Braves Fans Experience: One Defeat, Then Another

October 10th, 2012 by Joah


You may not be a baseball fan. You may not have ever spent a single moment of your life in Atlanta nor plan to. But this is a post that any American, especially baseball fans, Atlanta and Austin residents, should read. Just stick with me for a bit as I give you some background on the game, the city, and the reason this should matter to you.

I’m on my flight back to Austin after 24 hours in Atlanta, where I went primarily to see the Atlanta Braves play the St. Louis Cardinals in Major League Baseball’s first-ever Wild Card Playoff game. My good friend, Larry Luk, one of the star designers behind my favorite streetwear brand We Are The Process, had been in Austin a little over a month ago and put the bug in my ear to fly up for the game. At the time, the Braves were several games out from winning their division so it was all-too-likely that they’d end up in this playoff experiment they’ve deemed the Wild Card Playoff game.

The Braves lost 6-3, and this playoff experiment went terribly, but I’ll get to that later.

This was a winner-take-all, win-or-go-home game between a team, my Braves team, which finished a strong season seven full games better than the Cardinals yet found itself in a do-or-die matchup on a Friday afternoon in early October. I wasn’t too excited to see my team in such a predicament, but the allure of a playoff baseball game magnified by the prospect of it being the final game for sure-fire, Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones (one of the greatest third-baseman and switch-hitters in baseball history) was too much to pass up.

Why am I, like so many others, a sports fanatic? Why do I root for teams that far-too-often break my heart and leave me disappointed and flabbergasted (e.g. Dallas Cowboys)? Just last year, the Braves coughed up one of the biggest division leads in baseball history to miss the playoffs altogether. Just getting to that Wild Card Playoff game was a sign of success, especially considering Chipper’s early 2012 announcement that this season, his 19th, would be his last despite his proximity to 500 career homeruns and 3,000 hits. What a class act.

Rooting for sports teams and players, like supporting presidential candidates, is all about hope. Hope that your team will win, sure. But, more importantly, it’s about the hope attached to the American ideals that those who work the hardest will reap the most benefits. In sports and politics, the benefits often mean millions of dollars have been accumulated by its stars, but to us average Americans it means the benefit of seeing your hard work and money – your door-to-door campaigning, your meager political donations, your votes, your face-painting, your nose-bleed seats, and your cheers – will pay off. That you’ll be able to make a difference in the outcome. That is democracy, in sports and politics. We, as fans and supporters, can do something about this.

Think about it: Presidential election years like this one, which double as Summer Olympic years, offer a time for Americans to doubt and, hopefully, renew their faith in America.

Sure, we don’t always vote for the winning candidate and Americans don’t win all the gold medals, but more than anything we have something far more important than winning: an ideal that decency, fair play, and hard work – sportsmanship and competitiveness in sports vernacular – will rule the day.

Every state and city has its own ideals, as well. In Texas, everyone considers Austin the “blueberry in the tomato soup” due to its less conservative political leanings. Well, if that’s the case, Atlanta is the plum in the peach basket. While Georgia – like its Southern neighbors – will be a Romney state, Atlanta – like Austin in Texas – will be the exception.

Atlanta is home to some of the nation’s most-respected universities (Emory, Georgia Tech, and Morehouse to name a few), a vibrant gay population, a history of being a hub for African-Americans that extends even before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the hometown of one of the world’s most-recognized brands (Coca-Cola). Oh, and the last Summer Olympics to happen Stateside took place here.

I grew up in Upstate South Carolina, just two hours east of Atlanta, in the late ‘80s and ‘90s when Atlanta’s profile grew tremendously culminating in those Olympic Games. Greenville was home to the Double-A minor league team for the Atlanta Braves, so I found myself going to Braves games in stadiums around the country as early as 15. I’ve now seen the Braves play in all but seven MLB stadiums.

Thanks to Coke, Ted Turner’s CNN, the proliferation of the Atlanta-based World Wresting Federation better known as the WWF, and the city’s growing urban music scene under L.A. Reid’s leadership (TLC, Usher, Outkast), Atlanta was the talk of the nation in ’96.

Austin’s popularity in 2012 reminds me a lot of Atlanta that year.

Both state capitols, and rapidly growing populations. Both with disappointing public transit systems, and atrocious Interstate traffic. Atlanta got the Olympics, and Austin got the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix. Atlanta had Freaknik, Austin has SXSW. Atlanta had Kriss Kross, Austin had Fastball; both successful one-hit chart toppers. Both have icons of martyrs who struggled for their people’s liberty and pursuit of happiness – Georgia has Dr. King whereas Texas has Davy Crockett. Both with vibrant gay communities, higher-education institutions and sports scenes. They have Coke and we have Dell. They had Hulk Hogan, and we have Lance Armstrong. They have Varsity and we have Trudy’s. Atlanta is Hotlanta, and Austin is just plain hot. Their state’s presidential legacy is attached to Jimmy Carter, and ours to Lyndon B. Johnson. For you NBA fans, they’d just experienced Stephon Marbury’s Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and we’ve just experienced Kevin Durant’s Texas Longhorns. Every year, the Longhorns football team is expected to contend for the Big 12 title and Atlanta residents expect annual playoff trips for the Braves.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Atlanta in ’96 & Austin ’12: America’s Southern City Darlings.

