After three NFL weeks of jawing about the shortcomings of football's replacement officials, Major League Baseball managed to turn all officiating criticism toward itself in one controversial game.
An infield fly rule, evoked a half-second before the ball hit the ground well into the outfield, could very well have changed the course of the Atlanta Braves' season and directly resulted in their elimination from the MLB playoffs.
Yet somehow, baseball would tell you that the true villains were the fans in the stands, who responded by littering the field with whatever debris they could find.
TBS's broadcasting crew of Brian Anderson, Ron Darling and Joe Simpson was quick to pounce on the Atlanta fan base for their "embarrassing" response and apparent lack of class.
Those comments, as well as other criticisms of the fans at the game, are not only ridiculous, but they seem like a smokescreen for the real offenders in last night's game: the umpiring crew and Major League Baseball.
Of course, no argument about last night's events can be made without acknowledging the fact that there are no guarantees about what would have happened. The Braves easily could have grounded into a double play and ended the inning accordingly. But we all know that in a three-run game, bases-loaded with one out is a hell of a lot more promising than second and third with two outs.
If I were a Braves fan, I would be upset too.
And this was no ordinary baseball game. This was the newly-instituted Wild Card game, the first-ever mandatory elimination game in baseball history. No multiple-game series, no last-resort game as a tiebreaker after two teams finish with the same record.
One game between two teams, winner-take-all, even though the Braves finished six games ahead of the Cardinals in the National League.
The team worked hard all year to finish with a 94-68 record, six games better than their opponents, and all it took was one fluke game centered around an atrocious call to end the season for Atlanta.
It seems contradictory that broadcasters and other critics will praise fans who express their emotions when the team is doing well. Stadiums are constantly being praised for how loud they can get at certain points in the game. Being the loudest arena in the sport is a badge of honor.
But when a blatantly bad call in an elimination game ends the team's season, the fans are supposed to quietly file out of the stadium and drive home? That isn't going to happen.
Throwing bottles and cups on the field should not be the choice action for any fan to express his or her displeasure. It's not a go-to response to a bang-bang play at first or a liberal strike zone from the home plate umpire.
Friday's call featured very specific circumstances that elicited a very specific form of protest.
That's what the littering was, a protest. Much the way manager Fredi Gonzalez played the remainder of the game under protest, the fans formed their own. An umpire who makes a terrible call can block out the sound of boos coming from the stands. He sure as hell cannot ignore a 19-minute delay while the field gets cleaned up.
Of course, the offending umpire Sam Holbrook did his best to deny his error, as to be expected from egotistical baseball umpires with little interest in admitting their wrongs (via USA Today):
Afterward, Holbrook was asked if he still believed he made the correct call after viewing the replay.
"Absolutely," Holbrook said.
The notion that anyone on the field was in danger, or even being targeted, is laughable. Cups and bottles at these games are made of plastic for precisely this reason. There were no glass missiles being flung through the air.
And while perhaps one or two jackasses did actually try to hit the umpire, the shower of debris was symbolic. The trash came from everywhere in the stadium. People who were not within 300 feet of an umpire were throwing things onto the field.
Stop believing that the fans in Atlanta are a stadium of bloodthirsty animals. They got screwed. Royally. Not just by the call, but by the fact that the game was being played in the first place.
Passionate fans put money into the sport. They are the butts in the seats in the games that don't matter. They are the ones who need the jerseys off the whole starting lineup hanging in their closets and will pay top dollar to get them. They are the ones who know the game the best.
The price of having your sport loved by people is that when it is played the wrong way, they are going to let you know.
Last night, the megaphone came in the form of bottles and cups. They littered the field, but they did it innocently. No one got hurt in that game except the Braves and their fans themselves.
There are inappropriate times to throw things. This was not one of them.
Braves' fans were not the villains in that game.
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