By now the “Outfield Fly Rule” is well on its way to being as infamous in baseball postseason lore as Bobby Thompson’s “Shot-Heard-Round-the-World.”
For the few sports fans who didn’t see it, here’s a quick recap:
Matt Holiday charged in, while Pete Kozma went back. Kozma called Holiday off, but jumped out of the way at the last second. The ball fell to the ground, allowing both runners to advance.
It would have loaded the bases, but left field umpire Sam Holbrook, with 11 ½ years of service as an umpire including four previous playoff series, called Simmons out under the infield fly rule.
I’m not going to use this space to debate the call or the rule or the decision of Joe Torre not to allow the Braves’ protest. Instead I will ask an important question, at what point did it no longer matter?
If the call was overturned right away, that would have been one thing. However, thanks to a horrible display by the Atlanta faithful (of which I consider myself a proud member since 1986) the decision became more than just a moment in a game. It became an eternity.
Athletes hate delays in competition. No matter how fast or slow a game appears to the fans, the players have an internal clock of momentum.
Hockey players dread too many penalties early in the game. Football teams worry about delays of any kind during a long offensive series (ask Peyton Manning about tempo on the hurry-up offense). Baseball players dread the long rain delay.
It’s why basketball coaches call so many timeouts when their opponent is starting to get on a role, and why football coaches try to wait until the last second to call timeout before a field goal try.
Once a rhythm has been established mentally, coaches and players don’t want it to be broken. Ever.
The 19 minutes it took for Braves fans to disgrace the house that Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz built was enough to break that rhythm.
Lets say the protest was upheld as an inappropriate application of a rule. The game would restart the next night with one out in the eight inning and bases loaded. From there it could go either way.
When would you start this game? Too early and shadows come back into play. There were none by the time the “Outfield fly” was called.
Too late and fans become less likely to tune in or show up in person.
And then there’s that mental thing. On game day every athlete has a routine. For baseball players that includes batting practice and infield-outfield drills. Do you go through those again for two innings?
And what about your pitchers who have now been taken out of there usual rhythm? Mike Matheny thought 19 minutes was enough to break the flow of Mitchell Boggs.
Sports are as much about momentum and flow as they are about physical effort. What hurt the Braves the most about the call was the 19-minute delay. It took them out of their mental flow. How else do you defend Michael Bourn’s strikeout after Brian McCann drew a walk to load the bases?
I know what ugly swings look like. I’ve watched myself plenty of times. Bourn looked ugly in that at bat. His head was not completely in the game at that moment.
Nineteen minutes was enough to break the rhythm. A full 24 hours would have been even worse.