Friday night was, um, you know, something. Well, I’ve never hidden the fact that I don’t like the one-game wild-card playoff idea. I tend to believe that baseball isn’t a one-game-playoff kind of game. It’s too volatile. Terrible teams beat great teams all the time. I think a baseball season is the longest in sports for a good reason. It takes a long time to work through the anomalies, the absurdities, the quirks. It takes a long time to find out which teams are really the best.
Sure, every now and again, after that long season, two teams tie and they play a one-game playoff, and it’s wacky and fun not because it’s fair but because it’s rare. Now, it’s not rare — it will happen twice every year. To me, these one-game playoffs feel trumped-up and forced and gimmiccky …
… but, hey, it’s extra baseball, right?
The infield fly rule, you certainly know, was created because players kept purposely dropping fly balls in order to turn cheap double plays. This was in the late 1800s. Through the years, the infield fly rule has been invoked more by writers than by umpires — writers either trying to make a point about the bizarre intricacies of baseball (“Try explaining the infield fly rule to someone who just moved to this country”) or trying to give baseball gravitas to a certain person (“The candidate is fluent in four languages, has read Ulysses and can explain the infield fly rule”) or simply as a catch-all American thing (“We are a nation of jeans, barbecue and the infield fly rule.”)
The rule is simply this: When there is a force play at third base (so, with runners on first and second or the bases loaded) and fewer than two outs, any pop-up that the umpire judges that an infielder can catch with ordinary effort shall be declared an “infield fly.” The batter is automatically out. As an almost pointless after-effect, if the infielder actually catches the ball, the runners can tag up (they never do). If the infielder does not catch the ball, the players can run at will, though of course they could not have known that he would drop the ball while it was in the air.
In other words, the infield fly rule is one of the most boring plays in all of baseball.
Except … on Friday night in Atlanta.
First, I should say something: Even as a kid, I never liked this rule. That is to say, I never understood why the batter was automatically out on infield fly balls. It seemed to me, even then, that it would be just as easy to ask an umpire to judge if an infielder dropped the ball on purpose as anything else. If he drops it on purpose, everybody should be safe — including the batter. Why should an infielder be granted the catch because he might have ideas of cheating the system? I don’t get it, and I never did. This is like granting a golfer an automatic two-putt from 30 feet away because otherwise he might cheat and give himself a one-putt.
The key phrase of the rule is “ordinary effort.” On Friday night, eighth inning, Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons — who had a rough night overall, with an error and a running-inside-the-baseline call — faced a full count with runners on first and second, one out, and the Braves trailing St. Louis by three. Obviously, this was a key moment in the game, and it was amplified by the fact that the Braves — despite finishing six games ahead of the Cardinals in the standings — were on the brink of being eliminated because they had played one astonishingly dreadful game.
So Simmons popped up. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma took 10 steps into the outfield — on about the eighth step he lifted his right hand up as if to say, “I’ve got it.” Only he didn’t. Kozma freaked out, took three panicked steps forward, and the ball dropped behind him.
‘The bases are loaded!,” the TBS announcers shouted, the Braves announcers shouted, the Cardinals announcers shouted …
… only, they weren’t. Left field umpire Sam Holbrook had signaled that the infield fly rule was in effect.
Insanity! Disorder! Garbage! Protests! A good camera angle shows that Holbrook lifted his arm at almost precisely the instant when Kozma panicked and peeled off. But, I’m sure the inspiration to call the infield fly had occurred a beat or two earlier, when Kozma raised his arm to say that he had it. Holbrook’s thought process isn’t hard to follow. The rule says that a ball that can be caught with ordinary effort by an infielder in that situation has to be ruled an “infield fly.” In the flow of the moment, it obviously looked to Holbrook as if Kozma would catch the ball with ordinary effort.
However, in review, it’s a ludicrous call. For two reasons: One technical, the other more important. The technical reason: Kozma had to run at least 50 or 60 feet into the outfield to catch the ball. I don’t see a convincing argument that it was an ordinary-effort play. There is no official scorer on earth who would have given Kozma an error on the play, and in fact there was no error given on the play. I would argue that Holbrook just lost his bearings — the play built up pretty slowly, and I don’t think Holbrook appreciated just how far Kozma had to run, how difficult the angle was. The ball landed several feet BEHIND him. That’s why the fact that Holbrook signals for the infield fly at the very moment when Kozma realizes he can’t catch the ball is telling. Such judgments are hard.
But the second reason seems more compelling to me. Why do we have an infield fly rule in the first place? Sometimes it seems like we let process overwhelm purpose, we allow the letter of the rule to be more important than the spirit. Why is there an infield fly rule? Because more than 125 years ago, fielders would purposely drop balls in order to get cheap double and triple plays. And without the rule, fielders would be trying to do the same thing today.
Where Simmons’ ball was hit, was a double play even possible? No. If runners are paying attention, there is no way in the world that Kozma could have dropped that ball and gotten a double play. Heck, from out there, it would have been hard for him to purposely drop that ball and even get one out. The focus of the call has been around those words “ordinary effort,” and that’s a worthwhile discussion point. But if you go beyond the specifics of the rule and back to the heart of it … calling an infield fly on that ball was egregious. It was putting a vaguely worded rule ahead of the essence of the game.
