Friday, October 5, 2012

Chipper’s Fine Whine And The Outfield Fly Rule

When is an infield fly really an outfield fly? And when should we know? We certainly didn’t find out Friday night when the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Braves in the first game of the 2012 Major League Baseball playoffs.

By now, we’ve all seen or heard about Andrelton Simmons’ eighth-inning fly ball to left field, a ball that fell to the ground untouched a good 175 feet from home plate, a mere split second before left-field umpire Sam Holbrook ruled Simmons out on the infield-fly rule. With runners on first and second when Simmons batted, the Braves should have had the bases loaded with one out. Instead, they had runners on second and third with two away and failed to score, squandering their last scoring opportunity of 2012.

Braves fans immediately showered the field with debris, prompting a 19-minute delay and threatening to put this game into the history books along with Cleveland’s 10-cent beer night and Chicago’s disco demolition night. Those two crowd debacles were different, poorly conceived promotions that predictably went bad and cost the home team a forfeit. The fans went to those games looking to get drunk and cause a melee. The crowd eruption at the Cardinals-Braves game was spontaneous combustion, natural ugliness turned loose, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny understandably pulled his players from the field for fear of their safety. The game finally resumed, but even watching on television you could feel an ugly edge to the crowd. When the Cardinals recorded the final out to eliminate the Braves, they ran off the field to the safety of the clubhouse for their postgame celebration.

Bad umpiring is part of the game, but calls that bad shouldn’t be. We’ll never know whether or not the Braves would have cashed in that rally to tie the game. They were down 6-3 at the time and Simmons represented the potential tying run. Based on how lamely they played the rest of the game, the odds are they still would have failed to score, but we’ll never know. We have Sam Holbrook to thank for that. Truly an awful call, one of the worst in postseason history.

This was the first one-game wild-card play-in under MLB’s new playoff format, meaning the Braves now have been put out of their misery for 2012. And now that the deed is done, we’ll probably be subjected to endless carping by Braves fans about how unfair the one-game play-in is for the wild-card teams. This is an echo of tired complaints made far too loudly and far too frequently by now-retired Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. I have tremendous respect for Jones as a player, not so much for him as a person. His constant whining on this matter hasn’t helped.

Chipper, if you want fair, then win your damned division championship. If you finish second, don’t expect to be treated as though you really finished first, because you didn’t.

Bud Selig’s record on innovations to the game has been very mixed. He’s responsible for interleague play, the wild card and expanded playoff format, and the return of fan voting for the All-Star Game, all of which are very popular (although interleague play largely sucks). On the other hand, Selig gave home-field advantage in the World Series to the winner of the All-Star Game, has pushed back postseason start times to the point that only vampires see the end of most World Series games, and cancelled the 1994 World Series altogether. Oops on all of those.

This time, though, Selig hit it out of the ballpark, absolutely nailed it. For much of the past decade, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox both knew they were going to the playoffs and subsequently went through the motions the entire month of September. That was how the previous playoff system worked. The difference between being a division champion and being a wild card  was negligible at best, so neither the Yankees or the Red Sox gave damn those years whether they finished first or second. They also knew they wouldn’t have to face one another in the Division Series because they’re in the same division. When contending teams don’t even try to win their division championship the sport has a serious problem, but that’s what happens when you reward second-place teams the same way you reward division champions.

The new playoff format has eliminated that issue, giving contenders a powerful incentive to try and win every game until the races are over. Win your division and you’re in. Win a wild card and you’re truly a wild card, one and done.

Don’t go bitching about how unfair that is. It’s long past time that we started being fair to the six division winners instead. They finished in first place and won their divisions. The wild-card teams finished second (or second and third), and there’s no reason they should be rewarded the same way as a first-place team. And now they’re not.

Yes, the wild card teams were denied the home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs under the old format (until the World Series), but that’s pretty meaningless. Wild cards made up 25 percent of the playoff participants under the old format, but won 29 percent of the league championships (10 of 34) and 29 percent of the World Series (5 of 17) in that time. Clearly, playing a couple of extra games on the road was not much of a hardship.

There was a time not so long ago, prior to 1995, when there were no wild cards and no League Division Series. Second-place teams didn’t even get a one-game play-in. They went home and watched as Major League Baseball’s (then) four division winners played in the two League Championship Series. So it’s not even old school to whine about how we’re suddenly mistreating the wild-card teams. We never mistreated wild cards in the past, and we’re not mistreating them now. If anything, we used to spoil them. Now we’re giving them what they deserve.

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