So here’s the story…

The Braves lost yesterday’s game because of uncharacteristically shoddy defense (3 errors), solid pitching by the Cardinals’ starter Kyle Lohse, poor hitting from their 2-3 hitters (Jason Heyward and Jones), and a rule that hasn’t been changed since the late 1890s that a left-field umpire screwed up royally.

Chipper himself is responsible for, perhaps, the most costly error of the game and he said it so himself in the post-game press conference. Again, he’s one classy guy. But let’s not mistake ourselves here, the umpire – Sam Holbrook – screwed up Major League Baseball’s playoff experiment.

If Sam Holbrook was anywhere within 90 feet of Albert Einstein we wouldn’t know that E = MC^2. If Sam Holbrook was anywhere near Henry Ford, we’d never been given the Model-T. If Sam Holbrook was within shouting distance of Alexander Graham Bell, I’m pretty sure we would not have telephones today.

What I’m trying to say is that the guy messed up so bad, he altered baseball history. No, really. I doubt that either a) the Infield Fly Rule will not be altered or b) the Wild Card Playoff game format will be altered. Twenty-twelve may go down as the year the Mayans were right, or it may go down as the year the Infield Fly Rule became a household term. We’ll have to wait and see.

It’s worth noting that the controversial call took place during an 8th-inning rally attempt by the Braves when they were down 6-3 to the Cards. There were runners on both first and second base, with one out and shortstop Andrelton Simmons hit a pop fly that went 60 fifty base the infield dirt. But it didn’t seem to matter to Sam Holbrook. He just waited and waited and waited, despite the fact that the rule stipulates the infield fly out must be called immediately, then just before the ball touched the ground he threw up his fist to call it an out.

During all of this, what was happening on the infield was a different story. The Braves players, shocked to see the ball hit the ground, advanced the bases to create a bases-loaded, one-out setup for pinch hitter Brian McCann. It’s worth noting that McCann has been an All-Star MVP, and was benched for the game not because he’s not a great player but because David Ross, the backup catcher, had good previous history against pitcher Lohse. Ross ended up being responsible for the Braves’ first two runs with his two-run homerun in the second inning. Had McCann gotten anything other than a double-play out, the Braves most certainly would have had a terrific chance to score another run, possibly more to bring the game closer within reach with the top of the Braves’ lineup due up thereafter.

But that’s not what happened. Sam Holbrook wouldn’t let it. It’s also worth noting that left field umpires don’t exist for the 162 regular season games. Had the MLB treated this “wild card” game as an extension of the regular season rather than the start of the playoffs, there would have been no left field umpire. Given the third base umpire’s lack of effort to get a good view of the most critical play in the game, you could easily argue – as former Cy Young winner Curt Shilling argued on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight last night – that the call would not have been made and the Braves would have had bases loaded with only one out.

Instead, Simmons was called out. Runners returned to first and second, and McCann came to the plate with a two-out situation. He eventually walked to load the bases back up, but leadoff hitter Michael Bourn made the final out and the rally – the final rally attempt in the final game of Chipper’s career and this Braves season – died. Teams just don’t come back from that type of buffoonery.

Sam Holbrook should be embarrassed with himself. Umpires are supposed to ensure fair play, call foul balls, make sure rules are upheld, and protect the game. Holbrook did all that for seven innings then lost his mind for what will surely go down as the worst sports call in 2012 – even worse than the Seahawks-Packers Monday Night Football debacle because those were replacement refs.

What ensued was exactly what any sports fanatic like myself would expect given the situation. These average Americans, these Atlanta residents and visitors like myself – many of whom left work early (and money on the table) – to attend the game, were flabbergasted. Bottles, beer cans, water bottles, popcorn and anything else you could get your hands on was picked up and chucked directly onto the field. This protest was to be heard loud and clear.

Sam Holbrook may think he can get away with being an idiot at a critical juncture in the game, but Braves fans won’t tolerate it…so the thinking went. Larry and I refrained from tossing anything onto the field, but we sure weren’t eager to stop it from happening. If this were a college football game, the field would have been stormed and we would’ve been right there in the thick of it.

For nearly 20 minutes the game was stopped as we booed, cheered “Bullshit” and theorized about whether or not MLB would actually do anything about the bonehead call. But the MLB is run by Bud Selig, one of the most stubborn men in sports. And he hired former Yankees manager Joe Torre for times like this; Torre was the buffer. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez filed an official protest of the game and Torre and his crew were tasked with determining if the right call was made. After the game, Torre would say it was absolutely the right call. Sam Holbrook is paid by the League, like MLB commentator Harold Reynolds, so he has to stick with his boss as does Torre. It’s also worth pointing out that Torre has greater MLB ambitions and that Reynolds was fired by ESPN’s Baseball Tonight show – perhaps the most objective major baseball news show – just a year or two ago for sex-abuse claims by at least one woman. These people need to protect their boss to protect their jobs. That’s not conspiracy talk, those are realities.

