Infield fly rule now woven into Braves lore

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez appeals to umpire Sam Holbrook about the ruling.

Credit: Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

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Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez appeals to umpire Sam Holbrook about the ruling.

Credit: Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

As bitter as the Braves’ season-ending loss to St. Louis was Friday, as ugly as the game turned when the supposedly docile Atlanta fans staged a litter riot, the evening was nevertheless a valuable teaching tool.

“I think everybody knows what the infield fly rule is today,” pitcher Tim Hudson said after he arrived Saturday to clean out his Turner Field locker.

There never has been such a thorough examination of baseball’s least understood rule as during the autopsy of the latest Braves postseason failing.

On a radio show Saturday morning, Texas football coach Mack Brown joked that he interrupted preparations for Saturday night’s West Virginia game so that his assistants could go over the infield fly rule.

And this from the New York Times, on how the lords of baseball adjusted to the play that clouded their first-ever playoff play-in game: “The debate over Friday night’s call will most likely go on for a while. But in a move to save some face, Major League Baseball quickly edited its bio on the league’s official Twitter page. Until Friday night, it had included the irreverent phrase ‘We don’t understand the infield fly rule, either.’ Now that line is gone, and so are the Braves from the playoffs.”

Trailing 6-3 in the eighth inning, the Braves appeared to load the bases with one out when Andrelton Simmons’ fly ball dropped between the Cardinals’ shortstop and leftfielder, 50-plus feet beyond the far edge of the outfield dirt. Brain McCann was on deck, ready to do who knows what kind of damage. Instead, left-field umpire Sam Holbrook invoked the infield fly rule, meaning that Simmons was out and the Braves were left with runners on second and third, two outs. They did not score, and a precious chance went unrealized.

That one’s going to sting a while.

Born that evening was a play that will live in infamy for those who follow the Braves. Here was yet another indelible example of the pain that comes with giving one’s heart to professional sports in Atlanta.

Holbrook joins the roster of umpires who administered a root canal by rule book to Braves fans. He is up there with Drew Coble (who missed Minnesota’s Kent Hrbek wrestling Ron Gant off first base to record a put out during the 1991 World Series). And Eric Gregg (whose mile-wide strike zone during the 1997 NLCS assisted a shutout by the Marlins’ Livan Hernandez).

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.

In the dugout, where no one had witnessed such a call made from that far precinct of the outfield, there was immediate confusion.

“I honestly didn’t know what was going on,” center fielder Michael Bourn said. “I didn’t know who [Holbrook] was pointing to. At first I thought he was calling Uggla out and I’m thinking, ‘What did he have to do with it?’ As time went on, I saw him call Simmons out, and I still didn’t know what he did.”

Afterward, in the Braves’ clubhouse, players were attempting to take the high road during postgame interviews. Temperance ruled with cameras and digital recorders rolling.

Certainly it was odd, they all agreed, to have such a rule invoked more than 50 feet into the outfield grass with the shortstop giving up on the catch. But, to a man, they pointed out all the other chances they had to win had they not thrown the ball around as carelessly as a gossip does dirt. Three throwing errors and too many wasted chances with runners on base had doomed them.

Ah, but then the umpiring crew and their boss Joe Torre stepped into the Turner Field interview room. Televisions were tuned to the feed from that room down the hall. Turn up the sound, players demanded. A group of them lounged in couches at the center of the clubhouse, and began serving as a less politic jury.

As the rulers explained how they had made absolutely the right call, protests arose from that area, like Animal House frat boys reacting to Dean Wormer’s sentence of double-secret probation.

“Oh, come on.”

“[Expletive] you.”

“Yeah, right, uh-huh.”

“It happened [expletive] 60 feet in the outfield.”

From that center of the controversy, a series of reactions rippled outward over the next hours.

In Orlando, where Braves broadcaster Chip Caray spends his down time, he wondered how his late father, Skip, would have called that one. “Me and about 75,000 Twitter followers,” he said. At least once a week during Skip’s call-in show, some fan would ask him about the infield fly rule. It drove the long time voice of the Braves batty, which is exactly why fans continued to pester him with the query.

All parties seemed fairly certain that Skip was somewhere growling mightily.

When manager Fredi Gonzalez took his son’s car in for an oil change Saturday morning — yes, life does go on — he said he wound up discussing the play with three or four other customers. Many seminars on the infield fly rule are bound to follow.

The play inspired some impressive ciphering. According to ESPN, researchers at Baseball Info Solutions determined that in the past three major league seasons, six pop-ups were not caught but ruled an out because of the infield fly rule. The farthest from home plate one of these balls landed was 178 feet. Simmons’ fly ball was measured at 225 feet from home.

“I think this is a play that will help umpires understand the rule better,” Hudson said a day later. “I don’t think that call will be made in the future.” A team had thrown itself on the vagaries of the infield fly rule so that the world may better grasp it. At least the Braves accomplished that much this season.

It is impossible to say that one play ultimately eliminated the Braves. It will just seem like it did, more as time dims the other specifics of the loss. That bizarre moment will stay with this team’s followers like the scar from an open-heart surgery. It will define in part what it means to be a Braves fan.

In 2011, 20 years after he was hijacked by Hrbek, Gant reacted with amusement when Minnesota came out with bobblehead commemorating the moment. Gant thought it “neat.”

If that is the approximate time it takes to gain peace with such plays, those who watched with tomahawk in hand Friday night may gather in 2032 and share a resigned chuckle.

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