Before we get into the weeds, let us first internalize the actual rule in question:
An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.
When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare "Infield Fly" for the benefit of the runners. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare "Infield Fly, if Fair."
The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball.
Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder-not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire's judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder. The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpire's judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately.
When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk. If on an infield fly rule, the infielder intentionally drops a fair ball, the ball remains in play despite the provisions of Rule 6.05(l). The infield fly rule takes precedence.
Now, before we get to the heart of the thing, let me clear up a couple of things.
Friday night, a great number of observers -- and I use the word "observers" quite literally -- complained that left-field umpire Sam Holbrook didn't make the call immediately, as (supposedly) stipulated by the rule. But that isn't what the rule says. What the rule says is that he should make the call immediately after it comes apparent that it's an Infield Fly.
Usually, that happens a split-second after the ball is hit; most of the time, it's quickly apparent that an infielder might easily make the play. This just wasn't one of those times. Because of where the ball was hit -- short left field -- it wasn't apparent until a) the baseball began its descent, and b) there was an infielder in the vicinity.
But what's truly odd about the complaint is that making the call "late" actually helped the Braves. If an umpire had screamed "Infield Fly" immediately, the runners might well have held their bases. Instead they went halfway down their respective baselines, and actually advanced one base apiece. Even if you think they would have gotten there anyway, the delayed call certainly didn't hurt the Braves.
So let's forget about that complaint, and focus instead on the only valid point of dispute, a simple question:
Could that fair fly ball have been caught by an infielder with ordinary effort?
That, my friends, is a judgment call. Everyone who thinks the umpire blew the call has his own definition of ordinary judgment. But just in case your memory isn't picture-perfect, here's the play in question once more, or the end of it anyway ...
Now, let's return to our key phrase ... If an infielder were going catch a fly ball with ordinary effort in short left field, what would you expect him to do? Here's what I would expect him to do:
1. Run to the spot where he expects the ball to land, and slow down.
2. Yell "I got it!" while raising his hand, to warn off any nearby teammate.
Gosh, that's exactly what Pete Kozma did.
Before he stops and takes a few steps back toward the infield, he clearly believes he's got time to camp under the ball and make the play. For me, "camp" = "ordinary effort".*
* It's difficult to figure why Kozma gave up on the play; his postgame comments weren't particularly enlightening. But whatever Kozma was thinking is not really germane to the issue at hand.
I think it's worth mentioning that this was not an easy call, either way. It was a tough judgment call; some umpires probably would have called it differently, but I'm sure that some wouldn't. The following is taken from The Umpire's Handbook, co-written by longtime major-league umpire Joe Brinkman:
The "ordinary effort" requirement is what makes the play so hard to call. A simple pop-up over the infield might be hard to catch because of the sun or the wind; if it is hard to catch, the umpire shouldn't call an infield fly...
The call should be made when the ball has reached its highest point and is about to fall.
Now, I know some of you just read that and are saying, "See! He shouldn't call it if it's hard to catch and he should have called it when the ball reached its highest point. He did blow it both ways!"
Again, though, this was a special sort of play. When that ball reached its highest point, it was really high and Kozma was at the end of his long run; it was a normal run, in terms of his effort -- otherwise he wouldn't have had time to camp -- but the umpire was in the uncommon position of having to track both an exceptionally high fly ball and a fielder making an exceptionally long run. Go ahead, you try that ... and from a position to which you're unaccustomed, since for six months every year there isn't a left-field umpire.
Oh, and one more thing ... One argument I've seen is that the Infield Fly shouldn't have been called because in this case, calling it went against the very intent of the rule ... which of course is to prevent the runners from getting hung up, with the result a double play. And that in this case, because the ball dropped so far from the infield, there was no chance for a double play.
Two things about that. One, that depends on where the runners were. And two, the rule does not ask, in fact does not allow for, the umpire to make a judgment about the chance of a double play. If you need to, go back up there and read the rule. We'll wait ... Okay, did you see anything in there about double plays? You didn't, because it's not there. All that matters is infielder and ordinary effort.
In the umpire's judgment, that infielder was in position to make that play with ordinary effort.
I share his judgment. So let us urge our friends and colleagues to blame the Braves' loss not on a questionable (but probably correct) judgement call, but instead on their three errors and poor hitting with runners in scoring position.