|Tuesday, February 4
Changes needed to intentional-walk rule
By Jayson Stark
One thing you need to remember in life is this:
The rules are the rules -- unless somebody changes them.
Well, if ever there were a case to change any rule in sports, that rule would be the intentional-walk rule. And the man we would hire as chief lobbyist is Barry Bonds.
It isn't so much that Bonds was intentionally walked 68 times last year. (And remember, before Barry came along, only one other player in history -- Willie McCovey -- had ever been intentionally walked 40 times in a season.) It isn't even so much that just 10 other active players have accumulated as many intentional walks in their careers as Bonds has just in the past three years (125).
No, we would build our case simply around the events of this past October -- during which The Greatest Player of His Times had almost as many intentional walks (13) as hits (16).
After that World Series, many people in baseball were scratching their heads trying to figure out why a Series featuring the most magnetic player in the whole sport got its lowest TV ratings since -- what? -- 1908?
OK, obviously, there were lots of reasons for that -- some of them having to do with A) bed time, B) the absence of any Angels fans from the portion of civilization we know as "Not Orange County" and C) people can be such idiots, they don't know a great sporting event from the World Tortoise Racing Championships.
But that aside, what was the biggest gripe from folks who were "casual baseball fans" (translation: wouldn't know Lance Berkman from Lance Armstrong)?
Think it had anything to do with the fact that they kept turning on their sets to watch the magical confrontation between Barry Bonds and some defenseless Angels pitcher -- and instead saw Bonds get intentionally walked in the first inning every darned night? Happened pretty much as regularly as the National Anthem. In the pre-Barry era, no player since at least 1955 had ever been intentionally walked in the first inning of a World Series game with first base occupied, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Then the Angels accorded that honor to our man Bonds three times in four games.
Of course, you can't blame them. When they pitched to him, the baseballs kept landing on Space Mountain.
But suppose there was a new rule that made it more difficult for teams to walk Bonds intentionally -- or anybody else? Or escalated the cost of doing that to something more risky than, say, taking their chances on Benito Santiago?
We've heard a lot of suggestions over the last month. But these are the only three that make any sense whatsoever:
1. A limit of one intentional walk per player per game.
All of those options would create fascinating strategic scenarios. And they would undoubtedly result in more chances for Bonds -- and everyone else -- to swing the bat.
Which would be great.
If they work.
But would they? We posed these scenarios to two of the great thinkers in baseball -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Bud Selig's executive vice president for baseball operations, Sandy Alderson.
It's safe to say they were intrigued.
It's also safe to say they didn't feel an urge to run to the rules committee demanding immediate implementation.
"First of all," Alderson said, "I don't totally agree that those intentional walks (in the World Series) created some kind of black hole of excitement. As I was watching those games, to me, there was a lot going on.
"You were always thinking about what happened with (Kenny) Lofton, what happened with (Rich) Aurilia and (Jeff) Kent, about what was going on ahead of Bonds. Obviously, it deprived people of the opportunity to see Bonds swing the bat. On the other hand, it created a lot of interesting strategic considerations, which I think most baseball fans would appreciate."
No one, of course, appreciates a good strategic consideration more than a manager. But La Russa, whose team walked Bonds 10 times in only 21 trips during the NLCS, wasn't so sure he wanted to appreciate these particular considerations.
"I'm a great believer," he said, "that if you identify a problem and you're creative about finding an alternative potential solution, there's nothing wrong with being inventive. But ... (and didn't you just know that "but" was roaring around this bend) ... to me, it would have to be something really, really significant to mess with the rules."
Well, clearly, the problem is significant. But is there a solution that makes sense? Let's examine these three, solution by solution:
1. One intentional walk per player per game
"The biggest hole in that one," La Russa said, "is, you can walk a guy intentionally in an unintentional way. Just have the catcher sit out there and throw four sinkers in the dirt."
No one knows how many of Bonds' 130 "unintentional" walks last year were oozing with intent. But it was closer to 100 than zero. And most of them were so obvious, Darren Baker could have seen them coming. But "clearly," Alderson said, "there's an enforcement issue, having to distinguish between intentional and unintentional."
OK, so we'll chalk this one up to: Swell idea. Well-intentioned. But essentially impractical, unworkable and unenforceable. So let's move onto ...
2. On an intentional walk, every runner gets to move up a base
Consider the ramifications: Walking him with a man on second and less than two outs would move a runner to third who had the ability to score without a hit. Would it be worth that risk?
And would anybody ever intentionally walk him with men on second and third -- an automatic decision now -- if the price would be actually giving up a run? Obviously, the answer would be: Almost never. So this is one idea with enough teeth to accomplish at least part of our mission. But is it too radical?
"The question is: Does it change the game too much?" La Russa ruminated. "I think so. But it's worth thinking about. Every time you take the bat out of Barry's hands, you're taking some of the entertainment out of our game. I had personal experience with this, with Mark (McGwire)."
But the problem is, baseball is more than just an "entertainment" experience. It's a competitive experience. It's not Six Flags with balls and bats. It's about winning a flag.
"When he gets on base, he creates an opportunity for them to score," La Russa said. "He's not making an out. He's creating an opportunity for them to score a run and win a ball game.
"If you start paying attention to the entertainment value of one player and start messing with the game, you're really messing with the most important reason we're out there. When we're playing in San Francisco, we're there for the Cardinals to beat the Giants. We're not there for the Barry Show."
We still like this idea in theory. Unfortunately, all it would do is produce a lot more "unintentional" walks. Of course, as Baseball America's Alan Schwarz has proposed, we could always expand the concept and count all four-pitch walks as effectively being "intentional." But we'll concede that that's an even trickier concept. So let's think about ...
3. The hitter can decline the intentional walk
Still, just as the NBA contemplates whether there's an antidote for those equally unwatchable Hack-a-Shaq attacks, why wouldn't baseball at least consider this -- or any serious -- plan to give its star players more chances to do what they do best?
"If we're talking Hack-a-Shaq," Alderson said, "you have to think about it this way: Is it better for the game for Shaq to be as dominant as he can -- and should you change the rules to make that more likely? Or should it be survival of the fittest, and clubs have to be creative in finding a better way to attack Shaq? The way it stands now, his responsibility is to become a better free-throw shooter. That would stop it.
"And the way it stands now, the best solution with Bonds is just to find a better guy to hit behind him. And not just in the fifth spot, but in the fifth and sixth spot. That's how you make teams pitch to him. You don't have to change the rules."
The Giants, in fact, have spent their winter doing just that, adding Ray Durham, Edgardo Alfonzo, Jose Cruz and Marquis Grissom to deepen their lineup all around Bonds. And that's fine. That's what they could do about it, and they did it.
But the question remains: Is there anything the sport needs to do about it, to make sure that fans paying to watch one game a year -- or turning on a World Series game to see if they can reignite their fading baseball passions -- don't walk away grumbling about investing three hours to watch the great Barry Bonds take one swing all night?
"I don't disagree in a general sense," Alderson said. "On the other hand, if you took a vote of all fans who follow Major League Baseball and you asked them if there should be a limit on, say, the number of times Barry Bonds ought to be intentionally walked, I bet you'd get an overwhelming "no" vote. It sounds like special-interest legislation to me."
OK, maybe it is. But you can also make a case it's in everybody's best interest.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.