- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Won't anyone ever pitch to this man?
Barry Bonds may be the best player in baseball. But isn't it a little nuts that the best way to measure that is the fact that nobody ever lets him play?
We have come to take Barry's intentional walks for granted now. But step back for a minute and think about what we're witnessing here:
This man already has been intentionally walked 27 times this year. That's almost four times as many as any other player on any other team. (Next-most by anybody: seven, by Jim Thome, Adam Dunn and Rafael Palmeiro.)
Babe Ruth was legendary for twice outhomering every other team in his sport. Bonds, obviously, will never do that. But he has been intentionally walked more than any other team in his sport this year. (He leads the next-closest team, the Diamondbacks, 27-19.) Needless to say, since intentional walks became an official stat in 1955, no one has ever done that -- even him.
How insane is it for a man to be intentionally walked 27 times in his team's first 34 games? That would have been enough to lead the National League in intentional walks for the whole season in 35 of the last 49 years. And we're not even halfway through May.
If he keeps on walking at this rate, which would seem hard to believe, Bonds will be intentionally walked 129 times this year. Digest that a moment. There are only 10 other active players with that many in their careers. And there have been just eight other players, since the intentional walk became an official stat, who even reached 30 intentional walks in a season -- let alone nearly 130.
But the insanity of this intentional-walk epidemic is greater than just the raw numbers. In Bonds' case, it isn't only about what. It's about when.
Five times already this season (and 20 times since 2001), Bonds has been intentionally walked with either a runner on first base or with men on first and second. All the other players combined have been afforded that honor once this year (to Jim Thome, with runners on first and second).
Eight times (and 21 times since 2001), Bonds has earned that trip to first with nobody on base. To find the last time any other player has been intentionally walked with no one on, you have to go all the way back to last July 28 (Richie Sexson, by the Mets).
So more of Bonds' intentional walks this season have actually come in "nontraditional situations" (bases empty or first base occupied) than in "traditional" situations (first base open, man on second or third). For everybody else, it's 97 percent to 3 percent, the other way around.
Come on. Is this really happening? In real life?
And what does it say about this sport that it's considered perfectly acceptable to charge people negotiable American money to see the best player alive play -- and then essentially prevent him from participating in any meaningful situation?
"In the NBA, Jordan was never denied the opportunity to get the ball," said Giants assistant GM Ned Colletti. "Gretzky was never denied the opportunity to get the puck. No defensive back was allowed to stand between the Cleveland quarterback and Jim Brown to stop a handoff, Even Pele had a chance to be passed the soccer ball."
But nobody will pitch to Barry. Not unless the bases are empty and it's 12-1.
The question is: Is there anything baseball can do about it? Is there any rule or concept this sport could invent, or change, that would inspire teams to pitch to the great Barry even remotely like they do to anybody else?
We asked that question of several prominent baseball men about a year ago. We've spent the last week asking it again.
We polled a dozen general managers, plus assorted players, managers and team executives. Most of them laughed at the mere thought of essentially changing the rules for one guy -- even a guy this good.
"You know how much I love walks," quipped A's GM Billy Beane. "But I think it would be shortsighted to make any rule changes based on the skills of one player. Didn't they want to raise the basket when Wilt (Chamberlain) was playing basketball? Somehow, everyone survived. I think the walks are further evidence of his greatness -- and whether you do or don't (walk him), it's part of both teams' strategy."
Meanwhile, Blue Jays assistant GM Keith Law reminded us that we're talking about "a once-in-a-generation player."
"Are we really going to change the rules because of one guy -- and a guy who probably will retire within two years?" Law wondered. "That's crazy. The intentional walk is a non-issue in any game where he's not playing."
True. But it's sure as heck an issue in all the games where he is playing. And those games matter -- not just to the Giants, but to the entire sport. Because there is no more mesmerizing player in the game. And it can't be good for the sport for this player to go through a season accumulating as many intentional walks as hits.
So is there anything baseball can do? Between our survey last year and our survey this year, we've gotten five suggestions that make any sense whatsoever:
1. BAN THE INTENTIONAL WALK ALTOGETHER
2. LIMIT INTENTIONAL WALKS TO ONE PER PLAYER PER GAME
3. ON AN INTENTIONAL WALK, EVERY RUNNER GETS TO MOVE UP A BASE
4. YOU TAKE FIRST BASE ON YOUR FIRST INTENTIONAL WALK, SECOND BASE ON YOUR SECOND, ETC.
5. THE HITTER CAN DECLINE THE INTENTIONAL WALK, AS IF IT WERE, OH, A HOLDING PENALTY
All of those options would create fascinating strategic scenarios. They also would, undoubtedly, result in more chances for Bonds -- and everyone else -- to swing the bat.
