The intentional walk was a ritual.
The hitter would tap the plate with his bat and sink into his stance and stare at the pitcher, ready to hit. Expecting to hit. At first, he wouldn’t see the catcher standing behind him extending an arm to the side. A white flag. The fans would boo.
The hitter would hear the fans and turn his head and look at the catcher and realize what was happening. And for a second, the hitter’s face would show contempt for the other team. And then he would get back in his stance and prepare to hit in case the pitcher and catcher were bluffing, and sometimes they were. And the hitter would watch the pitcher lob the ball six feet outside. And the fans would boo.
Sometimes, the pitcher would lob the ball too far outside or over the catcher’s head and the ball would roll to the backstop. And sometimes, the pitcher would lob the ball too far inside and the hitter would hit a home run. A lot of pressure on these pitches that seemed easy but weren’t. After the fourth one, the batter finally would jog to first base. And the fans would boo.
This ritual no longer exists in Major League Baseball.
On Feb. 22, the commissioner changed the rule. Starting this season, someone from the pitcher’s dugout will signal to the umpire, point to first base and end the at-bat. No pitches necessary. That’s the new intentional walk. The idea is to speed up the game.
But this won’t speed it up much. Intentional walks don’t happen frequently. Last season, they happened once every 21/2 games, and took only about a minute to complete. During that minute, things happened. I like when things happen. I’m in favor of athletes doing things. Basketball players have to shoot free throws. Football players have to kick and defend the extra point. Pitchers should have to throw pitches to walk someone.
Instead of changing the intentional walk, the MLB should institute a pitch clock, like a shot clock in basketball or a play clock in football. No more journeys around the infield for the pitcher while he adjusts his hat and rubs the ball in the middle of an at-bat. Just get the ball and throw it. This change would speed up the game significantly. So would enforcing rules to keep batters in the batter’s box instead of letting them wander around adjusting their gloves.
Enforcing rules like these wouldn’t eliminate a ritual. Baseball is supposed to be ritualistic. It is the most ritualistic sport in America. And that makes baseball beautiful.
Every game starts the same way. The leadoff hitter kicks dirt over the back line of the batter’s box to erase the chalk which the groundskeeper laid down just a few minutes before. This is the opening ceremony, and a service which allows hitters for both teams to stand a little farther back than the box would permit. The home plate umpire never objects.
When a batter strikes out and no one is on base, the catcher always throws the ball around the horn. He fires to the third baseman, who flips to the shortstop, who flips to the second baseman, who fires back to third baseman, who tosses the ball to the pitcher. No one ever throws to the first baseman.