The Infield Fly Rule has always been kind of a joke. I don't mean that the rule is stupid; I mean that the rule is literally used as a joke more commonly than it is actually needed in a game. In a sport whose rules are so simple and straight-forward that even Nuke LaLoosh can understand them, the infield fly rule is the one complicated bit of the rulebook. Even MLB's very own Twitter account made a joke, just yesterday, about not understanding the rule. The sport itself made a joke that one of its own rules was so weird that it didn't understand it. How meta!
And yet, tonight, everyone and their mother seems to be an expert on the rule.
Let's get this out of the way. I'm writing this article because I think that umpire Sam Holbrook made the right call. I put "devil's advocate" in the title, but don't take that to mean that I'm just arguing the other side to incite a riot. I really believe that the call was 100% correct. Here is a replay; watch it a few times, just to refresh your memory.
Let's begin with a quick lesson in the rule itself. Forget everything that you think you know about it. Here is what the rulebook actually says:
An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.
When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare Infield Fly for the benefit of the runners. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare Infield Fly, if Fair.
The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball. If the hit becomes a foul ball, it is treated the same as any foul.
If a declared Infield Fly is allowed to fall untouched to the ground, and bounces foul before passing first or third base, it is a foul ball. If a declared Infield Fly falls untouched to the ground outside the baseline, and bounces fair before passing first or third base, it is an Infield Fly.
Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire's judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder. The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpire's judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately.
When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk. If on an infield fly rule, the infielder intentionally drops a fair ball, the ball remains in play despite the provisions of Rule 6.05 (L). The infield fly rule takes precedence.
Nowhere does it say that the ball has to be inside of the infield, or even particularly close to it. In fact, it specifically says the exact opposite. Location of the ball is irrelevant. All that matters is that an infielder can make a generally routine play.
"OK, fine, but why make this call in such a crucial game? Just let the players play!" Because that's not how rules work. If the bases are loaded in an 11th inning tie, and the pitcher throws ball four to the hitter, the umpire doesn't just say, "Screw that, what a lame way to end this game! Take one more crack at it, Broxton. We'll say you need 5 balls for a walk this time." No, the batter gets his base, and the game ends in an anticlimactic fashion. Similarly, Holbrook judged that a part of the rulebook was in effect at this particular moment. Therefore, he was obligated to make the call. Situation cannot matter to an impartial judge, or else the entire system is ruined. If you pick and choose the opportune times to enforce a rule, then it's not really a rule. It's more of a guideline.
"The ump cost the Braves the game!" No, he didn't. The Braves lost this game because their fielders threw the ball all over the place and let in four unearned runs (in a game which they lost by three), and because they couldn't capitalize on rallies in the 7th and 8th. Chipper Jones had runners on 2nd and 3rd in the 7th, and couldn't get it done. Michael Bourn had the bases loaded in the 8th, and couldn't get it done. Brian McCann could have had a momentum-laden at-bat against Mitchell Boggs, but instead the Atlanta fans decided to throw a bunch of trash on the field in an incredible display of poor sportsmanship, delaying the game long enough to force Mike Matheny to call on his closer a bit early and basically reset the good-vibe-momentum-meter to zero. There is no guarantee that the Braves would have knocked in any of those runs in the 8th, so all that Holbrook cost them was a slightly better chance at not losing.
"But that's such a lame way to lose a game!" Yep, sure is. You won't get any argument from me there, but them's the breaks. Perhaps Simmons should have hit a liner to the gap instead.
Listen, I'm not saying that this play doesn't merit discussion. What I'm saying is that a lot of people are making a lot of statements about the rule without fully understanding what it says or how it is supposed to be enforced. It is written in pretty clear terms, and this particular instance absolutely falls within the boundaries of those terms. So don't worry, Sam Holbrook. The entire country (outside of St. Louis) thinks that you're wrong and that you suck, but I got your back. You were right.