11:04 PM EDT, October 5, 2012
ATLANTA — The farewell tour is over for Chipper Jones.
It's time that we begin another one — this time for the concept of six-man crews in the playoffs. They have to go, as Sam Holbrook demonstrated in the first game of the 2012 postseason.
Umpires were placed down the left- and right-field lines in the playoffs largely to help on home run calls, and those calls now are reviewed electronically. Caught or trapped balls soon may be as well. And in the meantime the guys down the lines cause more problems than they solve, as they change the habits umpires have developed over 162 games.
Holbrook, working left field Friday night at Turner Field, made a horrible call that helped kill an eighth-inning rally as the Cardinals beat the Braves 6-3 in an end to Jones' Hall of Fame career that was more memorable than fitting. Some of the 52,631 in the stands threw half-filled aluminum beer cans onto the field, forcing a 19-minute delay.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez protested the game but Joe Torre, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations, said afterward that it had been withdrawn. As the defending World Series champion Cardinals were thinking ahead to a Division Series meeting with the Nationals, Braves President John Schuerholz issued an apology for the behavior of fans.
Was this the kind of excitement MLB was trying to create? The first of what probably will be several postseason umpiring controversies as replay technology goes largely untapped?
"Baseball has been played a long time,'' Torre said. "I don't think we need to back down from something because there's controversy. Baseball has been controversial for a long time. … If I'm sitting in the first-base dugout where Fredi's sitting, well, that's not the best seat in the house.''
Holbrook, rather than third-base umpire Jeff Nelson, signaled infield fly rule just as an Andrelton Simmons' pop was dropping between rookie shortstop Pete Kozma and Matt Holliday. The ball landed about halfway between a straight-up left fielder's position and the infield dirt. But Simmons was ruled the inning's second out as runners advanced to second and third base with the Braves down 6-3.
Like Gonzalez, the fans reacted badly. Catcher Yadier Molina caught a beer can in his mitt near home plate, and umpires waved players off the field. When the game resumed, Cardinals closer Jason Motte was on the mound and Shane Robinson was in left field for the defensively challenged Holliday.
Baseball's infield fly rule is covered in rules 2.00 and 6.05(e) in the rulebook. The standard is whether an umpire believes a pop can be caught with "ordinary effort'' by an infielder, regardless if the ball is in the infield or on the grass.
Gonzalez said he didn't think the play met the standard of "ordinary effort,'' and Jones said that from his experience it wasn't usually called in that circumstance.
"I'm not going to say I haven't seen it (called like that), but I've never seen it called when a guy was not camped (waiting to catch it),'' Jones said. "Normally when you're that far out, you're not camped.''
Holbrook, Torre and umpire supervisor Charlie Reliford all stood by the call afterward, telling reporters that they felt replays showed Holbrook got the call right.
Jones' last game was one he won't want to remember, and one that a part of him didn't really feel he should have had to play — the first win-or-go-home game between two wild-card teams.
"It's unfortunate that you play 162 games, you win 94 and you're pressed into a one-game playoff,'' Jones said before the game. "But it is what it is. It's exciting for the fans.''
Jones was 1-for-5 at the plate with a charity two-out infield single in the ninth and made the first of three throwing errors that did more to cost the Braves the game than Holbrooks' wrong call. The switch-hitter with the .303 career average and 468 home runs — the most productive full-time third baseman of all time judging from his 1,623 RBIs — was a class act to the end.
"That play should have been a tailor-made double play, and they ended up scoring three runs,'' Jones said of his high throw to second baseman Dan Uggla in the fourth inning. "It just seemed like that play right there turned everything.''
Jones said it probably would take a few days, maybe a week, for it to sink in that he won't be playing in his No. 10 uniform again.
"My heart's broken, not for me but for my teammates and coaching staff and all the fans that have been so great this year,'' Jones said. "But I'll be OK. It's just one of those things. I'll walk out of here knowing I brought it every day. You know you brought it every day, it makes the last day easier.''
MLB's not bringing it every day, not in October anyway. It would be easy to institute a replay system that takes the two extra umpires who work down the lines and put them in a review booth.
But like Torre said, baseball has had controversy forever. Why stop now?