chipper’s last hurrah – and umpires

All right, so maybe by committing three errors, allowing four unearned runs, going one-for-eight with runners in scoring position and stranding twelve men, the Braves deserved to lose tonight – but that doesn’t make their 6-3 defeat to the Cardinals in the inaugural “Wild Card Game” any less bitter of a pill to swallow. They scored more earned runs than the opposition (3 to 2), had twice as many hits as them (12 to 6), had twice as many extra base hits (4 to 2), and turned two double plays. Chipper Jones had a hit in his final Major League at bat, coming with two outs in the 9th inning – an infield hit that he questionably beat out. But it’s easy to overlook all of the Braves’ ineptitude and the Cardinals’ seemingly endless streak of leprechaun-inspired luck due to yet another missed call by an umpire.

Andrelton Simmons hit a fly ball to left with runners on first and second, one out in the bottom of the eighth inning. The generic Cardinals shortstop drifted back and peeled off at the last second to avoid a collision with purported left fielder Matt Holliday. The ball dropped in and the bases were loaded with one out – and the crowd was wild with excitement.

outfield fly, (c) mlb

But it was short lived. Left field umpire Sam Holbrook inexplicably decided, just before the ball hit the ground, to invoke the infield fly rule, a rule put in place to prevent the infielders from dekeing the baserunners by intentionally letting the ball drop and turning an easy double play. Of course, to accept that ruling it would need to be a routine play, the fielder would need to be under the ball, and the call would need to be made much earlier – and it’s customary to only call an infield fly on balls in, or near, the infield. The batter was automatically out despite the ball not being caught, and instead of bases loaded and one out there were now two outs with runners on second and third. So manager Fredi Gonzalez objected and played the rest of the game under protest. Fans threw bottles, an arguably justifiable reaction by an aggrieved populace that desired justice, or at least adherence to the game’s laws. No further damage, at least to the box score, was done.

It took an hour or so for MLB to nonchalantly reject the protest, officially backing up their horrendous officiating and continuing a trend of obliviousness toward making correct rulings. The umpires continue to refuse to huddle and overturn incorrect calls and MLB could not care less, as long as games are selling out and fans keep watching. As it stands, fans are forced to temper their excitement – because if MLB doesn’t care enough to get the calls correct in their own games, why should fans care who wins a game played under such arbitrary “guidelines”? Even my wife, who has only general knowledge of the game, acknowledges the lunacy here:

Baseball has problems. It’s because they’re sittin’ on their high horse, sayin’, ‘No, we won’t use technology to improve the game.’

This type of disappointment is familiar to the Braves. There was the Buster Posey out in 2010, where he was (incorrectly) called safe on a steal of second, ultimately leading to the only run of the game and contributing to Atlanta’s postseason demise. Then, of course, the Braves undid themselves last September to avoid having to face the umpires in the 2011 postseason. So this year the Braves, with 94 wins, had to face the Cardinals (winners of 88 games), in a one-game playoff to determine the right to play in the division series. Leave it up to MLB to take a season comprised of series and distill it into one game where the magnitude of a single mistake – by a player or an umpire – is so unjustly amplified.

Alas, there’s always next year, but it will be without Larry Wayne Jones. Perhaps after 162 games and a few more blown calls, we can once again have this discussion. We can also spend a bit of time wondering just what would’ve happened if the big hit could have come, or if those throws hadn’t been so outrageously errant. Maybe the game was devised with the idea that those truly heroic moments by the players are enough to outshine the ugly umpiring. Unfortunately for the 2012 Braves, those heroics were far dimmer than they should have been.

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