Regardless, the game would eventually continue…both Chipper and Freddie Freeman would reach base for the Braves in the ninth inning, putting the tying run at the plate, but it was all for naught. The real rally wasn’t ended by a pitcher fooling a hitter. The real rally was killed by Sam Holbrook, along with the integrity of the Infield Fly rule, Major League Baseball’s experiment known as the Wild Card Playoff game.

But it gets worse. After the game, while driving my rental car to a parking lot where Larry had parked his car before the game, we noticed something shocking. No, the car had not been stolen, it had been towed along with those of at least 20 other individuals. We were told by individuals in the lot, a church parking lot, that the individuals whom took money for the spots was not authorized to do so. The $20 fee was a scam, and the church had called for tow service as a result. The odd part of the whole thing was that a) why wasn’t it until the lot was completely full did someone from the church arrive, b) why did they call tow service if they didn’t need the spots for church service that day and knew they belonged to Braves fans (the church was within blocks of the stadium), and c) where did the cars get towed?

The first two questions led to a fair share of scam gripes from the individuals’ whom had their cars towed, but the third question was the worst. The cars had been taken to a place called A Tow Service at 108 Harriet Street. For two hours, more than 20 individuals – mostly white – stood in line where they were informed it would cost $135 to get their vehicles.

But it gets worse. Unlike any tow service most of us have experience with, A Tow required its victims to walk on hot coals, jump through inflamed hula hoops, swallow swords and tap dance – all while having proper ID, vehicle registration, car title, tags, insurance and what seemed like an ungodly amount of documentation – to actually get your car back. Pain (Braves loss) on top of pain (Sam Holbrook) on top of pain (car being tow) on top of pain (outrageously bad customer service).

It was like some weird rule book had been put in place to inflict pain upon Braves fan – some of whom I’d heard had also drove hundreds of miles or flown in from places like Detroit – on Friday, October 5, 2012.

I began asking questions to all of the A Tow employees. There was a Valerie at the customer window. There was a John Thomas as the outside gate, along with a Ryan Ronnie. There was a Ms. Carroll at the phone desk, and an owner named Paige Porter. It turns out this Mrs. Porter has some deal with the Atlanta Police Department.

How do I know? Because the Atlanta Police Department was unable to reach for two full hours, though I attempted to dial three different APD numbers – Criminal Division, Mainline, Property Division – and other individuals drove around to flag down cops who said they’d stop by but never did.

A Tow’s business license and registration was expired based on what I saw onsite near the outside gate, and the employees gave a lot of questionable answers to my questions. They refused to reveal whom had placed the call from the church to two the vehicles and they claimed to being doing everything above board and “only doing our jobs” and “everything legally.”

When I looked around on the APD website for the Property Division it revealed that A Tow Service was the official tow agency for the police department. Lucky Larry. Yet no police were anywhere in the vicinity to serve the people here who’d not been protected from a scam.

One-by-one, customers paid the $135 and pleaded with Valerie at the customer window to be given their cars. Teens were told to call parents as far as Nashville. Men were told to return with car titles, although their names were on the insurance policies and the policy’s VIN numbers matched those in the vehicles themselves. As Larry stated, A Tow Service had created a system to break down the will of these individuals. You’d arrive at the tow lot hoping to get your car back free of charge, believing some mistake had happened, then concede to paying the fee. Then, after conceding the fee, you’d been put through the registration ringer.

Eventually, one man called “911”. About 20 minutes later, a squad car pulled up and two officers exited. After a few words with the man who’d dialed them, they went inside. Eventually, it appeared that the officers were able to convince A Tow to relinquish some of the vehicles to individuals with the most basic forms of proof that the vehicles belonged to them. Honestly, though, it didn’t seem like the officers did anything except show up. There didn’t appear to be any real questioning going on. The officers seemed to be very familiar and friendly towards A Tow’s staff – perhaps they’d seen this racket before – which led to additional concerns.

Regardless, the cops eventually departed and Larry was able to get his car back. As I waited in my rental car for Larry to pull out of the tow yard, a Georgia State Policeman showed up and headed inside for reasons unbeknownst to me. Shortly thereafter, Ryan Ronnie from A Tow’s staff pulled off in his own vehicle looking eerily concerned with whether or not he’d been watched.

The story ends there, but the whole experience with A Tow screamed of illegality and fraudulent behavior. If I were a resident of Atlanta, not Austin, you’d best believe I’d be figuring out a way to shed some light on whatever backroom dealings were taking place at that establishment. Similarly, I’d be trying to figure out what the hell Sam Holbrook was thinking.

What this all comes down to is fair play. Larry said the shadiness he detected at A Tow was typical of Atlanta culture and life. That’s a problem. Perhaps the attention and spotlight given to the city in the ‘90s has led to an enhanced layer of corruption within Atlanta’s city limits.

Is this what I can expect as an Austinite over the next 15 to 20 years? Growing frustration with how business is done, customer service and a blurring of lines between private (A Tow) and public (APD) sectors that does nothing for the city’s residents?

I sure hope not. I happen to love the Austin City Limits even more than I love the Braves. No offense, Chipper.

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