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Friday, October 5, 2012
Updated: October 7, 9:35 AM ET
The pop-up heard 'round the world

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- We've all seen the magic of October. Uhhh, this wasn't it.

Let's see now. We just witnessed a postseason baseball game in which Chipper Jones' career ended. And a 94-win baseball team -- those heretofore high-flying Atlanta Braves -- saw their postseason screech to a halt before they even had a chance to hang any half-decent bunting. And the defending champs -- those unstoppable St. Louis Cardinals -- won yet another win-or-go-home October baseball game.

Oh, and history was made, too. Almost forgot. It was the very first wild-card game ever played in the long and storied history of baseball, complete with its own, newfangled spin on October tension, passion and drama.

So we had all that unfolding on the sparkling green grass of Turner Field on Friday. And that should have been enough heart-thumping plot lines for everyone. Right?

Just one question, then: How come all we'll remember, for like the next 90 years, is that all heck broke loose over the interpretation of -- what? -- the infield fly rule?

Uh-oh. Can you say "nightmare?"

"It stinks, man," said Braves catcher David Ross after his team's surreal, season-ending 6-3 loss. "It stinks for Chipper that that's how this is going to be remembered. It stinks that the first-ever wild-card game is going to be remembered for an infield pop-up blunder. That's not good."

Turner Field trash
The Turner Field grounds crew cleaned up the debris thrown onto the field by irate fans during a 19-minute delay.

No, no, no, no, no. That's not real good. Of all the things baseball's powers that be envisioned when they brought a second wild card into our lives, we're pretty sure they weren't dreaming of a pop-up dropping in left field, umpires huddling, bottles flying out of the upper deck and the first 19-minute infield-fly-rule delay in postseason history.

But that's what they got. So let's all recite this together: THAT'S . . . NOT . . . GOOD.

We'd love to spend the rest of this column telling you all about the Cardinals and how they just refuse to go home this time of year. Or spinning one last poignant story of the great Chipper Jones and the final baseball game of his Hall of Fame career.

But all other romantic and not-so-romantic story lines were rendered obsolete in the eighth inning of this game, when Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons lofted what was about to become the pop-up heard 'round the world.

Back-back-back-back went Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma. Twenty feet back of the infield dirt. Thirty feet. Forty feet. Fifty feet. Sixty feet. Finally, he raised his arms in the air -- which, in baseball-ese, is the international symbol for "I've got it."

And that was all standard stuff, except for one pesky little detail: As you might have heard by now, he didn't "got it."

Kozma peeled off so left fielder Matt Holliday could take it. Holliday backed off so Kozma could take it. The baseball dropped uncaught onto the outfield grass.

Cardinals pitcher Mitchell Boggs looked on in horror. Braves runners were pulling into every base on the diamond. A packed Turner Field throbbed with elation.

It looked like a very important play in a very important baseball game. And it was, all right.

Just not how everyone envisioned it at that particular moment.

That's because the left-field ump, Sam Holbrook, had just raised his fist in the air to call the dreaded infield fly rule. Which meant the bases weren't loaded anymore. And Simmons wasn't safe on first anymore. And there were two outs instead of one. And 52,631 people inside Turner Field were about to get seriously unhappy.

And once it finally dawned on them what had just happened, they did what fans often do at times like that -- in Greece. Or Egypt. They took a horrendous situation and made it downright embarrassing. Not to mention hazardous to the well-being of all the innocent humans on the field.

So as bottles, cans and litter filled the October sky and people across America began feverishly Googling "infield fly rule," we had ourselves an official postseason debacle. And let's all sing this song one more time: THAT'S . . . NOT . . . GOOD.

"I'm a shortstop," Simmons would say later, in an angry, shell-shocked Atlanta clubhouse. "I've had the infield fly rule happen many times. But never in left field. Maybe in the shallow part of the outfield. But never in the middle of left field like that."

As Simmons spoke, his teammates had gathered to watch the giant flat-screen TVs in the middle of the clubhouse, where Holbrook, crew chief Jeff Kellogg, umpiring supervisor Charlie Reliford and baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, Joe Torre, were giving their take on this mess.

Chipper Jones
Chipper Jones, who had a broken-bat infield single in his final MLB at-bat, made a costly throwing error in the fourth inning.

"Bleepety-bleep," screamed one Brave, as Torre was explaining why he'd denied the Braves' protest.

"Ohhhhh bleep, Joe," grumbled another, after listening to Torre say that it sure looked like an infield fly to him.

