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Intentional Walks: The Scourge Of Our National Game

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Whatever our political and philosophical differences, might we agree that the single most exciting thing that's happened all month happened in Game 3 of the World Series, when Albert Pujols came up in the ninth inning, having already collected four hits including two home runs, and hit another home run, becoming just the third player ever to accomplish that feat?

That's the sort of thing that gets people talking about baseball. They hear about Pujols the next morning and maybe they tune into Game 4 to see if he can do it again. Which he can't, of course. Baseball's not like that. Even the greatest players routinely have games where they don't do anything at all, and Pujols went 0 for 4 in Game 4.

Ah, but what might happen in Game 5? How many times might Pujols bat with runners on base? How many times might the National League's most famous player get a chance to do something incredible, and delight any non-Rangers fan who might be watching, around the world?

In the event, Pujols batted five times. He batted with at least one runner aboard in the third inning and in the fifth inning. Both times, he was not permitted to hit. Rangers manager Ron Washington ordered Pujols to be intentionally walked.

Pujols also came up in the seventh inning with a runner aboard, who was subsequently thrown out trying to steal second base. The score was 2-2, there were two outs and nobody on base ... and still Washington ordered Pujols to be intentionally walked.

The problem is not that anyone watching was robbed of a dramatic hit; it's that anyone watching was robbed of the prospect of a dramatic hit. Most of watching baseball is waiting for something to happen. But the waiting's okay, because we know the waiting might be rewarded with something exciting. And then along comes an intentional walk, spoiling it for everyone.

Look, the fundamental problem with the intentional walk is that no baseball players are actually involved. Sure, the batter stands there while the pitcher lobs a few plateward and the catcher catches them. But far more than anything else that happens on the field, the players are divorced from the action.

Care to guess the last time someone paid good money to watch a manager manage?

Billy Martin or Earl Weaver, maybe. But even those guys, you were paying to watch them kick dirt on the umpire rather than sit on the bench and give four-finger salutes to the other teams' best hitters.

Intentional walks subvert the very essence of not only baseball, but professional sports in general, the object of which is to pit the athletic and intellectual talents of one player against another. Sure, managers and coaches might offer suggestions and orders, but it's still up to the players to execute. Not with the intentional walk, though. Baseball might be the only game in which a coach may elect, almost any time he likes, to completely avoid the other team's best player. And boy, isn't that a lot of fun.

So what do you think? Might we also now agree that baseball would be a more compelling enterprise without the accursed intentional walk.

There are any number of things you could do, any of which could be tested first in the minor leagues.

First, let's assume that we need worry about only the typical intentional walks: runner on second base or runners on second and third, with first base open.

If you want to walk a hitter with nobody on base? Hey, it's your funeral. Bases loaded, same thing. Both happen so rarely that we'll let the managers have their fun. If we ignore these four-pitch walks, we avoid unduly penalizing a pitcher who just happens to have missed with four straight pitches, accidentally.

You get just one of the other kind, though. If you walk somebody on four pitches with first base open and runners aboard, the first time it's just a walk.

You don't want to do that again, though. Because the second time, the batter's got a choice: He can take the walk, or he can start over with a new count. If you walk him again on four pitches, he takes second base and everybody moves up one base.

Alas, I can't take credit for this idea. In 1913, American League President Ban Johnson proposed banning the intentional walk, "one of the most, if not the most, unpopular plays in base ball". Seven years later, Washington Senators owner (and former pitcher) Clark Griffith proposed a rule that would penalize teams for intentional walks, but his proposal required the umpires to determine the pitcher's intent and was deemed impractical. And in 1937, The Sporting News published a proposal from a sportswriter. From Peter Morris's seminal book, A Game of Inches:

... Sid Keener of the St. Louis Star-Times made an imaginative proposal. He suggested giving a batter who walked on four pitches the option of declining the free pass. If a second four-pitch walk resulted, the batter could choose between a walk to second or again declining the walk. If he declined again and another four-pitch walk ensued, the batter would walk all the way to third base.

That's just one idea. There are others, if you're bored this winter. Anyway, this wouldn't knock out intentional walks completely, but it would highly discourage them while still retaining that element of strategy for the managers, who would have to think about "saving" their intentional walks for just the right moment. It would also have the secondary effect of encouraging pitchers to throw strikes, as the four-pitch walk, intentional or not, could be so potentially damaging to the cause.

Oh, and if you're worried about removing strategy from the game? This would make the manager's job more interesting, not less. In addition to managers having to think more about issuing intentional walks, managers would now have to think about accepting them. What is now a one-sided exchange would become a battle of wits, every time. We could actually have more strategy and more excitement.

Do you really care to argue against that combination?

Granted, intentional walks have been around since the 1870s. But the people who designed the game of baseball didn't intend for the best players to be sidelined by sidelined at the whim of a player or a captain or a manager. The idea was always that pitchers would pitch and hitters would hit and fielders would field, and at the end of nine innings we'll see which team did those things better.

The intentional walk is a travesty. It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham. Monday night in Game 5, Major League Baseball stole something from all of us. Not once, not twice, but three times. Hey, we'll be okay.

But what, I can't help wondering, will become of the children?