Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Rant Against the Automatic IBB (Intentional Bases on Balls)

I learned today that the four pitch intentional walk is becoming history.  It could be in effect for the 2018 season.  Instead of a pitcher having to throw four slow pitches outside the strike zone, the defensive team would only need to indicate their decision to intentionally walk someone by signaling the umpire.  Presumably by waving four fingers at him.  The batter would then be allowed to take his base.  
The reason I’ve heard for the change is to “bring the game into the twenty-first century,” by picking up its pace of play.  Younger fans, Millennials and Generation Xers presumably will be more interested in the game if some of the “fat” taking up time, such as making a pitcher throw four pitches in a row without the batter swinging at them.  
This is along with other rule changes being discussed, such as limiting the number of visits to the mound a coach or manager can make, and installing a pitch clock and issuing balls or strikes for violation when either a pitcher or a hitter delays the game.  
I find this effort to be extremely irritating.  Both in the specific change being proposed, and in the general sentiment it expresses.  
As far as the four-pitch IBB (Intentional Base on Balls) is concerned, I don’t believe that it will have that great an impact on how long it takes to play a game.  The IBB is usually granted in very specific situations.  The team on defense has allowed men on base, usually in scoring position.  A player known to be a good hitter is at the plate.  The defensive team has an open base they can allow the hitter to take for the opportunity to throw to the batter following the good hitter who, if not necessarily a bad hitter, doesn’t have the reputation of hitting as well as the player ahead of him in the line-up.  
In a close game, this is one delicious moment.  If you are rooting for the hitting team, you’re seeing your team’s chance to get back in the game.  If you’re rooting for the team in the field, you begging the gods of baseball to be kind to them, give them a strike out, or a double-play.  Let’s get out of this in one piece and finish them off.  
Then, when the catcher extends his hand outward, and you know what’s coming next, that’s when the fans on one side will start to boo.  If it’s the hitting team fans, their booing the opposing team.  It’s like they’re cheating.  It’s like they’re afraid.  It’s like taking a knee in football when you’re team, the one on defense, is less than one score away from going ahead and winning.  
By the time the four pitches are done, everyone is revved up.  As the batter takes his base, everyone is on their feet, looking to the next batter.  The defensive team fans are now praying for a strike-out, a double play, harder than before.  The fans of the team at bat are thinking, “Ok…  Show this hurler that your not some piece of meat to be taken lightly.”  
The time it took to stir up this situation?  About fifteen, twenty seconds.  Over the course of a three hour game.  A situation that doesn’t happen in every game.  By the end of the season, we might be able to shave a full five minutes off total playing time of all the games played that year.
But look at the fun, the build to excitement, the involvement of the fans that will be lost?  
And though they don’t happen very often, the opportunities for ruses to take place, when a catcher signals for a pitch-out, but then drops back into position to catch a called strike, fooling the batter and ending the side.  Or, for a batter to extend his swing to catch one of those lobbed balls and punch it out for a hit, or even a home run.  These things have happened a handful of times over the course of baseball.  Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Willie Mays have all knocked in runs by swinging at balls intended to walk them.  
In 1976, Rod Carew, when he was playing for the Twins, was being given an intentional walk in the 11th inning of a game against the Oakland A’s.  Rod was hitting around 350 at the time, so the decision was a smart one.  But Carew decided to swing at the first two pitches, turning them into strikes.  It was his way of challenging the pitcher.  “Hey, buddy…  I’ll spot you two.  Still want to walk me?”  
The pitcher threw four more pitches and walked him.  The Twins ended up winning the game in the next inning, but damn!  Who wouldn’t want to have watched a moment like that.  That’s like Babe Ruth pointing out where the home run was going to go, or Lou Gehrig promising to hit two home runs for a sick kid.  It’s a moment that baseball fans remember.
Which, under the new rule, can’t happen again.  This sort of human happenstance that is in baseball’s DNA is being phased out to make it fit more comfortably in modern life. 
Which brings me to the underlying reason why I find this effort to “modernize” the game so annoying.  I don’t watch baseball, I don’t go to every professional ballpark I can (up to (twelve so far in two countries, with plans to visit up to six more this year), because it fits in my modern lifestyle.  
I go to baseball games because it takes me OUT of my modern lifestyle.  I go because I know, for the next two and a half, or three, or four or 8 hours 26 minutes if it sets a new record for longest professional game ever, I don’t have to do anything but watch what I think is the most beautiful game created by man, eat as many hot dogs and drink as much beer as I can, and figure out a way to get to the restroom and back before the next pitch while the teams change sides between innings.  
In a era where we are lives are dictated and shaped by the ticking of a clock, we need more activities, more games, more events, where things unfold according to their natural evolution, and we go with them, strolling, running, or standing still to watch.  Things that start when they start, and end when they end, in a natural pace set by the events that unfold.  Baseball is one of those rare gems that we have brought with us into the twenty-first century that do that for us.  
There is one question that I came up with when I first heard of the idea that baseball needs to be sped up or modernized, and that’s this: When your lover/girlfriend or boyfriend/wife or husband/significant other takes you in their arms and holds you close, and you start to feel that urgency that tells you something more will be happening in the next few moments, is your impulse to turn on a timer to make sure it fits in your schedule?  

If your answer is “Yes,” then you’re missing the point.  Maybe you should become a football fan instead.