I drove from my home in North Carolina to the Braves v. Cardinals Wild Card Game last year. Driving back from the turbulent game, I had some time to think thoughts. I wrote those thoughts down because it seemed like an important thing to do at the time (Which was about 4:00am). Nearly a year later, I don't really think it was all that important, but in memory of playoffs past, I thought I would share them on this public internet site.
I have a NASCAR loving housemate. I've made him watch almost every Braves game this season. He got interested enough that he made the drive with me and a couple other guys to see the Braves play the Cardinals in a one-game Wild Card play-in. It was his first professional baseball game in person and, oh, what a game it was.
We had to give him some Braves history - specifically the turmoil of the past two seasons’ respective endings. We explained last year's collapse and how it was sad and depressing as the team fell apart due to injury and slowly bled out. We were able to recover from that, because in the end it made sense, and it was just how baseball works out, sometimes; sic transit gloria baseball. We covered the great 2010 Giants NLDS match-up and the Brooks Conrad fiascos. That was a great year, and we lost at the game of baseball, plain and simple. Their team ended up more complete than ours. Then it came time for this year.
I was at Turner Field last night. I have been there dozens of times before and watched nearly every game there since it was built. I have never seen it like this. I have never felt a baseball game turn into a horror show. This did not feel like any postseason prior - because it was not, in all honesty, the postseason. It was more like one of the arena death match episodes from the Original Star Trek Series - the ones in which powerful organizers pluck a crewmember from his normal confines and force him into a literal do or die situation for no other reason than their own financial gain and entertainment. All the while, we are forced into the position of Dr. McCoy shouting encouragement and disparaging the absurd injustice from the sidelines. I don’t know if that makes the Cardinals or the umpires the Gorn, but I’m comfortable with either interpretation. Either way, last night was not baseball - it was a gladiatorial game, and the fans reacted in kind.
When you put a person or team in that situation, the best case scenario for them is to win the match and throw then make a great speech about glorious victory despite injustice. The worst case scenario is that they have a bad day and their weaknesses are exposed at the most inopportune of times. The Braves, as we all know, had the latter.
Any Braves fan who paid attention this season knew the weaknesses of this team. They had a porous infield defense, were ineffective with runners in scoring position, and a manager prone to baffling field decisions and even more baffling bullpen management. We knew these weaknesses, and we just hoped and almost believed that they would not come out in our one chance at advancing. Underscoring all of this was the team's Affliction-cloaked colossus, Chipper Jones retiring. We knew there was a slim chance that his last game would be a win, but if his last game was a loss, we wanted to have anybody to pin the loss on besides him. We wanted him to go out an on-field hero, no matter what.
These things on their own in a regular best of five series, are enough to put fans on edge. Put them into a one game play-in game with a team the Braves had a 4 game lead over and you have a recipe for immense frustration.
On the ride to the game and as it began, we put all of these worries on the back burner. We convinced ourselves that they wouldn't ruin this day. However, everything that could have gone wrong did and in a big way. Our infield collapsed and gave up runs, headlined by a Chipper Jones error. Our manager took unnecessary risks and created unconventional pitching matchups with relievers; all costly moves. We left 10+ runners on base. Our hero, Chipper Jones was responsible for a few of those. Each time he came up to bat, the crowd seemed to know he was about to do something amazing. The voice whispering in our heads, "What if he fails?" was shushed. He never amazed.
The crowd's worst fears had become reality. Frustration was already at a high. The train wreck of a game for Braves fans was built on top of a belief that, "The Braves shouldn't even be in this game to begin with." This led to a tense, to put it simply, crowd. We were desperate. We were despondent. We were angry. And then it happened. The late-called, incorrect infield fly in the outfield happened. A rule which exists to protect runners from fielding deception was abused to give a significant advantage to the defense. It is important to understand all of this background, because it was not this blown call alone that led to what happened next. The umpirical failure was just enough to add a few more centigrade to the crowd and push them past the boiling point.
I have seen the replays, and it looks bad. The trash flying onto the field, the grounds crew in Braves attire forced into a degrading endeavor in front of 50,000 people; it looks awful, because it is. However, there was a moment - 10-15 seconds - in which this ugly revolt seemed right somehow. It felt justified for a brief point in time. As my brother-in-law said, "In the NFL, you get to protest by throwing a red flag. In the MLB, all you can throw are beer cans." Many fans felt left with no other option (Obviously, the better option of not throwing garbage was still on the table – just ignored). This entire game at its base conceptual level required more than just booing and hissing. It required an act of absolute irreverence. I am not condoning what happened, but it did feel right until the vast majority of us realized how foolish it was to get that upset about a sporting event. The likely-inebriated few never did grasp that and probably never will. (Count the trash, there are not 50,000 beer cans.)
For the next hour, Turner Field was no longer the place I know and love. It was one of the most hostile environment I've ever experienced. In a moment like that a group of fans becomes a collective mind, and a large group of people is far less reasonable than one person. This led the baseball game (which was not a normal baseball game to begin with) to be turned into a horror show. It never felt like a game after that. Even after it started back, we did not want just the Braves to win, we wanted the MLB to lose. It is fitting that the rest of the game was played under a protest against the MLB, because that's all it was after the infield fly fiasco. The Braves fanbase became a hate club for the League. Craig Kimbrel did not even get the attention he usually does from the fans. We were just too distracted by our anger - chanting "Infield Fly" on the two OF pop ups Craig induced. Chipper Jones got to bat one more time and was called safe on a questionable play by an umpire wise enough to not test the 50,000 any further; not when it came to the loudmouthed cornerstone of the franchise.
Why did this happen? It happened because last night was not baseball. Baseball fans are ingrained with the idea that anything can happen on a given day. We argue that our favorite sport plays the longest regular season of any major sport because it is the fairest way to determine the best of the best. We set that season up in 3 and 4 games series because one game cannot be used to decide which is a better team; even the best teams only have around a 60% winning percentage. A one game do or die play-in removes key elements that make baseball what it is. A team's rotation depth does not matter. The bench depth does not matter in the same way. The ability to manage a conventional game and series does not matter. It is a different animal altogether and it flies in the face of what the MLB preaches at the world constantly about the integrity of the game and the importance of the fan. It is a forced game seven scenario and it does not work.
And indeed it did not. The MLB responded with the predictable defiance and arrogance we've come to expect from them. Seemingly everybody not in a uniform in the Braves organization groveled to the MLB and hung out the feelings of Braves fans as baseless. This will be recorded in MLB history differently than how it happened. There will never be a 30 for 30 detailing exactly what happened tonight, because the MLB would never consent.
This game was a failure for the Braves and for Major League Baseball. I just hope that the MLB realizes that the normally sedate Atlanta fans did not react as atrociously as they did just because of one blown call. It was a revolt by a group of fans who had had enough.
All that being said, the Braves lost. Chipper Jones broke his bat in his final at-bat. A great career came to an end in pretty bad fashion. There was no curtain call. The Braves mostly lost the game on their own. But it does not feel like any year prior to this one. Our team did not make the playoffs this year. We are adults and we move on because there are more important things than baseball. I am thankful for all that happened this season, though. I made new friends and got to share a season-long experience with lots of people.
My housemate will never forget his first baseball game. And even though he did not see what I call a baseball game, I think the Braves have another devoted fan going into whatever next season holds.