King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Outlaw intentional walks so Barry Bonds can hit? It won't happen, and that's one of the great things about baseball.


Salon Staff
June 22, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

My favorite thing about being a baseball fan is that they don't keep fiddling with the rules on me.

Giants fans and other interested observers have been up in arms over the last few years about the frequency with which opponents have intentionally walked Barry Bonds, repeatedly taking the bat out of the hands of the game's greatest hitter. A hitter whom, not incidentally, those fans pay their hard-earned money to watch hit.

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On Monday the Giants began selling souvenir rubber chickens for fans to wave at the other team whenever Bonds gets four wide ones, which is more often than anyone else, ever, by a lot, as I'll show you in a second.

The joke is that the other team is chicken to face him, get it? Of course you do. It's so nice not to have to explain everything to you.

Bonds has changed the very strategy of the game, turning the intentional walk from an occasional tool to a common practice, one that elicits boos not just in the Giants' park but on the road as well, where people also pay good dineros to watch him swing the bat, though they tend not to make chicken-dance motions with their arms at the home team.

If this kind of thing had happened in any of the other major American sports, the powers that be would have been tinkering with the rules every offseason to try to fix the situation. Even without a Barry Bonds, an annual puttering with the rule book is an offseason fixture of basketball, football and hockey.

Not baseball. National pastime-lovers of the purple-prose variety love to wax on about the perfect geometry of the 90-foot diamond and such, but it's more than just that, more than the green blankets of spring grass stretching back to our grandfathers' grandfathers time and O! the boys of summer, the game is designed to break your heart stuff.

It really is a beautifully designed game. If you've ever sat around with friends and played that parlor game where you try to think of rules you would change if you were in charge of a sport, it's easy with every one but baseball. Without even trying, I can think of 20 rule changes I would make to basketball, a sport I like a lot. Serious ones, real ones, not "raise the basket to 30 feet and add trampolines" or something. Same for every other sport I've ever seen, except maybe curling.

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But what can you do to baseball? In the late '60s and early '70s, when pitchers seemed to have gained the upper hand in their eternal tug of war with hitters, baseball lowered the pitching mound and shrunk the strike zone, then added the designated hitter in the American League.

I think those were overreactions to natural events in the cyclical history of the game, but the point is that three decades and more later, fans still argue over whether they were a good idea. In other sports those epochal changes would have been mere adjustments that long ago would have been forgotten, lost in the endless list of other nips, tucks and makeovers.

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You occasionally hear grumbling that baseball ought to outlaw the intentional walk in light of the abuse of it by opponents of the Giants. I'm not sure how you can outlaw the intentional walk without also outlawing the pitchout -- "We didn't intentionally walk him, ump, we just pitched out four times in a row" -- but the nice thing is I don't have to give it much thought because the idea isn't taken seriously.

The intentional walk has been around for generations without ever causing much of a problem. The genius of baseball is in the realization that just because there's a problem now, with one guy, doesn't mean the game has to be adjusted.

Those who study numbers tend to argue that walking Bonds is usually not a smart strategy anyway. The latest to publicize such a study is a Duke University statistician named Jerry Reiter. Eventually, managers will either come around to that line of thinking or Bonds, who is about to turn 40, will slow down or retire. Problem solved. So far in the major leagues, a guy like Bonds comes along once every 128 years. There's no need to panic.

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I'm sensing that "vintage baseball" -- the game played by 19th century rules and with appropriate costumes and manners -- is a growing trendlet. ESPN Classic will televise a game next month between the Hartford Senators and the Pittsfield Hillies, with 1886 rules in effect. Watch that game and you'll see a very recognizable sport, one that looks odd in a few ways but is basically the game that's played today.

By contrast, a basketball or football game from the 1940s looks like a completely different sport than the games we know today. An ancestor, for sure, but vastly different.

Baseball did its tinkering in the horse-and-buggy days and has mostly left a good thing alone since. That's why any proposed change to the way the game works provokes howling from a huge number of its fans, who are then usually ridiculed as "hidebound traditionalists" by whoever is going to be enriched by the change.

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So yeah, it stinks when you pay your money to watch Bonds hit and instead he gets walked. But that's the chance you take, just like you take the chance that Bonds or any other star you pay to see hit might strike out four times or even take the day off. There's no way to change baseball's rules to save you from some kind of disappointment.

Know why? 'Cause it was designed to break your heart.

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Bonds' intentional walks: The eye-popping numbers [PERMALINK]

Whenever you talk about Barry Bonds the numbers are so astounding I think they're worth rolling around in, so here are some numbers we can talk about when we talk about Barry Bonds and intentional walks, just to give you an idea of how different the Bonds free-pass situation is.

He's the all-time leader in intentional walks with 536 through Monday. The stat has only been kept since 1955, so the totals for Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, among others, aren't known, but it's unlikely they were walked as often.

Williams was still playing in 1955, and he was intentionally walked 33 times in 1957, still the American League record, though it was tied by John Olerud, of all people, in 1993. Williams' biggest walking seasons were 1947 and 1949, with 162 each. He walked, intentional or not, once every 4.28 plate appearances in '47, every 4.51 in '49. Ruth's big season for walks was 1923, with 170, a record until Bonds broke it two years ago. That was one walk, intentional or not, every 4.11 plate appearances.

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So far this season, Bonds is averaging one intentional walk every 4.70 plate appearances. Unless almost all of Ruth's and Williams' walks were intentional, they weren't close to Bonds in this department.

Henry Aaron is second on the all-time intentional walk list with 293. Bonds has been intentionally walked 58 times this year, and if he continues at that pace, he'll have doubled Aaron's career total -- the No. 2 man on the list -- before the end of the year. Aaron, the all-time home run leader, was never intentionally walked more than 23 times in a season. Bonds is averaging 23 intentional walks every 26 games this year.

Bonds holds the single-season record with 68 intentional walks in 2002, which he has a chance to break before the All-Star Game. There was no three-year period in which Aaron was intentionally walked as many as 68 times. Bonds is averaging one intentional walk for every 1.32 Giants games this year. At that pace, he'll end up with 123 intentional walks, which is more times than any National League hitter not named Bonds walked last year, intentional or not.

Those chickens are selling for $10 each at SBC Park.

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Previous column: Lakers breakup

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