Controversial Infield Fly Rule Decision
St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves
First Wildcard Playoff Game in History
October 5, 2012
During last night’s first-ever National League Baseball single-game wildcard playoff game, there was a controversial call involving the Infield Fly Rule. Most people are just trying to understand the governing rule. Read on to see what I believe to be most of the story. As time passes we may be get more information, but don’t look to the media and former baseball players to ever get this one right.
The Infield Fly Rule decision as called by the umpires in the one game wild card playoff game between the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinal is totally understandable if you take the time to understand the rules and the overall situation. This was not a blown call, but I think it should have been handled differently which would have eventually ended with a different decision.
As always the announcers including past baseball players and all-stars have no idea of the rules. It has been a basic practice for over thirty years for umpires to make the difficult infield fly rule call just prior to the catch. Otherwise, the base runners cannot be properly protected. The rulebook will probably never change because rule changes must be approved by the MLB players’ association. Procedures and interpretations are the only way to adjust the rules to fit the way the game is played.
A lack of an infield fly rule call would have had no impact on further play so I would have liked to see the crew get together and change it themselves. Since it is not part of the replay system, I don’t think that would stop umpires from changing a play on the field. It has been a long time since I dealt with protest decisions, but I do know that it adds a totally different perspective to a situation. I believe taht most everyone can understand why the protest was not upheld since the Atlanta Braves were protesting an umpires “judgement” decision.
It was a bad call based more on the result of the total play, not due to a momentary lapse of judgement. If the player had caught the ball as he should have, nary a word would have been said. The announcers would probably not even noticed the signaled call.
After watching the replay a couple times, I questioned the call especially since it was made by the outfield line umpire. I presume that over the years all MLB umpires have seen more and more infield fly rule decisions in the outfield. Had there been no call (ie. the fielder didn’t settle under the ball), having a six-man crew with a left field line umpire would have greatly improved coverage to decide on the infield fly rule and catch to help the third base umpire prepare for a possible force play at third. In a four-man crew, an infield umpire moves to the outfield to cover the play forcing all umpires to be on the move which can be a recipe for disaster.
Also playing into this situation is the fact that this was a last-minute crew thrown together for a single game without a real leader know to umpire teams as the crew chief. I believe that either Jim Joyce or Mike Winters, two of my former partners and the most senior umpires on the field, should have been put in charge of the crew whether or not they were assigned to work “behind the plate”.
Jeff Kellogg, the plate umpire, was possibly chosen based on some of the statistics that are now being kept on umpires. My understanding of this system is that someone in the booth watches the live game feed and judges how many and which pitches were missed. This new feedback system has broken down the team aspect of umpiring and in this case, may have had a direct impact on this game in two ways. The plate umpire may have been named due to his personal ball/strike statistics making him by default the game’s “crew chief”. Therefore, there was no true crew chief placed in charge of dealing with a difficult on-field situation. To me it seemed like no umpire ever took charge leaving the situation for other to work out.
Had there been a real “crew chief” as done during the regular season, he might have said something like, ’Wow we caused a team to be put at a disadvantage during this perceived bad call’ or 'Something went very bad, what can we do?‘
Reversing this call would not have been a bad idea if you as crew chief asked the calling umpire if he could accept a decision to revere the call. Then after evaluating the situation and looking at the possible repercussions, a final decision could have been made.
Had they changed the call, there surely would have been a protest by the St. Louis Cardinals because this is a rare and strange situation in an elimination game (the first one game playoff between wild card teams). I do not think the umpire crew took the necessary time or had the time to fully think this through. Once the protest was announced, the umpire crew just kicked back and let the league take over. It would have been a good time to use the experience of the on-field umpires in conjunction with the wisdom and point of view of the supervisory staff.
The umpire crew may have stayed away from the “changing the call” solution because they wanted to avoid a sure protest. If they even got this far in their thinking, they should have also considered that the eventual protest by the Atlanta Braves would not have been upheld since it was a “judgement call”. With all the pressure of the situation and fallout including hundreds of bottles and cans (totally inappropriate), people have difficulty thinking things through fully preventing a quality discussion between the members of even this very good, experienced umpire crew.
This situation may never happen again in the major leagues. Regardless, I support changing the call on the field. The infield fly rule was established to prevent a possible/probable double play because a defensive player could let the ball drop and get an additional out resulting in a double play. On an infield fly ruling, runners still play by the same rules (tagging up, going ahead at their own risk of being tagged out knowing that the force has been removed.
Having the advantage of several replays and a night to sleep on this, there should have been no infield fly rule call since only one runner was in jeopardy (the runner at second) just prior to the catch. Had the ball dropped at the feet of the shortstop, he may have been forced out at third. Even if the shortstop moved and the left field was right there, a one hop clean bounce to the left fielder would have only presented a force out at either third or second. Regardless of who fielded the ball after it hit the ground, it would not have been possible for any fielder to throw for a force out and then throw to another base resulting in a double play. In my opinion, the only way that there would ever be a double play would be if a runner made a serious baserunning mistake.
Since there was no danger of a dropped ball resulting in a double play, no infield fly should have been called. SO CHANGE THE CALL ON THE FIELD!!!
I never saw the umpires seriously discussing all of the possibilities. They let the guys upstairs talk to plate umpire Jeff Kellogg while Mike Winters was there to listen and help as needed. The culture today is to let those with power (umpires on the field are powerless now) even though supervisors may include past umpires, who have gone to the dark side schmoozing with teams and the league office, make the decisions. Having Joe Torre release the protest decision is a whole different situation that makes this situation almost laughable. Everyone should have been working together to look for a way to make things right. I saw none of that.
Yes, I am disappointed but still very supportive of the umpires. It was a very difficult call with only a window of a second or second and a half to make a difficult judgement. The umpire trusted the actions of a player slowing down, waving his arms, and standing virtually alone under the ball. This is yet another example of the players making a serious mistake where the umpires are forced to make a tough call in a crazy situation. Whenever the result is an unpopular ruling, the umpire take the heat.
It is understandable that the umpires are the ones blamed because, in the end, the team that made the mistake benefitted from the umpire’s infield fly ruling. Once again, this is the main reason why the “umpire crew” should have found a way to change the call despite a sure protest by the Cardinals. This was an umpire crew full of quality, respected umpires. No one would lose their job no matter how bad a call was made.
In summary, I wish that cool minds could have come together to do the right thing. Unfortunately, we may never know what prevented this from happening. Having Joe Torre share the decision of the protest committee might indicate that a poor process was in place for dealing with a controversial call.
Professional Baseball Umpire (1979 - 1989)
Maine High School Sports Official (1975 - present)