Which would be great.
If they would work.
But would they? Let's examine them, one by one:
1. BAN THE INTENTIONAL WALK
It was White Sox GM Kenny Williams who proposed this idea. And we have to admit -- the more we thought about it, the more we liked it.
The whole idea of an intentional walk, Williams said, "defies the competitive sprit of the game." The intentional walk, he said, should be baseball's equivalent of intentional grounding in football.
"If you want to walk a man as part of the in-game strategy," Williams said, "then walk him (unintentionally). ... But do not allow the catcher to simply stand up and move to the other batter's box."
This might not change any team's willingness to throw Bonds any pitches closer to home plate than, say, Sausalito. But it would definitely look better than the sight of the catcher waving those four fingers, the pitcher tossing four shot-puts up there and the radar board informing us that those four lobs had just traveled at 37 mph.
Of course, if the intentional walk were really going to turn into the equivalent of intentional grounding, umpires would have to throw a flag every time they decided an "unintentional" walk was really intentional. And wouldn't that be quality entertainment?
"Are we going to put it into the hands of the umpires to determine whether or not the walk was intentional?" Phillies GM Ed Wade asked, not particularly sympathetically. "We're already asking them to mind-read to determine whether or not a high-and-tight pitch is intentional, and that's creating a whole different set of issues."
Those issues might not be more inspirational than The Barry Issue. But they would sure make for more compelling baseball-watching.
Imagine Joe West some night ruling that an "unintentional" Dodgers walk of Bonds was actually intentional -- which would trigger one of our other suggested rules changes. Think we would all be talking about that the next day? You bet.
2. ONE INTENTIONAL WALK PER PLAYER PER GAME
This was a suggestion we first heard advocated by Giants owner Peter Magowan: Just limit how many times a team could hold up those four fingers every night. Sounds easy, right? Uh, not so easy -- at least not without also implementing Kenny Williams' ban-the-intentional-walk edict.
No one knows how many of Bonds' 383 "unintentional" walks over the last three-plus seasons were oozing with intent. But it was closer to 350 than zero. And most of them were so obvious, Darren Baker could have seen them coming.
But "clearly," said Sandy Alderson, baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations, during our 2003 survey, "there's an enforcement issue -- having to distinguish between intentional and unintentional."
And do we really want to travel down that trail? Do we really want to put decisions this hazy in the hands of umpires -- not just for Bonds at-bats, but for everybody's? OK, probably not -- not unless we can first enroll them all in The Amazing Kreskin's Clairvoyance Institute.
3. ON AN INTENTIONAL WALK, EVERY RUNNER GETS TO MOVE UP A BASE
With this idea, you have similar enforcement issues. And teams could still evade it with four splitters in the dirt. But we bet it would make the classic intentional walk, as we know it now, all but obsolete. After all, would a team be willing to pay this stiff a price for the privilege of walking someone like Bonds with first base open?
Consider the ramifications: Walking him with a man on second and less than two outs would move a runner to third who could then score without a hit. Would it be worth that risk?
And would anybody ever intentionally walk him with men on second and third -- an automatic decision now -- if the price would be actually giving up a run?
Obviously, the answer would be: Almost never. So this is one idea with enough teeth to accomplish at least part of our mission. But is it too radical?
"The question is: Does it change the game too much?" Cardinals manager Tony La Russa ruminated during our 2003 survey. "I think so. But it's worth thinking about. Every time you take the bat out of Barry's hands, you're taking some of the entertainment out of our game. I had personal experience with this, with Mark (McGwire)."
But the problem is, baseball is more than just an "entertainment" experience. It's a competitive experience. It's not Six Flags with balls and bats. It's about winning a flag.
"I believe intentional walks are a defensive maneuver," said Braves GM John Schuerholz, "much like the wheel play on bunts, infield overshifts against certain hitters, outfielder positioning based on advanced scouting reports, playing the infield in in the early innings of games expected to be tight pitching duels. They're all utilized to keep the opposition from scoring runs so you can beat them. That is, after all, our goal -- score more runs than the other guy and win."
Good point. And theoretically, when a team intentionally walks this man, there is a risk in that. Every Giant who comes up behind him has a chance to drive in an extra run, right? So they shouldn't really be complaining about this.
"When he gets on base," La Russa said, "he creates an opportunity for them to score. He's not making an out. He's creating an opportunity for them to score a run and win a ball game.
"If you start paying attention to the entertainment value of one player and start messing with the game, you're really messing with the most important reason we're out there. When we're playing in San Francisco, we're there for the Cardinals to beat the Giants. We're not there for the Barry Show."
