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Just mere mention of Sam Holbrook invokes cringing from any Braves fan. Even those who don’t pay much mind to umpire names feel too familiar with his.
The Braves played in the inaugural win-or-go-home wild-card game Oct. 5, 2012. But their fans don’t remember it for that. They don’t remember it simply being a devastating 6-3 loss to the Cardinals, against whom the Braves were 5-1 in the regular season. They don’t remember it as a “What could have been?” for a 94-win club. They try not to remember that it was Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones’ final game because that reality stings to this day.
Yes, it was all those things. But it’s remembered for Holbrook; what fans considered the pinnacle of umpire buffoonery that warranted an unprecedented reaction from the Turner Field crowd.
Holbrook was the left-field umpire in that memorable inning. With runners at first and second with one out, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons popped up to left field. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma was backing up and called for the ball, but he halted at the last moment. The ball landed in the grass just behind Kozma and in front of confused left fielder Matt Holliday. But Holbrook had called the infield fly rule.
The Braves would have had the bases loaded with one out and catcher Brian McCann at the plate. Instead, Simmons was ruled out, and the team didn’t get a run out of the inning. Fans were enraged, littering the field with trash as play was paused for 19 minutes.
The AJC’s Steve Hummer wrote at the time: “All the frustration of having failed in their past six playoff encounters — of not having dispatched a postseason opponent since 2001 — erupted in the form of a blizzard of bottles and cans showering the outfield. These Braves fans were so moved they actually sacrificed $7.50 domestic beers to show their displeasure.”
The Braves played the remainder of the game under protest. Joe Torre, who was present as MLB executive vice president of baseball operations, declined the protest citing it as a judgment call.
Their season – and Jones’ career – ended in embarrassing fashion.
Holbrook doubled down on his call after the game. Braves president John Schuerholz issued a statement saying those fans’ behavior was “uncharacteristic and unacceptable,” while apologizing to MLB and the Cardinals. Some Braves players expressed displeasure, but they generally accepted responsibility. Jones cited the team’s three errors, including his own that led to three Cardinals runs, and added: “Did (Holbrook’s 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 call cost us the ballgame.”
The infield fly rule itself invites confusion. In some ways, it can be baseball’s version of “What is targeting?” or “What is a catch?” That only furthered the tempers flaring. There was even a petition on Change.org titled: “Never let Sam Holbrook umpire in a Major League Baseball Game again.” Braves fans felt screwed yet some couldn’t fully explain how. But they knew Holbrook was to blame.
As Steve Hummer wrote at the time: “There never has been such a thorough examination of baseball’s least understood rule as during the autopsy of the latest Braves postseason failing.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez: “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 flyball, and I think we’ve got to take account of the crowd, 50,000 people yelling. I thought there was some miscommunication between Holliday and Kozma. I went out there and protested the game, and they came in and talked to Joe because the protest – obviously there is no game tomorrow, so it’s got to be done right there and now.
“They came back and told me that they’re going to go with what they called it on the field. I thought the umpires did a nice job handling that with my protest, and calling, and trying to get information. Again, from where I was, I just kind of took a glimpse of the replay, I (think) we have a legit beef.”
A quick Google search of “worst MLB calls of all-time” almost always includes Holbrook’s declaration as an entry. He was forever condemned by Braves faithful. And the cherry on top came years later: Holbrook was the crew chief when the Braves and Cardinals met again in the 2019 National League Division Series. That series likewise ended in horrific fashion at home, with the Braves surrendering 10 runs in the first inning of the deciding Game 5.
Holbrook, 57, retired following the 2022 season. In January, he did an interview with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo on MLB Network’s “High Heat” and was asked about his infamous call.
“The ball went up and Pete Kozma got down and settled down underneath it and was waving everybody off,” he said. “And the second his momentum stopped going backwards is when I called the infield fly. I think, to be honest, what happened was the crowd was going so loud that I really screamed infield fly to let them know that the batter was going to be out, that I called the infield fly. And I think that Pete was thinking that Matt Holliday was calling him off that ball because you see him kind of turn and head back towards the infield.
“I think if I hadn’t called it so loud, that he would have gone ahead and caught it and nobody would’ve said a word about it. But it is what it is. You go with what you’re taught at umpire school, and that’s the way I called it.”
Credit: Curtis Compton, email@example.com
Credit: Curtis Compton, firstname.lastname@example.org