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When research doesn’t capture diversity of opinion

October 8, 2012

Unhappy Braves fans show their displeasure with the call.

As I write this, there’s a raging debate about a call in last night’s Braves-Cardinals playoff game. The call came with the Cardinals ahead 6-3 in the eighth inning–and it was a big call because the loser was eliminated. The Braves had runners on first and second. Their hitter, Andrelton Simmons hit a high pop-up into left field. The Cardinals shortstop, Pete Kozma had the ball squared up to catch the ball as he faded back, then stopped. The left fielder, Matt Holliday had peeled off to let Kozma make the play. Kozma decided to let Holliday make the play.

The ball fell to the ground. Everyone in the stadium and on television thought the Braves had the bases loaded with one out. Except left field umpire Sam Holbrook. Holbrook called the Infield Fly rule–a rule designed to stop fielders from letting short fly balls drop, then executing an easy double play (the runners can’t run if the fielder’s going to catch the ball).

If you were to do research on the Infield Fly Rule–and this is one of those times Wikipedia is probably good enough–you’ll understand the conditions required for the rule to be invoked. And at first glance, given that Kozma was fairly far back on the outfield grass, it’s likely this shouldn’t have been called in infield fly.

But the rule does not specify that the catch has to be made in the infield. Instead, it says that any catch the infielder can make with ordinary effort is appropriate for the rule to be invoked. In looking at the replay, Kozma stopped, then moved forward so Holliday could make the catch. Since the play, there’s been a battle among baseball fans over whether the call was correct.

Uhh, Chris, I’m not a baseball writer. Why do I care?

You may not. But the point of this post is to illustrate that even after you do your research, there are things you won’t know. If you wrote a baseball scene in which the shortstop made a catch by the fence, or a batter walked after ball five, you’d look silly.

But when it comes to more complicated rules, like the Infield Fly or the Balk–I’ve been a baseball fan for almost 40 years and I’m still not completely clear on that–mere research is difficult because not everyone agrees. If it’s true about things as simple and relatively meaningless as arcane baseball rules, it’s true of other things, too.

As the great Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, “Many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view.” That’s a burden and an opportunity. If your research isn’t deep enough, people will dispute your wisdom, even if it’s from a fairly reputable source. The opportunity comes with the dispute. Braves fans were angry enough at the call that they littered the park with debris, causing multiple stoppages of play.

And some disputes are far more important than baseball plays.

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