The Braves and Cardinals share a bit of postseason history. The first MLB single-elimination Wild Card game also resulted in a legendarily controversial call.
This year, for the first time since 2011, all teams that qualify for the MLB postseason are guaranteed to play multiple games after finishing the regular season calendar. This new playoff format brings an end to MLB’s decade-long experiment with the play-in, single-elimination Wild Card Game. While there were always valid arguments against the representative nature of the Wild Card Game (the fractional equivalent to the length of the regular season is about a six-minute NFL game), the thrilling nature of these games was undeniable. Baseball fans were guaranteed the stakes, drama, and oddities usually reserved for Game 7s, all at the beginning of October.
Indicative of the unique brand of baseball that this novel playoff format would bring, the first ever Wild Card Game, played between the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves on Oct. 5, 2012, at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia, was one of the most controversial games in recent MLB history.
In its first iteration, the stakes of the single-game scheme acted as a magnifying glass to sunlight, increasing the intensity of every pitch, play, and call on the field and created one of the most infamous single-game stadium atmospheres in MLB history. And so, as our ever-evolving national pastime ushers in a new postseason format, it seems appropriate to reflect on that wild afternoon in Atlanta that introduced the playoff tournament’s last major change.
The atmosphere in Atlanta was electric. Not only was this just the Braves’ second playoff appearance since their unprecedented streak of 14-consecutive division titles ended in 2005, but it was legendary third baseman Chipper Jones’ final season.
Jones, now a Hall of Famer and consultant for the Braves, had announced his coming retirement at the beginning of the 2012 season. Such was his eminence around the league, that at every final road series the Braves played that season, the home team would honor him with an on-field pre-game ceremony and various gifts as tokens of appreciation and respect for a formidable opponent. It is difficult to describe what Chipper’s retirement meant to “Braves Country” (the term for the team’s geographic and corporeal fan base that spans six states and several million people), but perhaps one anecdote indicative of the sentiment was a Georgia farming family that plowed a likeness of Chipper and a giant number “10” into their cornfield that year.
Two years prior, the Braves were planning on parting ways with another legend of their juggernaut teams of the 1990s and early 2000s, manager Bobby Cox. Making the playoffs for the first time in several years, the Braves were determined to send their savvy skipper off with a second World Series ring, sporting custom team warmup shirts labeled “11 for 6” (11 postseason wins required under that playoff format to give Bobby’s No. 6 the proper sendoff). Things did not go as planned, and the Braves and Bobby were sent home after a disappointing first-round loss to San Francisco. Braves Country was determined that Chipper would not suffer the same fate.
For their part, the Cardinals were the defending World Series champions. Having failed to win their division in 2012, they were the greatest beneficiaries of the new postseason format, picking up the newly added second Wild Card slot. The Redbirds were facing the loss of franchise icons as well, with future Hall of Fame slugger Albert Pujols leaving in free agency and long-time manager Tony La Russa entering an ostensible retirement. Under new skipper Mike Matheny and with a considerable amount of their championship core intact, the Cardinals sought to weather the loss of these St. Louis icons and take advantage of the new playoff format in pursuit of another deep October run.
Being the first-ever Wild Card Game (the American League match would take place several hours later), the baseball world wasn’t sure what to expect from a strategy standpoint. Over the next 10 years, managers would employ almost every means of pitcher management imaginable to win this one-game, winner-take-all affair, from openers to bullpen games to using multiple starters throughout. But at this early juncture, both teams seemed poised to go the traditional route, using their best starting pitcher to go as deep into the game as possible, before turning things over to the bullpen. And why wouldn’t they? Both aces — Kyle Lohse for the Cards and Kris Medlen for the Braves — had had phenomenal years in 2012. The advantage seemed to be with Medlen, however, after a midseason move from the bullpen yielded an MLB record 23 consecutive team wins in games he started (going back to his previous, pre-Tommy John stint in the rotation).
After an uneventful inning and a half, the Braves struck first on a two-run homer from David Ross which sent Turner Field into a near frenzy. After more stellar pitching from both sides in the 3rd, the Cardinals championship core brought the offensive pressure with balls in play in the top of the 4th. With Carlos Beltran on first after a leadoff single, Matt Holliday hit a hard ground ball right at soon-to-be retiree Chipper Jones.
Unfortunately for Chipper, a tailor-made double play ball turned into the last error of his Hall of Fame career as he overthrew the second baseman and gave the visitors runners at the corners with no outs. The next three batters put balls in play (only one ruled a hit), which resulted in three runs (one earned) and gave the Cards the lead. A Matt Holliday solo shot in the 6th, and two more Braves infield errors in the 7th, would chase Medlen and put the Braves down 6-2 heading into the 7th-inning stretch.
The mood in the stadium was only salvaged by fan-favorite Timothy Miller’s stirring-as-always rendition of God Bless America. For those not familiar with Mr. Miller or his place in Braves lore, he is a world-class Atlanta-based opera tenor who performs the song at many Braves home games, unfailingly clad in a tuxedo with a diamond-encrusted Braves lapel pin and baseball cowhide pocket square no matter the mercury reading in midsummer Hotlanta. The rendition also featured a Jumbotron appearance from lifelong Braves fan and Georgia icon, ex-President Jimmy Carter, who was seated in his usual place for major games just behind first base.