"I'm outta here. That's weak," muttered another Brave, after Holbrook said he'd seen the replay and concluded it was "absolutely" the right call.

It was a bizarre and unfortunate scene, all right -- the members of a really good baseball team trying to digest a controversial call, their own brutal three-error meltdown, the not-so-grand farewell of their favorite living legend and the stunning end to their season, all at once. And not coping with any of that really well.

"I don't know what to feel," said Ross, whose once-heroic three-hit day had turned invisible amid the muck around him. "I don't know if I'm sad or [ticked] or what. I can't wrap my head around it. I can't figure out what emotion I have, because we don't have another chance.

"We won 94 games this year and had a great season. I've actually been going around, telling guys, 'Hey, great season,' and I can't believe I'm telling guys that, because it's over so fast. It just stinks, man. I mean, we're all mad, emotional, really upset, disappointed. They're all coming into play for me."

Asked if everyone in his clubhouse, to a man, was sure it was the wrong call, Ross tried to muster a smile.

"Well, I haven't taken a poll or anything like that," he said. "But I think everyone in here is just upset because, look, we played bad. But we thought maybe we were about to come out of it and maybe have a break go our way, and it didn't. You know, there's always those things in a game where a break could go either way, and it didn't go our way, and it could have very easily, and it's upsetting."

We should add right here, however, that, despite all those overflowing emotions, this was a clubhouse full of men willing to stand up and say repeatedly that one call didn't cost them this game.

Three errors cost them this game. Leaving nine runners on after the second inning cost them this game. Doing a lot of really dumb stuff they hardly ever did all season cost them this game. And nobody in the room denied any of that.

"Ultimately, I think that when we look back on this loss, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror," said Jones, who repeatedly took the heat for a wild fourth-inning throw, on a sure double-play ball, that kicked off the sloppiness. "We put ourselves in that predicament. … [So] I'm not willing to say that that particular call cost us the ballgame. Ultimately, three errors cost us the ballgame, mine probably being the biggest."

Matt Holliday and Pete Kozma
Andrelton Simmons' fly ball drops between Matt Holliday and Pete Kozma on the disputed infield-fly-rule play.

Yes, they knew they'd put on one ugly little show out there. And that would have hurt under any circumstances. But these were special circumstances -- circumstances no baseball team had ever played under before.

When you have an ugly day -- and run into an umpire's call you don't agree with -- in a one-game postseason "series," your reward is having to own it all winter. And for this team, the first team ever to find itself in this predicament, that was tough to digest.

"It just stinks, because it didn't really feel like it was a playoff we were in," Ross said. "You know what I mean? The playoffs that we're used to, you at least get a five-game series or a seven-game series, where you're battling against a team. So when it comes down to Game 7, you've had six chances to win a game, and now there's one more for all the marbles. This is like ... a totally different feeling.

"I mean, the atmosphere the fans brought was amazing. But when it was over, you felt like you'd just lost a tough game in your division or something. Instead, it just kind of stinks to know your season's over and Chipper's career is over, and all that. And it hasn't really sunk in yet."

But let this be a warning to all future wild-card teams: Be careful what you wish for. When you clinch that wild card, better enjoy the party while you can, because the ecstasy -- and your season -- can be over faster than you can say "infield fly rule."

"That's just the craziness of a one-game playoff," said the Cardinals' Lance Berkman. "It's crazy, but it's good. I actually think that ultimately, it's going to be great for baseball, because it's going to put the focus back on winning the division, and there's a real penalty for not winning the division. We kind of escaped here. But it reminds you that if you want a guaranteed playoff series, you should have won your division."

Yeah, it was quite the reminder, all right. The answer, from this day forward, whenever any team complains about getting bounced in a wild-card game is simple: You should have won your division. They should even sew those words into the official "Wild Card Champions" shirts, available at a sporting goods store near you.

And if that's how all future generations of potential wild-card teams approach their Septembers because of what happened here at Turner Field, maybe that's a good thing. Maybe we will, in fact, be able to look back on this first ever Infield Fly Rule Wild Card Classic some day and remember how Lance Berkman told us, that very day, that this second-wild-card thing is "going to be great for baseball."

But geez, it sure didn't feel like such a great thing for baseball at the time. If we wake up in a day or a week or a month or a decade and still see bottles flying out of the sky instead of confetti, we have a feeling that won't seem like a cause for celebration.

It will be cause, instead, for all us to say one final time: THAT'S . . . NOT . . . GOOD. Amen.