The Intentional Walk is Dead — Sad

This year, a sad change occurred in Major League Baseball: managers can now signal an intentional walk without the pitcher having to throw four balls past the batter. According to the report in the NY TImes,

‘It’ll be a new normal in a relatively short period of time,” Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “Right now it’s going to elicit a lot of discussion, I get it. But to me that’s one of those things I wouldn’t really want to battle about, because I don’t think it’s that significant.’

And that’s really the sad part. In a few months, it will be the new normal. But the new normal isn’t what baseball is all about. Baseball is just as much about the haphazard and the unforseeable as it is about trends, statistics and averages. In my opinion, the intentional walk rules present the opportunity for chance and error, even in the most predictable of circumstances.

Yes, there were only 900+ intentional walks last year. And, almost all the time, nothing happens — except. . . . Some Pitchers don’t like to have to change their rhythms. Sometimes, a pitcher will actually throw a ball over the catcher’s head. Some batters can step out and hit a soft, slow, intentionally outside pitch. You just never know.

But the League and its owners say, “let’s just move the game along.” It needs to be faster; it can’t spend time on an activity that rarely propels the game forward.

This kind of thinking abandons the most distinguishing feature of baseball: it is the only major sport that is not ruled by mechanical clock-time. Any inning lasts however long it takes to get three outs; a game goes beyond nine innings until one team wins. In the modern era almost all our activities are governed by clock-time, and baseball is the only major sport that provides an escape from this enslavement.

The intentional walk rule change is a bow to the rule of the clock, the 21st Century arbiter of our lives. Time, which used to measured in seasons, is now measured in nano-seconds. As fans, our attention spans have become comparably compressed and our willingness to commit the entirety of an afternoon to watching grown men play a boys’ game no longer seems to make much sense. Except, when you sit in a ballpark with your son or daughter, and the sky is electric blue, and the outfield grass shimmers in the sun, and there’s a man on second who looks like he wants to steal third, you secretly wish that the game could go on forever.