Nevertheless, this is an intriguing enough idea that maybe we should also consider its first cousin ...
4. HITTER TAKES FIRST BASE ON HIS FIRST INTENTIONAL WALK, SECOND BASE ON HIS SECOND, ETC.
You don't think people in baseball talk about this stuff? Two NL front-office men offered this idea independently.
If the previous proposal didn't all but eliminate the old-fashioned intentional walk, this one might kill it once and for all.
Think you'd see Jack McKeon intentionally walking his pal, Barry, four times if he had to deal with this rule? The third time, Bonds would get an automatic "triple" -- and clear the bases. The fourth time, he'd essentially be receiving an intentional "home run." Which would, of course, also clear the bases.
One GM who loves this idea laid it out this way: Second and third. Two outs. Ninth inning. Bonds at the plate. Two intentional walks earlier in the game. What would a manager do -- pitch to him or just give up two runs, and move Bonds to third?
The only way he'd still be intentionally walked, the GM said, is if the other team led by three or more. And even then, it's no sure bet.
Want to see some managerial wheels spinning? This rule would do it. But we know it's way too gimmicky to fly. So let's consider one more idea, and think about ...
5. THE HITTER CAN DECLINE THE INTENTIONAL WALK
Astros catcher Brad Ausmus says that if Barry is sincerely tired of all this intentional walking, he can fix it himself:
"If he doesn't want to be walked," Ausmus said, "try swinging at the first two intentional balls. Managers would pitch to him much more if the count was 0-2."
Hmmm. Not bad. Except that Bonds barely swings at the strikes, let alone the balls, let alone the intentional balls. So why not give him the ultimate power -- to decline any intentional walk he doesn't feel like taking?
Uh, cute idea for him. Bad idea for anybody who wants to get home from the ball game by 3 a.m.
In two different surveys, we never found anyone with serious interest in this proposal. You can see why. If we're working on speeding up the game, any idea that creates the possibility for a 92-pitch at-bat wouldn't seem to fit the tenor of the times.
Still, just as the NBA contemplates whether there's an antidote for those equally unwatchable Hack A Shaq attacks, why wouldn't baseball at least consider this -- or any serious -- plan to give its star players more chances to do what they do best?
"If we're talking Hack A Shaq," Alderson said, "you have to think about it this way: Is it better for the game for Shaq to be as dominant as he can -- and should you change the rules to make that more likely? Or should it be survival of the fittest, and clubs have to be creative in finding a better way to attack Shaq? The way it stands now, his responsibility is to become a better free-throw shooter. That would stop it.
"And the way it stands now, the best solution with Bonds is just to find a better guy to hit behind him. And not just in the fifth spot, but in the fifth and sixth spot. That's how you make teams pitch to him. You don't have to change the rules."
To be honest, even the Giants admit to that.
"There is no solution to the problem," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski, one of the guys who has had the thrill of hitting behind Bonds this year, "except for me and Fonzy (Edgardo Alfonzo) and (Pedro) Feliz to hit -- and hit well."
So far, though, they haven't done enough of that. Through Wednesday, the No. 5 hitters were hitting.192 (5 for 26, with one walk) this year following Bonds' intentional walks. And Bonds himself has scored after only seven of his 27 intentional walks.
If that keeps up, so will his parade to first base. But Law, who crunched numbers for Baseball Prospectus before being hired by the Blue Jays, has news for all these managers with intentional-walk fever:
Even though the hitters behind Bonds have made this strategy look good, it's still a debatable way to go.
If you ignore the intentional walks and look at Bonds' other 93 plate appearances this year, you find that ...
48 percent of the time, he has made an out. Three times, he has made two outs (by grounding into a double play).
25 percent of the time, he has walked.
"So in 73 percent of his plate appearances," Law said, "the outcome was equal to or better than an intentional walk."
Obviously, Law concedes, game score and situation can change this equation. But in general, he concluded, "when you intentionally walk Bonds, it's like playing a roulette wheel where 27 percent, or fewer, of the spaces are black and 73 percent are red -- and you're betting on black."
If we accept that conclusion, then what the heck are we trying to change here? Are we trying to fix something that really isn't broken? Or does the sport really need to take some action so that fans who spend three hours watching a baseball game actually get to watch the great Barry Bonds take more than one swing all night?
"I don't disagree in a general sense," Alderson said a year ago. "On the other hand, if you took a vote of all fans who follow Major League Baseball and you asked them if there should be a limit on, say, the number of times Barry Bonds ought to be intentionally walked, I bet you'd get an overwhelming 'no' vote. It sounds like special-interest legislation to me."
OK, maybe it is. But you can also make a case it's in everybody's best interest.