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Ranking what we’ll miss the most about intentional walks

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It’s not all about intentional walks gone awry, you know. There are other, simpler things to miss.

Mark McGwire #25

I finally found someone who is glad the pitch-free intentional walk is here. After a couple days of being in an internet bubble, listening to people grouse and grouse, I talked to someone who might — might — watch one game every year on purpose. She asked what I was working on, and when I told her, she said, “Good. That always seemed like a waste of time.”

My follow-up question was if the rule change would make her watch more baseball games. She laughed at me.

So it goes for the embattled pitch-free intentional walk, the gimmick that will save us a minute in every other baseball game, while getting rid of so much. What will we miss the most about it? A ranked list should help us sort through the emotions. In order from “we’ll miss it a lot” to “we’ll miss it so damned much.”

5. The yippy pitchers

This is one of the most common examples of intentional-walk chicanery, where professional baseball men who are paid millions of dollars to throw baseballs suddenly throw them like an Olympic curler throwing a ceremonial first pitch.

It’s not hard to throw a baseball 60 feet until it is. I coached softball last year, and I hit the same girl three times during batting practice. Not anyone else. Not my daughter. Just this one girl, over and over again. It was the hardest thing in the world for me to throw a softball underhand from 20 feet away in that specific moment. We settled out of court.

Now, I’m not a professional athlete. But I am a registered brain-haver, and that makes me qualified to discuss just how weird brains are. Because, friends, brains are weird. They will mess. you. up. And every so often, a pitcher has trouble tossing baseballs softly to his catcher, and it’s a damned treat.

4. The ruses

These are rare because they are likely to lead to baseballs being thrown at your head. I was lucky enough to attend a game with an intentional-walk ruse. I don’t remember the specific moment, probably because I was zoning out during the intentional walk, which ruins the thesis, but I remember being so, so mad about it later. Or am I conflating two separate games? Maybe these aren’t so special after

NO. It is Manfred that’s the problem here, not me. Not intentional walks. Look at how happy Tony Peña is here:

The best part was that the inning wasn’t even over and he reacted like that. And then had to issue a real intentional walk that came around to score that inning and help the other team win.

He played just five more games in his career after that. Was that because he was ostracized and blacklisted? Yes. Yes, probably. That and he was a 40-year-old catcher, but there some unwritten-rule violations you can’t tolerate.

Dude was a serial offender, you know.

Of course, the most famous ruse came in the 1972 World Series, and it featured two future Hall of Famers.

The common thread with these is that the batter isn’t even mad. Just stunned. And a little embarrassed. But we don’t have one where the batter is yelling profanities and calling the pitcher yella.

We were owed one of those.

We will never get it.

3. The hits

Or, rather, the balls put in play. There was one last year, after all.

This is not a new phenomenon. Someone tracked down more than a dozen examples and published them in a 2011 SABR journal. Cap Anson did it. Willie Mays did it. Pete Rose did it. Ty Cobb did it against Eddie Plank, and Home Run Baker did it against Walter Johnson. This is a rich, rich tradition that deserves respect.

Two of the swings resulted in the batter reaching on an error. Now that’s some butter-slicked baseball that we can all get behind.

They’re rare, of course, but baseball exists for the rare. When a reliever hits a home run in extra innings, we remember it. When a catcher strikes out a home run hitter in extra innings, we remember it. And about once a decade, there’s an intentional walk that catches a little too much of the plate, and the hitter is ready for it.

But someone wants to save a minute every other game. In the past, we’ve been stuffing those minutes into a piggy bank, like they were pennies, then we would break it for a pizza party every 10 years. Now we have those minutes and we can do whatever we want with them.

Just like you can’t buy a pizza with a single penny, so it goes for the minutes that we’ll save. You don’t get them back at the end of your life like an extra pinball, you know.

2. The potential for anything

One of the most underrated losses. This is a line from Contact, when an astronaut is given a suicide pill.

There may be unforeseen mechanical failure. You may be marooned, unable to return. There are a thousand reasons we think of for the occupant of machine to have this — but mostly it's for the reasons we can't think of.

That’s what we’re missing. The chicanery we can’t think of.

In the 1984 World Series, Padres manager Dick Williams ordered Goose Gossage to issue an intentional walk. Gossage hesitated or refused, depending on which account you read. There was a mound visit. Williams relented.

This was the result:

If you scroll back a minute, you’ll hear Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola riffing about that Bench/Fingers ruse from the ‘72 World Series. The intentional walk and the decision not to issue it was a part of the story, not a commercial everyone was trying to fast-forward.

If that situation came up today, Williams would have wiggled four fingers at the umpire, and Gossage would have huffed for a few seconds. That’s it. That’s the story.

In 1976, Rod Carew was being walked with a runner on second in the 11th inning. This was in a stretch where he had hit .350 or better in each of the last three seasons, so you can get the strategy. But Carew swung at the first two pitches. Not real swings, and not with the intent to put the ball in play. He did it just to get the two strikes on him.

“Here. I’ll spot you two strikes.”

It was hubris. Earned, hilarious hubris of the most magnificent order from one of baseball’s greatest hitters. The intentional walk went on as planned, and the Twins won the game in the next at-bat anyway.

But one of these years, there would have been a pitcher or manager who took the hitter up on that challenge. Even Tony Gwynn was a .267 hitter with two strikes, and that’s just about the best in baseball history. So if the hitter is going to spot you that — if he’s going to give you all the leverage he can — maybe there would have been a manager who would take it.

1. The booing

Up there? A bunch of rare butterflies. We like to talk about them because they’re rare, but we’re not going to wait around for them in every game. They’re not something we can count on.

The booing of the home crowd, though, happens every time.

We disagree with this decision.

Yes, yes. Let the disagreement pour out of you.

Your pitcher isn’t good enough to get our hitter out.

Let the anger flow.

You’re chicken, you know that? Yellow. And your mother regrets having you.

We’re teetering a little too far, so bring it back just a bit, but yes, good, this is the proper response to an intentional walk.

It’s sustained. The shame covers you like a film. The crowd is screaming at you. The people above the dugout are saying things you can process, and these are mean things.

Those were not seconds that people were wishing they were somewhere else. Those were moments in which people were engaged with the game, actively connecting with it. The vitriol increases with the visibility of the player. When you’re there to watch a Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds or scorching-hot Josh Hamilton, you’re being robbed of your entertainment.

Now the player will just sort of appear on first base. Neat. There will be boos. They won’t echo. They won’t linger.

The gains will be hard to notice. What we’ll miss will be intangible, but it’ll be easy to notice. Baseball is doing a silly thing, and they’re justifying it because it’s a part of a larger, worthwhile war against tedious baseball. It just wasn’t necessary, though.

(If you want to be less angry, here’s something to cleanse the palate. Look at this pile of hateful baseball. At least this will leave, too.)