I don’t know if the other umpires could have overruled the infield fly or if Holbrook could have taken it back. But it seems to me, within only a few seconds, everyone on the field should have realized that calling the infield fly was a mistake, and it would perhaps cost Atlanta its last-gasp chance of saving its season. But they didn’t overrule it, and maybe they couldn’t. Atlanta put the game under protest. Fans threw garbage on the field. The Cardinals won and are going to the real playoffs. It shouldn’t have come down to the interpretation of an obscure rule, but this is baseball, and it did.
* * *
Josh Hamilton, as we know by now, is a man cursed with demons. He has fought with drugs and alcohol, with some soaring victories and some harsh setbacks. He watched with unchecked horror as a fan, reaching for a ball that Hamilton tossed into the stands, fell and later died, a tragedy that was not his fault and yet, according to friends and his own words, has haunted him deeply. As a player, he has gone through titanic stretches when no player in baseball could touch him, and dark stretches when he couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield. In so many ways, he really has been as close as we have to Roy Hobbs, the player in “The Natural,” who hits crazy long homers when the lady in white stands up, but swings and misses when beguiled by the lady in black.
It was sad to see Hamilton booed on Friday night. It was sad not just because it was probably his last game for the Rangers, and his Texas career shouldn’t end like that. And it was sad not just because he looked so feeble — a double-play grounder, a strikeout looking, a first-pitch tapper back to the mound and finally, the last at-bat, a swinging strikeout — that booing seemed just about the only viable response.
No, I think it has something to do with the curse of expectation that seems unique to certain baseball players. Everyone knows that a hitter fails more often than he succeeds. You will hear people say that a hitter fails seven out of 10 times — that’s the .300 batting average talking — but this is not true, not if you count walks. Still, even counting walks, even counting sacrifice flies, even counting sacrifice hits, except in the rarest of circumstances (19 times in baseball history), the batter will make an out more often than he will do something productive.
We know this to be true, and yet, there are certain players — because of their athletic grace, their beautiful swing, their seemingly effortless power, an ineffable flair — who don’t seem like they should be shackled by those rules of baseball gravity. We may know in our minds that they will fail, but we just don’t think that they should fail WHILE WE ARE WATCHING. Duke Snider was one of these players, and I always was fascinated by Roger Kahn’s description in “The Boys of Summer,” of how Snider’s talents baffled and frustrated a sports columnist named Bill Roeder.
“Watching Duke Snider turned Bill Roeder sardonic. The Duke could run and throw and leap. His swing was classic; enormous and fluid, a swing of violence that seemed a swing of ease. ‘But do you notice when he’s happiest’ Roeder complained. ‘When he walks. Watch how he throws the bat away. He’s glad.’ Roeder would have liked to have Snider’s skills, he conceded. If he had, he believed he would have used them with more ferocity. Snider was living Roeder’s dream, and so abusing it.”
This, too, seems to be what Josh Hamilton has had to live with. He’s so big, so strong, so fast, so smooth, that when he fails it feels like more than just the failure that comes with baseball; no, it feels to so many like he is squandering his extraordinary talents. His 2012 season was the most extreme of his already extreme career. He hit more homers than ever. He struck out more than ever. He drove in runs at a higher rate than Miguel Cabrera over the season. He drove in just one run in the final four games, and Texas lost them all and fell out of the playoffs. He had Olympian months. He had Lilliputian months.
On May 16, he was hitting .404 with 18 homers in 35 games. For the next 65 games, he hit .214, and Texas manager Ron Washington dropped him in the batting order. The next 35 games he hit .300 with 13 more homers. He hit just one homer in the last 14 games, including Friday night’s playoff game, and it ended with another strikeout and boos and sadness and, perhaps, people imagining just how good they would be if only they had Josh Hamilton’s talent.
We’ll post some of your Miguel Cabrera MVP thoughts soon, but for now I did want to point out an irony about advanced statistics and the Triple Crown. As we know, there are many people who are blaming WAR and those duplicitous advanced statistics for undervaluing the Triple Crown, and many of these people desperately want the baseball writers — who vote for the MVP — to ignore those numbers and look inside themselves for the real truth about what the Triple Crown means.
Not counting Miggy, there have been nine Triple Crown winners since 1931 — the first year of the BBWAA MVP award. OK? Nine.
Number of Triple Crown winners who led every-day players in WAR: 9.
Number of Triple Crown winners who led league in OPS+: 9
Number of Triple Crown winners who won the MVP: 5.
Yup. Chuck Klein didn’t win the MVP in 1933 (Carl Hubbell did). Lou Gehrig — in perhaps the most ridiculous vote of them all — did not win the MVP in 1934 (he finished fifth, as Mickey Cochrane won it). And Ted Williams did not win the MVP in either 1942 or 1947 (Joe Gordon won in ’42, Joe DiMaggio in ’47).