The greats don’t always get to choose the manner in which they leave the game. But whatever you believe about instant or at least same-day karma, Chipper Jones surely deserves better than to have his Hall of Fame-in-waiting career end like this.
His own throwing error, opening an unwanted door to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League’s first-ever wild card game; his own Atlanta Braves victimised by a soft fly to the shallow outfield ruled an infield fly when the Braves might have loaded the late-tying runs on base.
It may not comfort Jones very much to know he did at least manage to keep his team alive in the bottom of the ninth, when they came a strike away from losing the National League’s first-ever wild card game, considering his Braves may have been robbed in plain sight of a chance to re-tie the game in the eighth. The Braves in that one extraterrestrial moment went from should-have-been bases loaded for pinch hitter Brian McCann to second and third with two out.
That may have been even more horrible than the fourth inning moment in which Jones’s career-long cool playing the so-called hot corner threatened to freeze in time’s more cruel frames. He’d picked Matt Holliday’s shooter up to third base the way he’d done to so many such shooters for so many seasons, almost as though he could do it under heavy sedation. And the throw sailed up, over, and past second baseman Dan Uggla, opening a door for three St. Louis runs post haste, on an RBI double (Allen Craig), an RBI ground out (Yadier Molina), and a sacrifice fly. (David Freese.)
There went the advantage Kris Medlen’s pitching and catcher David Ross’s second inning two-run bomb gave the Braves. Jones’s unintended falter proved nothing compared to the one to be committed in the bottom of the eighth, by left field line umpire Sam Holbrook, when—with Uggla and Ross aboard and one out—another Atlanta rookie, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, lofted a soft fly toward short left field off Cardinal reliever Brandon Boggs.
St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma ambled back and left fielder Matt Holliday scampered in, and it looked at first as though the confusion would be over whether Kozma called himself off the play thinking Holliday might have a better chance for the catch; or, whether Holliday called for Kozma to take it, since Kozma’s run out was right to the ball’s apparent, intended landing point. Then, Kozma halted almost at once and left field line umpire Sam Holbrook ruled an infield fly just a moment or two before the ball hit the grass.
The infield fly rule came to pass in the first place as a bid stop a defending team from deking the hitting team into getting caught in a double play by letting a pop fly drop. The rule is called normally by an infield umpire, and third base umpire Jeff Nelson, who had the play’s best view in terms of the rule potential, didn’t invoke it. Holbrook and baseball umpiring supervisor Charlie Reliford didn’t back off the call after the game, either, which may or may not revive furious demands for postseason official instant replay.
“Once [Kozma] established himself, he got ordinary effort,” said Holbrook, apparently referring to Kozma pulling off the play. ”That’s when the call was made.” If Kozma and Holliday tried to collaborate on a classic deke, they certainly executed it clumsily enough, but it simply doesn’t look on numerous reviewings to warrant the infield fly call sixty feet behind the infield rim.
Even Simmons couldn’t believe it. “I’m a shortstop. I’ve had the infield fly rule happen many times. But never in left field,” he said to reporters in the middle of a still-shocked Braves clubhouse. “Maybe in the shallow part of the outfield. But never in the middle of left field like that.”
What should have been bases loaded and one out became second and third and two out, with a conference or two between umpires and managers halting play long enough as it was before Turner Field fans in none-too-silent outrage started pouring debris onto the field, one unidentifiable nut throwing an airline flight-size liquor bottle that nearly bounced off Nelson’s head, placing a very real forfeit threat into the air.
At long enough last was the call upheld, with Nelson indicating Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez declared the game to be in protest. After Nelson instructed Cardinals manager Mike Matheny directly about the Braves playing under protest, Matheny double-switched Holliday (who’d homered earlier in the game to help the Cardinals toward their 6-3 lead and, ultimately, result) out of the game while changing to his closer, Jason Motte. Gonzalez sent up Brian McCann—his regular but injury-compromised catcher, not in the starting lineup—to pinch hit for his own reliever Eric O’Flaherty.
McCann wrung Motte for a walk, coming out for a pinch runner, but Motte wrung a strikeout out of Martin Prado for the side.
This wasn’t how the Braves planned things after taking that early 2-0 lead. They probably weren’t planning to leave twelve men on base all game long, including nine after the second inning and seven in scoring position with two out, face six St. Louis pitchers and have only one run to show against the final five following Ross’s bomb, or to leave Medlen with three unearned runs out of the five he surrendered, either.
Maybe Jones, the most candid, eloquent, and accommodating of Braves, should have kept his mouth shut before the game. “If we’re going to continue to let teams in year after year,” he cracked at a pre-game press gathering, “let’s just have everybody in. Let’s play 162 games to seed yourselves and then we’ll let the (baseball-worst Houston) Astros have a shot at it and whoever else wants a shot at it. A six- or seven-game winning streak and you’re the world champion.”
Whatever else you think of the second wild card, the original wild card, three-division leagues, and the fact that less than the absolute best teams in each league make a postseason as often as not, set it aside for just one moment. Under a far more just postseason format, Jones’s very own Braves would have gone home for the winter Wednesday night, instead of playing a wild-card game Friday.
Now, ponder karma. And, payback. Doing nothing wrong as he tried to execute, Jones threw away a dead-certain double play ball. Then, he was helpless in the bottom of the ninth when—after he’d pried his way on base, an infield hit with the Braves down to their final strike followed by Freddie Freeman’s ground-rule double—Uggla, a long ball hitter who’s lost some power in his second Atlanta season, grounded out modestly to second base for game and season.
Jones’s was one of three Atlanta errors in a game in which they let the Cardinals make waste of the remarkable young Medlen’s early effort, a sorry conclusion to a season that saw, among other things, the Braves win their twenty-third consecutive game in which Medlen was the starting pitcher. And, typical of Jones’s self-awareness, he refused absolutely to blame Holbrook or the other umpires for the net result.
“That one play didn’t cost us the game,” he told reporters when it was all over. “Three errors cost us the game. We just dug ourselves too big a hole.” Uggla’s bobble and rushed throw to first on Freese’s leadoff grounder in the seventh, then Simmons bobbling and throwing home wild off Kozma’s grounder, allowing Freese’s pinch runner Adron Chambers to score, deepened the hole.
When Atlanta reliever Jonny Venters missed a swipe tag on bunting Matt Carpenter and didn’t deign to note Kozma not applying his brakes until he’d crossed the plate with the sixth St. Louis run, it may have seemed nothing worse could happen to the Braves on the day. Until the eighth, Kozma’s fly, and Holbrook’s call. “We played to win the game,” Molina told reporters as the Cardinals celebrated. “They played to lose the game.”
Jones and his teammates alike wanted nothing more than to send him into retirement with one more World Series ring if possible. They had made a magnificent push to get here, a year after their own September collapse was negated only by the more spectacular such collapse incurred by the Boston Red Sox.
Now, they could only send their great third baseman home after yet another early enough postseason farewell. He had tried all those years to help his Braves win more than the single World Series ring they won in his rookie season, he enjoyed the respect the league showed him in his final go-round against them this season, he’d played like a champion all season long even if he showed his age too vividly often enough, and he went out wondering whether he’d cost his team a chance to go deeper into this postseason.
Let Braves fans wonder if a left field umpire hadn’t done that. A Hall of Famer knows better. Knowing better was always one of the keys to Jones’s greatness, at the plate, in the field, in the clubhouse. But it couldn’t obstruct the sorrow of his final major league game’s outcome for his team or for himself. If only all the greats could chose the manner in which they play their final nine innings.