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This Tweak in Baseball

Nice to see so many Braves fans decided all at once to reject the symbolism inherent in their foam tomahawks and hurl them to the field in protest of what they represent. What surprised me was learning they also found empty Bud Light cans culturally insensitive.

Or maybe they just thought they got jobbed on a BS infield fly call. Yeah, probably that.

The beauty of postseason baseball is focusing on something to which you’ve never given much thought before, and trust me, I’ve not lost a wink on infield flies. Like a good fan, I watched the replays of the non-catch/late-call that brought all of Atlanta’s flotsam down upon the Turner Field grass for convenient collection, and I listened to all the explanations pro and con. I focused on how Andrelton Simmons lofted (more than popped) a ball to shallow mid-range left field; how the Cards’ Pete Kozma tracked it warily from short; how he seemed to be calling off Matt Holliday; how Kozma then called himself off or something like it to allow the ball to fall in; and how the two baserunners on first and second were able to advance 90 feet to second and third while Simmons stood on first. Kozma’s failure to catch Simmons’s fly set the Braves up to pose a frightening one-out threat in the eighth, still down by three yet in great shape to mount a comeback.

Then I focused on every angle TBS provided on Sam Holbrook, who suddenly remembered he has that audition for the “Raise Your Hand if You’re Sure!” spot in the morning. Holbrook decided several seconds after the last minute that Simmons’s ball constituted an infield fly, and thus all that gobbledygook you half-know but don’t really listen to when announcers tell it to you about “runners on first and second with less than two out” was in effect. Holbrook, umpiring left field (because they have that in October), made a call that is interpretative in nature. My interpretation is you really had to be looking to call the infield fly rule on that ball.

Harold Reynolds on MLBN made a sound case for why Simmons’s fly wasn’t all that atypical of what is called an infield fly in the course of the season, but I thought Bill Ripken trumped him when he invoked the part about the  “ordinary effort” required by the rule. In this if not exactly extraordinary game but amped-up situation, Kozma was working in parameters clearly beyond the realm of ordinary. It wasn’t quite a routine play and the setting was by no means standard-issue. And Holbrook’s molasses timing in deciding it was sure as shootin’ didn’t help his interpretation appear pristine.

Simmons was out, the two baserunners were sent back to first and second and the normally hospitable folks down Georgia way did a swell impression of us northern aggressors. All in all, there was a literal mess on the field and a figurative mess about the game. It took nearly 20 minutes to gather up and bag the refuse donated by the Brave faithful. But not even a postgame media audience with Pope Torre VI satisfactorily cleared up Holbrook’s sloppy ruling.

It may not have mattered anyway because the Braves were finding ways to not win all night (they did indisputably load the bases with two outs in the eighth to no avail), so what was one more chance gone awry? They were laughable defensively, they lacked the big hits they needed late, Kris Medlen stopped being unbeatable and Chipper Jones can go home [1] and put on his civilian stuff. The Braves stayed three runs in arrears and the 2011 World Champion Cardinals (now with more Beltran!) moved on to play the Nationals.

The Braves hosted the very first regularly scheduled National League Championship Series game 43 years and one day before hosting the very first regularly scheduled National League Wild Card game, if that’s it known as. The Braves lost their first effort at pioneering a new format, falling on October 4, 1969, to — hey, whaddaya know — the New York Mets, 9-5. Phil Niekro had won 23 games that year. Tom Seaver won 25. I recently asked Niekro, when he visited Citi Field to promote the Knuckleball movie, how he prepared to face a pitcher so stylistically opposite him. Phil had a great response: he didn’t face Tom Seaver; he faced a Mets lineup in which Seaver batted ninth.

He didn’t do it that well, actually, because he gave up all nine of those runs, albeit only four of them were earned. But Niekro, Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda and their non-Hall of Fame teammates could take solace in that although they were down one game to none to the Mets, there was always tomorrow in the brand spankin’ new best-of-five NLCS. Tomorrow brought an 11-6 loss en route to a three-game Met sweep, but the 1969 Braves had their chance.

