October 5, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez (33) protests a call with the umpires during the eighth inning of the 2012 National League wild card playoff game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Refs and Umps Take Centerfield, and Fans are Mad as Hell

The  biggest story in sports this season is officiating. The people who are in the center of every game have actually taken center stage. At their best, officials are unnoticed throughout a game. The best result is the officials don’t play into the result. But now, certainly with the advent of instant replay and the integrity of officiating being called into question, playing ump is a national pastime.

The infield fly rule call against the Atlanta Braves in the bottom of the 8th is as bad and infamous a call as any the replacement officials were involved in excepting calls involving player safety.

The MNF call against the Packers literally decided the game, but that was one game of 16. This call was in a 1 game, sudden death wild card matchup. It didn’t literally end the game as the Braves still had plenty of chances, but it might as well have.

Not since Jim Joyce flat out missed the call at first base, ruining Armando Gallarraga’s perfect game has an ump blown it so overtly. But that was not on this dramatic stage, and it affected one guy. It ruined his career for all intensive purposes, but the damage this call could do to so many players, coaches, staff, and fans is much farther reaching.

In light of the replacement refs and the infield fly rule, the importance of officials has never been clearer, both in their necessity and their sway over the outcome.

There are obvious problems with the call, even thought the company line post game was to back up umpire Sam Holbrook. The official MLB rule states that the ball must be “caught by an infielder with ordinary effort,“ which is the main point Fredi Gonzalez protested, but additionally “When it seems apparent that a batted ball will become an Infield Fly, the umpire shall IMMEDIATELY declare ‘Infield Fly’”.

1.) Sam Holbrook’s hand went up so late
— But if it “seems apparent” to him it will be an Infield Fly very late, the rule protects him as an ump.
— It is not an advantage to the runners or even helpful, if the hand is up that late
2.) There is no such thing as ordinary effort in a playoff game
— That was a sloppy game before that play even happened, so the ump needs to let the play finish.
— Kozma was well into left field when he abandoned catching it.

Fredi Gonzalez certainly has beef. It never should have been called. The infield fly rule wasn’t just incepted for the benefit of the runners, but for the benefit of everyone who had to play 162 games. It helps move along games. When there could be a lot more deception and strategy brought into every game without the Infield Fly Rule, by exercising this rule (when it infrequently is called) it keeps the season progressing at a leisurely summer pace.

In a 1 game sudden death series you have to let the play develop and finish. It never should have been called.

In the case of the replacement refs, they adversely affected the integrity of the game, and the safety of players. These points did not bother NFL ownership. Regardless of their admitted inability to facilitate the game, since it was so well known that these weren’t the normal guys, our normal official-centric consumption of the game was taken to a new level of judgment and criticism.

But there are reasons why our consumption of a sporting event is so official-centric and hyper-critical.

1.) We don’t trust officials. People privately hold the values of the players trying to win in a more revered place than the officials’ values. Americans would be unable to be such passionate fans of so many sports if they didn’t trust the intentions of the players on the field. They don’t have ulterior motives to winning (and making lots of money for it)

But yelling at the ref is an acceptable outlet to suggest what we think all along—this outcome is fixed. Refs are easy targets for gamblers and the puppets for the owners and commissioners office, before even taking into account the human element of their own flaws and biases. “The refs have it out for me. They were paid off. They don’t like us. They are terrible,” are all fan code words for “We don’t trust you.” The refs are nameless faces, and their involvement has been necessary in sports, but we suspect it isn’t pure. They are facilitators of their own or someone else’s agenda. Confessions from Tim Donaghy only confirm our beliefs about refs biased role in the outcome.

2.) Players teach us how to treat officials. Turning to argue with the official has never once changed a play in the history of sports, but seeing how players treat the officials is something as fans we have picked up. Neither players’ nor fans’ pleas will be heard. It’s an easy convenient outlet for our frustrations with the players, outcome of the game, and more broadly life. If it goes wrong it’s the officials fault. This learned trait is an unhealthy exercise in futility. Now that Rasheed has returned from retirement, we will see an increased manifestation of this behavior.

3.) We can do a better job than these clowns. We are trained officials: experts in both the instant replay and the challenge. We see so many replays every game because mostly it’s an incredibly easy TV talking point, and we’ve come to expect and desire the replay. Supposedly, it’s because American sports leagues and fans are interested in getting the call right. More accurately, we are more interested in who got it wrong. Who couldn’t keep their feet in bounds, who STILL hasn’t touched home plate, and who made that bonehead decision to call the infield fly rule. We’ve seen thousands of plays, and gotten thousands of calls right. Ed Hochuli has nothing on me and my flat screen and remote control.

We do not have any faith in the officials charged with getting it right. We don’t trust their values. We’ve learned to treat them this way. And we are all trained in passing superior judgment

They don’t always get it wrong though. On the biggest stage, Laird Hayes got an impossible call right on Mario Manningham’s catch down the sideline in the Super Bowl this year.

I don’t think the answer here is more replay though. Replay slows the game down tremendously, and is an imperfect system despite camera angles being so good. And in scenarios like the infield fly rule where a judgment call is in question, replay usually can’t overturn judgment calls.

Turning wholly to automated means of calling a game is a better solution, only provided it can be done quickly. Cries that the human element needs to be part of the game do not sway me as an argument. Praising and defending an imperfect system is irrational.

What really needs to change is our attitude towards officials. They are not playing the game so they shouldn’t be the subject of our attention. Don’t be mad as hell at the officials—be mad at the outcome or the strategy. If we are changing our attitudes towards officials, that is accepting the human element, but I think more so it is embracing ours. Its embracing our ability to prioritize and decide what is important. This isn’t instinctual or animalistic, it’s a choice, and that’s human. Its reassessing our relationship with sports and official’s roles in that space and it’s a wholly human decision—one that sounds completely unnatural for sports fans.

Tags: Infield Fly Rule Monday Night Football Replacement Refs Sam Holbrook

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