I'm just going to come right out and say it: Friday night's game was great. It sucks that the Braves were forced to play a one-game playoff against a team that finished six games behind them in the standings when in any other season since 1995, the Braves would have gone right into a series against the Reds with Kris Medlen starting game one.* It sucks that the Braves lost to the Cardinals, a team that continues to show the flaws of allowing inferior teams to have almost equal shots at winning championships. It sucks that the Braves committed the fewest errors in the National League, led the NL in defensive efficiency, and yet committed three costly errors, thus losing a game in which they outhit the Cardinals 12-6. It especially sucks that the first and most important of those errors was committed by Chipper Jones in his final game, thus illustrating the one good line from Cocktail: everything ends badly, or else it wouldn't end. It sucks that the Braves mimicked their offensive performance against Russ Ortiz in the decider against the Giants ten years ago,** repeatedly getting runners on base (including runners on second and third in each of the final three innings) and then not getting the big hit to get them home.
* - I like the one-game wild card game in concept because it rewards teams for winning their divisions. It's just unfortunate from Atlanta's perspective that it wasn't around for years when it would have benefited the Braves and now it comes into being in a year where it hurts our team. Because of unlucky timing, the Braves get the worst of both worlds.
** - In a nutshell, that's what it's like to be a Braves fan in October. Not only do you expect you team to lose, but you always have a comparator when the inevitable disappointment arrives.
It does not suck that Braves fans responded to one of the worst calls in recent memory by engaging in a little civil disobedience. To be clear, I didn't throw anything myself. I'm fundamentally a risk-averse, obedient person who fulfills the stereotypes of a first-born child. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching a loud, passionate crowd express its feelings for an atrocious decision by an umpire who raged against his own irrelevance by inserting himself into the game.* A little displaced anger is emotionally satisfying. Our team, put into an unfair situation, didn't play well, so let's focus on a bad call that went against us instead.
* - Leaving aside the preposterous nature of the left field ump invoking the infield fly rule, the call struck me as an attempt by an umpire to justify his own existence. Think about it, you're a highly-paid professional who has been assigned to plays in left field. You don't get to make a call all game. Now, all a sudden, the ball is coming to your area! It's time to shine, regardless of, you know, whether the call is actually correct or even defensible.
In the coming days, there will be all sorts of tut-tutting from various voices about the reaction of Braves fans to the decision. Screw all of that. As far as I know, no one got hurt by the fusillade of flying cans and bottles. (Isn't this why sports teams don't sell glass bottles in the first place? If you are going to give us safe projectiles...) If you are going to put out-sized importance on just one game, then don't be shocked or angry when fans do the same. And let's be honest here, this was an unusually bad call. It's one thing to miss a bang-bang play at second or to miss a pitch on the black. It's another entirely to invoke the infield fly rule in left field for a rookie shortstop who was retreating up until the time that the ball dropped and who was clearly struggling with a pop-up. Uniquely bad call, uniquely strong reaction.*
* - My attitude on this might be affected by the facts that I went to a college whose student section is noted for pelting marshmallows onto the field and I am a member of a futbol club whose fans famously lobbed a pig's head at Luis Figo.
And the real pisser about the situation is that the rewards in baseball for regular season superiority are so marginal and yet the Braves were deprived of that advantage by Sam Holbrook's "look at me! I'm relevant!" moment. Home field advantage barely matters in baseball, but the Braves were lucky enough to have a situation where it did come into play: crowd-noise induced miscommunication between an on-rushing outfielder and a retreating infielder on a critical pop-up. Also, the primary value of home field advantage is that crowds affect referees. It's hard to swallow the fact that the Braves won 94 games during the regular season and their reward was to get screwed at home against an 88-win team when the value of winning all of those games should have been that the Braves got to do the screwing. That's how it works* for the Yankees.
* - If I were an Orioles fan, I would do the cyber equivalent of throwing a Miller Light empty onto the field for the fact that Major League Baseball refers to the Jeffery Maier incident as one of "Baseball's Best Moments." And if MLB is going to laud Yankees fans for interfering in a game and altering the result by breaking a rule, then the hell with MLB censuring Braves fans in any way for legitimate protest.
As the Ted was melting down in the bottom of the eighth, I was struck by the sense that in the space of seven days, I went to a Georgia game in Athens and a Braves game at the Ted and the Braves game had the more passionate fans. The struggle for Atlanta pro sports has always been trying to import the visceral, lung-bursting feeling for college football that we get on Saturdays in the South into Falcons, Braves, and Hawks games. For one night, the Ted was Death Valley. We shouldn't be apologetic about that fact. This town could use more intensity at sporting events and more of the shared, memorable experiences that pull a fan base together. Friday night delivered both.