CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It's the end of an era. But can it also be a beginning?
On one hand, who among us (besides Rob Manfred) won't miss the lobbing of four balls to execute the now-defunct version of the good old intentional walk? On the other hand, why can't the trashing of that hallowed baseball tradition give life to a whole new form of managerial innovation?
All it would require is two things managers do way more than us average humans. For one thing, they think a lot. (Or let's hope they do, anyway.) For another, they give many, many signs. (Well, either that, or their noses itch pretty much nonstop.)
And now they'll have a chance to call on those two carefully crafted skill sets before flashing a sign they've never had to flash before -- to signal, in their own style:
Yo ump, it's time for one of those newfangled, instantaneous intentional walks! And hurry up with that, OK? We've got to keep this game moving!
As it turns out, baseball doesn't care what the heck that sign looks like. It's totally up to managers to signal just about any old way they'd like.
So you know what that means? This could get fun. We've already found a bunch of managers to play a little game we call "Fun With Signs."
A.J. Hinch: The cap doff
Only five managers in baseball issued fewer intentional walks last season than A.J. Hinch, of those deep-thinking Houston Astros. So when he decides to walk somebody, it's not just strategy. It's an event. An event reserved for only the biggest stars in baseball.
And if it's an event, he says, then treat it like one.
"I literally think the way to do it, for some of the biggest stars in the game, is just take your hat off," he says, "and go like this."
He then removes his cap and makes a gesture that is more than a simple doff. It's a full-fledged salute. All he needs is trumpets blaring to drive his point home.
Technically, this sign is supposed to be delivered to the plate umpire. But Hinch says he's thinking about bypassing the umps and signaling directly at the Mike Trouts and Miguel Cabreras of the world. And he might not even wait until it's their turn to hit.
"What I want to happen," he says, chuckling, "is I want to tell Trout or Cabrera while they're on deck that they're going to get walked. That way they can walk straight from the on-deck circle to first base. Just put your bat down. You're not hitting."
One technical question: Is it still a plate appearance if a guy never even makes it into the batter's box?
John Gibbons: Get on outta here!
John Gibbons has several intentional-walk signs in mind, he says. Because this is a family website, we won't be showing you two of them. But the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays is no fan of the intentional walk, anyway.
You can tell because he issued only 10 of them last season, the second-fewest of any manager in the sport. (Ned Yost beat him, with eight.) So Gibbons has a question.
"How much time is this going to save?" he asks.
In his case? That would be somewhere along the lines of a minute or two a month. So when Gibbons launches into the intentional-walk signal he likes most, his feelings about this are written all over his dismissive face.
He sweeps the back of his left hand toward the sky and shouts at an imaginary hitter: "Go down there. Go. Get down. Beat it."
Those 10 intentional walks last year tell us this is a manager who may walk you if he absolutely has to. But he's not going to let you enjoy your 90 free feet if he does. And from what we gather, he's less of a fan of this rule change than he is of handing out intentional walks in the first place.
"It's a rinky-dink rule anyway," he says, laughing.
Important bulletin for the commissioner's office: That's a joke. But it isn't his only joke about this rule. We just can't repeat the others. And don't be surprised if, one of these nights, he actually uses one of those intentional-walk signals that we're doing you a favor by not showing you here.
"We're in Canada," Gibbons says, laughing again. "We don't get seen in the U.S. anyway."
Pete Mackanin: Walk the walk
The manager of the Philadelphia Phillies is a huge emoji fan. Pete Mackanin's friends say that when they text him, he's pretty much guaranteed not to merely text back his standard words of wisdom. He's also sure to include a helpful illustration at some point. And they live for that.
We tell you this because once Mackanin settled on his new intentional-walk sign, it came as close to being a real-life emoji as any baseball sign we know.
He holds out his left hand. Then he takes two fingers on his right hand -- and literally walks them down an imaginary first-base line. Get the picture?
"Keep it simple," he says.
The last thing he's looking for in an intentional-walk sign is a signal so convoluted he'll find an umpire looking at him funny, wondering if he wants to issue a walk or order a couple of hot dogs from the vendor behind the dugout. So he's going to let his fingers do the walking. Literally.
"It's obvious," he says. "There's no question about it. You know what I'm looking for."
Or, if that doesn't work out, there's always this:
Joe Maddon: Turn it on its side
Joe Maddon barely needs this sign. No manager in the National League issued fewer intentional walks last year than the manager of the Chicago Cubs. So Maddon makes it clear, to ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers, that he hasn't exactly spent every waking hour thinking about how he's going to signal for an intentional walk every other week.
But before he shows off what he has in mind, he mentions something that opens a window into how his brain churns.
"It's such a great departure from the past," he says.
So how did managers signal intentional walks in the past? By holding up four fingers. Then Maddon shows us what he has in mind for this year. He still flashes four fingers -- but "up" wouldn't describe them.
He points them to the side -- in that Maddon-esque way of demonstrating how easy it is to turn any baseball tradition on its side. He doesn't say that, in quite those words. But is there ever anything this guy does that doesn't carry some sort of deeper meaning?
Brad Ausmus: Three plus one equals ...
Did you know Brad Ausmus went to Dartmouth? Well, file that tidbit away. It's going to come up again later. So one thing you should know about the manager of the Detroit Tigers is, he can flat out add.
Now check out that photo of Ausmus' tentative new intentional-walk sign. He has four fingers held up, all right -- but not on the same hand. That's three on the right hand, one on the left hand. And what's the significance of that?
He's a threat to issue an intentional walk in any count. What else?
"I might go to three and one," Ausmus says, "and then put him on."
That would kind of defeat the purpose of the new rule, obviously. But it's also perfectly legal. Plus it's an excellent stalling tactic to get the next relief pitcher warmed up. Not that stalling would ever happen. So Ausmus is pretty pleased with this idea. He has just one concern.
"Hopefully," he quips, "it's not a gang sign."
Don Mattingly: Easy as 1, 2, 3
No manager in baseball needs a reliable go-to intentional-walk signal more than Don Mattingly. The manager of the Miami Marlins issued 62 of those INT BBs last year, the most in baseball (not to mention nine more than Maddon, Hinch and Gibbons combined).
So clearly, Mattingly is more of a traditionalist than the other managers who took part in this survey. Therefore, it's no surprise to see him go with a nearly traditional signal -- by holding his fingers in the air. There is just one small catch.
He holds up only three of those fingers.
Wait. What happened to the fourth? He was inspired, he says, by the creativity of his friend Ausmus.
"That's where my [high school] education takes me, right?" Mattingly jokes. "You said Ausmus went to Dartmouth. I can only get to three."
Fortunately, an Ivy League education won't be required to execute -- or witness -- any of these ingenious new intentional-walk signs, arriving soon at a ballpark near you.