If you had a hard time reading that sentence, then you have an idea of what it feels like watching a baseball game on these balky spring days. Ah, the crack of the bat, the thump of the ball in the catcher's mitt, the graceful sweep of the umpire's arm as he motions yet another runner to move ahead one base. Who could blame New York Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda for throwing his glove into the stands at Shea Stadium the other night after he was called for his second balk of the game, the third of his seven-year career?
The umpires are enforcing a new edict that says a pitcher in the stretch position must come to a "complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground," before throwing to the plate. The result is that 216 balks have been called already this year, 61% of the total called in all of 1987. In both leagues, games have been won or lost because of balk calls, and pitchers have been ejected for arguing over the !#$%&¬¨¬®¬¨¢@ things. Balks have been called with the bases loaded, or with slowpokes like Ron Hassey on first, situations in which pitchers clearly are not trying to deceive base runners, which is what the balk rules were designed to prevent. Fans yell "Balk!" now every time a runner reaches first. And the balance of the game has been upset; this season the balk has overtaken the sacrifice bunt, the time-honored method of moving the runner up, by a score of 216-149.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Baseball was pretty good the way it was. From an artistic standpoint, the game was nearly perfect. The strike zone needed to be raised a little, and day baseball in Wrigley Field should have been preserved, but otherwise it was the greatest show on earth.
So what happened? Why did the powers-that-be decide to put a stop to the motions that pitchers have been using for years? Marcel Lachemann, the pitching coach of the California Angels, puts the blame squarely on St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, who complained during the last World Series that Bert Blyleven of the Minnesota Twins was not coming to a complete stop out of his stretch. "They're going to make some rules because that little white-haired bleep in the National League moaned," said Lachemann after De-Wayne Buice of his club balked with the bases loaded last week.
Indeed, the new balk crackdown is the result of a sincere, though misguided, attempt by National League president A. Bartlett Giamatti and American League president Bobby Brown to forge a balk rule that would be enforced the same way by both leagues. Giamatti, former president of Yale, brings great charm and erudition to the game, but he betrayed a certain lack of knowledge during a recent interview when he did not even recognize the name of Danny Jackson, the Cincinnati pitcher who was ejected from a game on April 17 for arguing his second balk call. As for Dr. Brown, who played third base for the Yankees before he became a heart surgeon, one can only assume that he was once the embarrassed victim of a particularly deceptive pickoff move, and this is his way of exacting revenge on pitchers.
Like policemen suddenly told to enforce a jaywalking ordinance, umpires are ticketing with a vengeance. Doug Harvey, baseball's senior umpire with 26 years in the National League, seems determined to teach pitchers a lesson. "Give me 10 high school pitchers, let me spend a week with them, and I'll show you 10 pitchers who won't balk," says Harvey, whose nickname, incidentally, is God. "It's not that difficult, and they better learn it." Indeed, Phillies pitching coach Claude Osteen warned his pitchers all spring about balks, and they have yet to be called for one. But it is asking a lot for pitchers to change overnight motions they have always used.
The National League made a similar antibalk move in 1963, but the situation got so out of hand they rewrote the rule in mid-May. This time, though, the presidents and their umps are stonewalling. "I think the controversy is mostly the creation of the media," says Giamatti. "I'm aware of only one ejection, and only one general manager has said anything to me about it." The president should go to a few more games, perhaps even one in which Danny Jackson is pitching.
The worst part about this balk stuff is having to side with Billy Martin. After a recent balk-filled game, the Yankee manager said he would instruct his pitchers to come to a stop, all right—a five-minute stop. Obviously, it's going to take a radical step to bring the leagues to their senses. If Martin doesn't follow through, maybe somebody should organize a "Call a Balk, We Take a Walk" protest in which fans will be encouraged to walk out whenever an umpire calls another silly one.