Did the 2012 Braves? I don’t mean because of Holbrook’s time-lapse conclusion that the cloud he saw in the sky that he first thought resembled a pony instead looked like an infield fly. My question, at heart, was is one game enough to settle postseason business?

Surely the Cardinals will take their result, as will the Orioles, who ushered the Rangers out [2] of the American League Wild Card game. All 30 teams signed off on this innovation in which two Wild Card teams would emerge after 162 games. Everybody knew two pair of teams would play in a single contests to determine who would enter their League Division Series and who would be the moral equivalent of the fourth-place Mets, done as done can be. The addition was clearly stated in advance of the 2012 season and is easier to interpret than the infield fly rule. So it’s not like Atlanta and Texas can claim they are shocked…shocked…to find imminent elimination going on in here. And though they lost home games, it’s not as if they were shocked…shocked…by markedly inferior opponents. Not only did the Cardinals and Orioles prove themselves of approximately the same caliber as the Braves and Rangers during the year, but in a single baseball game, there is no such thing as an upset.

Anybody can beat anybody for one game. It’s having to do it over several games that makes it challenging. Which is what the postseason is supposed to be — a crucible in which you prove yourself against the best by outlasting the best, not just leaving them in the dust and getting out of Dodge.

The sum total of the 18 Wild Card innings simply didn’t feel like genuine postseason activity. It looked like it, with full houses (even at the Ted) and high tension and sheer urgency. It sounded like it, too, especially with announcers and analysts continually invoking “Game Seven” to underscore the type of stakes at hand. But there was no Game Seven Friday night. There was no Game Five, LDS- or pre-1985 LCS-style. There was no Game Three like those in which the Giants and Dodgers memorably engaged in 1951 and 1962 when divisions didn’t exist and the N.L. settled seasonlong deadlocks via short series.

This wasn’t a short series. This wasn’t a series. It was a single game. We’ve seen playoff spots determined by single games tacked on to the end of the schedule — most notably 13 years ago when the 1999 Mets ousted the Reds [3] to win the Wild Card — but those were tiebreakers. They made sense in the flow of the season to the postseason. Win and we were in. And once we were in, we got to stick around for a minimum of a few days. Same for our opponents, the 1999 Diamondbacks. We got to know them a little. That’s generally how it works when you’re talking playoffs.

Getting to know postseason participants in the context of October’s contours is one of the true pleasures of the annual autumnal festival of baseball. You make new acquaintances in the playoffs. You find out about players you barely knew of for six months. Storylines develop and you get hooked. It’s how, for example, I drifted last year at this time from just being happy lesser-evil [4] St. Louis had beaten the greater evil [5] that was Philadelphia, to rooting for St. Louis’s demise because they were St. Louis and because Milwaukee had waited so long, to coming to grudgingly admire the Cardinals [6] as they forged an unlikely path to the pennant to — against all precedent and better judgment — finding myself not unhappy when they snatched delirious Game Six [7] away from Texas. Simultaneously, I came to know the Rangers in 2011 (and 2010) and felt empathy for them and their fans even if I never got fully on board with their cause.

We have all this extra Metsless time. I enjoy getting to know those who are going to fill it for close to a month. These drive-by Wild Card games, conversely, are all scurry and no linger. At first exposure to this tweak in baseball, the sensation is antithetical to the nature of the sport. I know it’s a gimmick. I know the various reasons given for its existence — award greater value for winning a division; provide more teams a shot in September; inject another dose of excitement into the big picture; rescue us from listening to Mike Francesa plotting the Yankees’ October rotation in August (“I think Andy in Game Two…”) — are code for money. MLB gets to market “Postseason” gear to ten fan bases instead of eight. TBS gets an extra night of programming to wrap around their Conan O’Brien promos. Captain Morgan gets a whole new audience to which to pitch spiced rum.

The first iteration still didn’t quite feel of a piece with October’s pace. But it’s here, even if the 94-68 Braves and 93-69 Rangers no longer are.

Lovers of quality broadcasting rejoice: Gary Cohen will be doing play-by-play of the first two games of the Reds-Giants series on ESPN Radio! That’s 98.7 FM in New York, check local listings elsewhere.