to be thrown out at first on a broken-bat grounder up the middle.
He jogged, and then sped up when the throw pulled the first baseman off the base. Chipper was still out but was called safe, maybe to save him some embarrassment, maybe it was just a blown call. The failure to run hard to first has become an epidemic in baseball.
But that’s for another day.