Like the call that handed the Seahawks the win over the Packers two Mondays ago, the ruling in the Braves-Cardinals death match was complex enough to trip up the layman. The call on Golden Tate's "touchdown" could, if you squinted, have been justified based on a slippery understanding of the concept of the "simultaneous catch," while the call last night revolved around the infield fly rule, a bylaw so obscure that Major League Baseball itself joked about not understanding it.
So it seemed like it would only be a matter of time until a baseball historian came in, wagging his finger and taking all the fun out of throwing beer bottles, because everyone who really knows the game knows umpire Sam Holbrook had it right.
The botched call was made at about 10 minutes to 8 p.m. Fans spent the better part of the next 20 minutes righteously tossing garbage on to the field and, when at all possible, at umpires. USA Today got Paul White's "Umpires made correct call on infield-fly rule" up on their site at 8:47 p.m. (and updated with video later in the night.)
The comment in the baseball rulebook that accompanies the explanation of the rule is what's most pertinent in tonight's case.
Here it is:
Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder - not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire's judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder.
Watch replays closely and you'll see that Holbrook, the left field umpire, watches as shortstop Pete Kozma backpedals into left field. As soon as Kozma waves his arms to communicate that he's ready to catch the ball, Holbrook's raises his arm to signal an infield fly.
In other words, the umpire waits until he's certain it's a play the infielder can make. Kozma apparently thought it was a play he could make.
Whatever caused him to suddenly peel off – was it when, amidst the stadium noise, Holbrook accompanied his signal with a verbal call of "infield fly?" – Kozma suddenly changed direction, as infielder as taught to do when they believe they hear the outfielder calling that he can make the catch.
There was a spirited debate about the fairness and accuracy of the call in the discussion of our post on the incident last night, and, far more than in the aftermath of the Packers-Seahawks debacle, there are two sides to this story. Still, technically correct or not, it was an unusual call that many umpires wouldn't have made, and one which followed the letter of the law more than the spirit—unless you think Pete Kozma and Matt Holliday were conspiring to turn a double play on the drop. Naturally, USA Today had to rush in to explain the letter of the law, once again, as the game was wrapping up. Just remember, angry Braves fans still emotional over Chipper Jones's last game: your appeal will surely lose, because this call was technically within the rules! That's about as quick and easy a way to twist the knife as you're going to find.