The Chop, The Beast & The Infield Fly Rule

The knock on me as a sportswriter for the Albany Student Press back in the early 80s was that I wrote with my heart instead of my brain. After a December 7th triple-overtime loss by my beloved Great Danes to the national powerhouse Potsdam Bears (Albany played in Division III at the time), I evoked the memory of Pearl Harbor in my lead and an outpouring of passion took the story downhill from there. But I also wrote a column entitled “The Beast Lives” that captured the emotion of the crowd, when we all come together as one for a common cause, our energy forming a whole with greater power and heart than the sum of our individual passions. After thirty years of dormancy, The Beast came alive for me at Turner Field last night as 50,000 tomahawk-chopping fans first lifted the Braves to heroic heights and then transformed into a lynch mob a hair-trigger away from scalping an umpire for his errant application of the infield fly rule. Upon reflection, the experience makes me wonder what great or horrible things we could do if we breathed life into The Beast for something that really mattered.

As a lifelong sports fan whose recent outpourings of emotion have been limited to bongoing The Chop anthem from the safety of my recliner, being a part of the crowd at Turner Field for the Braves’ do-or-die Wild Card matchup against the Cardinals was the experience of a lifetime. Many baseball traditionalists mock The Chop, but I believe the attraction of attending a major sporting event is to become a part of something larger than ourselves, to pour our collective passions into a common cause. It’s a lot safer and easier to organize than a revolution, and nobody does it better than the Braves Nation.

With everything at stake for the Braves and their fans, we were ready, 50,000 strong, to will the home team to victory. Prompted by the electronic drumbeat blasted over the stadium loudspeakers, we chopped. At first we chopped with questionable synchronicity and our war howls were inhibited by the shackles of our proper selves, but soon our foam tomahawks began to sway closer and closer to unison, our whoops grew louder and fiercer powered by our collective soul. By the time David Ross clobbered the home run that broke a scoreless tie, we were rocking The Ted with a fearsome war chant that would strike fear into the hearts of any enemy. The Beast lived!

The crowd’s energy ebbed and flowed with the Braves’ fortunes, but with the home team down 6-3 in the bottom of the eighth and threatening to rally, we were chopping and chanting as one unified fighting force, a force that turned ugly when the leftfield umpire called Andrelton Simmons, the Braves shortstop, automatically out on a 225-foot “infield fly” just before the ball dropped untouched to the grass between two converging Redbirds. At first the crowd roared happily at the Braves’ good luck, not realizing the infield fly rule had been invoked (a natural reaction as we have since learned that this fly ball was about 50 feet deeper into the outfield than any other “infield fly” that had dropped this year). But when it became clear that Simmons had been called out, bedlam erupted. The Beast, once unleashed, could not be harnessed. The enthusiastic crowd became an unruly mob that rained beer cans and other debris onto the field amid shouts of “scalp the ump”! It was not Atlanta’s proudest moment.

My first temptation is to write a scathing analysis of this misapplication of the infield fly rule, not as a justification for the inexcusable behavior of the crowd/mob, but as an emotionally injured fan who happens to be a baseball wonk. The infield fly rule is designed to protect baserunners on a play where the fielder has an easy opportunity to intentionally let the ball drop to take advantage of the baserunners’ confusion to collect multiple outs. The umpire’s call must be immediate and clear to allow the baserunners to return safely to their bases and advance only at their peril. Yesterday, the ump waited until the last second on a play where the converging fielders were confused, relatively deep in the outfield, and the baserunners had no opportunity to retreat safely. That worked to the Braves advantage in that the runners were able to advance on the play, but they should not have suffered the automatic out when the baserunners bore the risk of being trapped off base if the ball had been caught.

Upon further reflection, though, I think the more interesting point to be taken in these uncertain times is that the power of the mob to create a force greater than the individuals that compose it can inspire heroics or magnify our worst impulses. It makes me wonder what great things we could accomplish as a nation if rather than waiting for our leaders to inspire us to rally around the common causes in which most of us believe–fiscal moderation, full employment, education, innovation, equal opportunity, a safe environment for future generations–we rose together as one to elect new ones who will end the current atmosphere of negativity and obstruction and compromise reasonably over our differences. Let The Beast live.

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