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Atlanta lawyer: Wrong umpire made incorrect call on infield fly rule

I grew up listening to baseball games on the radio and am always reminded that this sport, more than any other, lends itself to conversation, to debate, to what should have happened. Unlike football, where it looks to me like every play should have a holding penalty, baseball is played at a speed that enhances attention and, therefore, potential debate.

If you are reading this article, even if you were not glued to the TV for the sudden-death playoff game, you’ve probably seen the “infield fly rule play” from every angle conceivable and now know more about this rule than you ever had thought possible. This rule, first developed in 1893, was developed to avoid “trickery” as might apply to the runners and was meant to remove the potential for unethical conduct on the part of the infielder. Was the rule properly construed on Friday, Oct. 5? Did the umpires apply the ruling correctly? Will Major League Baseball make any changes as a result of the emotional debate that ensued last weekend?

Regarding the first question, an infield fly ruling is to be made in the “judgment” of the umpire according to Rule 2.00 of the Official Baseball Rules, so it is hard to argue that the judgment was wrong, only that it was improperly applied. In fact, the comment to the rule notes that, even if the ball is caught by an outfielder, it is an infield fly “if, in the umpire’s judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by the infielder.” You might ask, if it could have been as easily handled by the infielder, why did the Cardinals shortstop yield to the left fielder?

Now, the real question is, did the umpires make the ruling correctly? Here, the answer seems to be that the umpires did not make the correct ruling. They failed to do so for two reasons.

First, it should be noted that for postseason games only, there are two additional umpires, each stationed along the outfield foul lines. They ostensibly are there to handle two or three situations: fair or foul, caught or not and, perhaps, fan interference.

In the history of baseball, this is likely the first time an outfield umpire made an infield fly ruling and that is because such a ruling was not his call. The third base umpire did not make the call, even though it was clearly his to make. It also is very important to note that the runners have for their entire careers looked to the infield umpires to make this ruling. In fact, the call was not only made by the “wrong” umpire but was made so late that the runners were clearly out of position. Umpires have their assignments, and that is why, with very rare exception, umpires do not overrule one another.

So, will Major League Baseball make any changes? I’d guess that whether it is officially announced or codified, outfield umpires in future postseason games will be told that infield fly calls are simply not theirs to make. The judgment is to be by the infield umpire, who evaluates the effort of the infielder and determines if the ball could be “easily handled.”

There is one more question that came quickly to my mind at the time of the play, which is whether former Braves manager Bobby Cox would have been thrown out of the game for arguing this call. The answer, unquestionably, is yes. Cox supported his players and his team and likely would have, after being thrown out of the game, returned to the field to help stop the debris throwers. I miss those Bobby Cox moments.

So, what is my “judgment” regarding the right call? I’d vote with the third base umpire who clearly was not calling this an infield fly, a “judgment” that, in reality, was his alone to make. His failure to promptly make that call should be interpreted as his intentional non-invocation of the rule.

Abe J. Schear, a commercial real estate partner at Arnall Golden Gregory, is the author of “I Remember When: A Collection of Memories from Baseball’s Biggest Fans,” a book based on interviews he conducts for the periodic Baseball Digest newsletter, which he has published since 2000.