With each at-bat, Turner Field and all of Braves Country held their collective breath as the end of the team’s season and Chipper’s career seemingly drew nearer. After scoring once in the bottom of the 7th, the Braves would come up in the 8th down 6-3. With Mitchell Boggs on the mound, Freddie Freeman drew an eight-pitch, full-count walk to lead off the inning. Dan Uggla then grounded into a fielder’s choice but moved to second on a single by David Ross. With two runners on and one out, shortstop Andrelton Simmons stepped to the plate.
The Braves and Cardinals will always remember the infield fly rule differently
As the sixth pitch of the at-bat made contact with Simmons’ bat and proceeded to fly harmlessly into the air high above shallow left field, Braves fans groaned in disappointment as what had seemed like a late-game rally was losing steam. But then, backpedaling Cardinal’s shortstop Pete Kozma suddenly pulled up as Matt Holliday came charging in behind him from left field. A miscommunication between the fielders let the ball drop to the left field grass. By the time the ball was thrown back to the infield, the bases were loaded and the scoreboard showed one out.
With the stadium still erupting with triumphant cheers, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez sprinted indignantly onto the field. Left field umpire Sam Holbrook had called an infield fly. This meant that Simmons was out and the runners had advanced to second and third “at their own risk.” This dramatically reduced the threat of a Braves comeback. Word of the coup slowly made its way throughout the stadium. In the pre-mic’d up umpire era, word of mouth was how the result and explanation of such calls made their way to the fans in the highest sections.
As Gonzalez’s protest was winding down and it became apparent to fans that play would resume and the call would stand, a wave of desperation swept over the stadium. In an outburst more characteristic of European soccer supporters, or at least in North American sports, one usually reserved for the more boisterous crowds in the Northeast, Braves fans began to litter the playing surface with trash.
The mood was one of panic more than anger. The only available means, however vain, to try to redress what was perceived as such an obvious injustice. As grounds crew members attempted to pick up the trash, further waves of debris would rain down. The Braves in-stadium emcee made repeated pleas on the Jumbotron for fans to stop littering the field (one wonders if Nobel Peace laureate Carter considered intervening). After a delay of about 20 minutes, play resumed with the Braves officially placing the game under protest.
As for the call itself, almost all baseball analysts and talking heads seemed to dissent in the immediate aftermath of the game. This view has softened somewhat since, yielding to the supremacy of the “judgement of the umpire” as stated in the official rule book. The call remains controversial, however, which is a rarity in the history of the game. Beyond the superficial incongruity of an outfield umpire calling an infield fly (it should be noted that outfielder umpires are only used in playoff games), the call seemed to go against the intent, if not the letter of the rule. The call also served to nullify the Brave’s homefield advantage as the crowd noise was the likely reason for the miscommunication between Kozma and Holliday that led to the misplay.
A couple more notes on Holbrook: In 1998 he ejected Mark McGwire for arguing balls and strikes in a regular season game against the Braves leading to Cardinals fans throwing trash on the field in protest. In a game the author attended at Turner Field in 2016, Holbrook was the third base umpire (the closest position to left field during the regular season). Every ball hit in the air remotely near the left side resulted in jeers of “infield fly” from the section nearest him.
When play finally resumed, Cardinals closer Jason Motte took the mound, as Boggs had been idle for too long. The result of the infield fly call impacted the next at-bat as well. Catcher Brian McCann stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter. While 2012 was not his best statistical season, and in fact his first non-All-Star season since his rookie campaign in 2005, McCann was known for his clutch hitting. Besides boasting superlative career statistics in all manner of clutch-hitting metrics, there was anecdotal evidence for McCann’s prowess in big situations.
From his rookie postseason homer off of Roger Clemens to providing almost all of the Brave’s offense in their last playoff appearance in 2010, to an All-Star Game MVP, to calling his shot on a 3-pointer on a basketball court at a charity event in front of dozens of fans and TV cameras, McCann always seemed to have a knack for being locked-in when it mattered most and was the man you wanted at the plate with the game on the line.
After the fateful infield fly call left first base open, McCann was intentionally walked, loading the bases with two outs for the far less formidable Michael Bourn who struck out to end the threat and seemingly all hopes of the Braves advancing in the postseason.
The Braves did threaten again in the bottom of the 9th. Chipper Jones reached on an infield single by a generous call from the first base umpire, perhaps a small token of retribution on behalf of a colleague, or respect to a future Hall of Famer in his final career at-bat. After a ground-rule double by Freddie Freeman, the Braves once again brought the tying run to the plate. But Motte induced a ground ball from Uggla to officially end the game, the Braves’ season, and Jones’ career.
Players on both sides promptly left the field. Fans around the Braves’ first base dugout remained for at least half an hour chanting for Chipper to come out for one last curtain call on his home field. Chipper never emerged. After the game, MLB executive Joe Torre officially declined the Brave’s protest on the basis of umpire judgment. The game was closer than the 6-3 final score. The Braves outhit the Cardinals 12 to 6, but 3 errors, failures to get big hits in key moments, and the infamous infield fly played against them.
This first Wild Card Game stands alone as a salient moment, but also served as an inflection point, ushering in a decade of thrilling baseball bridging the gap from the regular season to the postseason that fans looked forward to each year with both excitement and trepidation. As the new three-game Wild Card Series begins, let’s hope for the same thrills, with maybe a little less controversy.