SPORTS

The bores of summer

The balk rule skewed the game

TRENT FRAYNE October 17 1988
SPORTS

The bores of summer

The balk rule skewed the game

TRENT FRAYNE October 17 1988

The bores of summer

SPORTS

The balk rule skewed the game

BY TRENT FRAYNE

It may have been the dullest baseball season since the invention of ersatz grass, not just in Canada, where the Expos and the Blue Jays could not find a lasting rhythm, but south of the border as well. There, nightlights at Chicago’s Wrigley Field were just about the biggest story of the summer.

And then there was the stunning reincarnation of the balk rule. The rule had been lying dormant for a generation or so when Whitey Herzog, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and the deepest thinker in the entire St. Louis dugout, suddenly exhumed it. The reason Whitey exhumed it was Rik Aalbert (Bert) Blyleven.

During the 1987 World Series, Bert, a guy with a fast release once he started his windup, was pitching for the Minnesota Twins against the Cardinals. This quick delivery of Bert’s kept Herzog’s fleet of speedball base runners, such as Vince Coleman, Willie

from stealing bases, or at least seriously curtailed their thefts.

Whitey, being an astute man, naturally felt that this was unfair, noting that the balk rule says that once a pitcher starts his motion, he is supposed to bring his hands together in a full stop before he delivers the ball.

Whitey complained to the president of the National League, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who brought it to the attention of the rules committee during the winter. By the time the new season had rolled around, umpires were calling balks in flocks.

Boy, did that add excitement.

Sitting on the edge of their seats, fans could now watch a base runner walk from first base to second, or from second base to third, or from third base to the plate, if the

pitcher forgot to pause in his windup. In tense situations with a big run at third, there was no more racing the ball toward home, straining to beat the throw, crashing into the catcher in a cloud of dust. Instead, just a bloodcurdling stroll in the park, time to case

the blonde in the fourth row back of the dugout.

But the excitement did not last. By midseason, there had been so many balks called that the whole process had become ludicrous,

What happened to the Jays this year was a source of constant confusion

and the umpires were permitted by their masters to relax in their zeal, allowing fans to rush into another orgy of tingling emotion over the dead-ball controversy.

Yep, the dead-ball controversy. In 1987, whenever a guy looked up from his popcorn box, he could see a ball disappearing into the bleachers. There were 2,634 home runs in the American League and 1,824 in the other league, an all-time high of 4,458, nearly a 17per-cent increase over the record 3,813, set a year earlier. Nevertheless, the manufacturer insisted nothing had been changed in the ball’s construction.

But in 1988, mysteriously, the home run all but disappeared, though the manufacturer continued his insistence that he was hemstitching the same seams on the same old ball. Still, the consensus among baseball fans

was that the balls were in fact being wound less tightly. By late in the season, there had been 32 per cent fewer homers than in 1987 at a corresponding date.

Home runs are the most exhilarating aspect of baseball. But no-hitters, rare as they are, cause momentary titillation as they unfold. And Dave Stieb, a veteran right-hander for the Toronto Blue Jays, had the fans mighty excited on the unseasonably warm night of Sept. 30. Dave had needed one last strike in Cleveland a week earlier to complete a no-hit game and had lost it to Julio Franco’s bad-hop single on a 2-and-2 count in the bottom of the ninth with two out. Now, here he was at home in the same situation. With most of the 32,374 fans marvelling at the coincidence, and with two out in the ninth, Stieb threw a 2-and-2 pitch that Baltimore pinch hitter Jim Traber lifted softly into

short right field, for the Orioles’ only hit.

In the meantime, there were startling declines on 1988’s home-run tables. Toronto’s George Bell, who had mashed 47 a year ago, stopped at 24 this year. Wally Joyner, California’s slick first baseman, dropped dramatically to 13 from 34 ; old folks Darrell Evans of Detroit, to 22 from 34 ; and his namesake, Dwight Evans of Boston, to 21 from 34 .

Production was off as drastically in the National League. The 1987 leader, Chicago Cubs’ André Dawson, with 49, dropped to 24, and the Atlanta Braves’ superman, Dale Murphy, to 24 from 44. Indeed, National League hitters had difficulty with the baseball inside the fences, as well. Late in September, it appeared that the batting champion would not hit .300, but in the final days, San Diego’s squat centre fielder, Tony Gwynn, skyrocketed his average to a puny .304. Only four other National League batsmen reached .300. Seventeen players attained that figure in the other league, behind the leader, Boston’s Wade Boggs, at an incandescent .366.

The American League owned the ball player of the year, an imposing physical specimen named Jose Canseco, who plays outfield for Oakland. One September night, Tony Kubek, the old Yankee shortstop, now a commentator on Blue Jays telecasts, said most of what needs to be said about Canseco, a 230-lb. hulk who became the first man to combine 40 homers and 40 steals in one season. “Who can believe this guy?” Kubek mused. “He’s got Rickey Henderson’s feet and he hits the ball farther than Dave Winfield. And with the dead ball, he has really had to crunch some pitches to get his 40 homers.”

Kubek, by the way, tells a story of his rookie season with the Yankees that he thinks illuminates what happened to the Blue Jays this season. And what happened to the Blue Jays this season was a source of constant confusion to Blue Jay fans all summer.

Kubek spent nine seasons, and she World Series, with the Yankees. He played 1,092 regular-season games, beginning in 1957, another 37 in what used to be called the Fall Classic, and roomed on the road with Mickey Mantle. Does a guy need further credentials? “One game that first year,” says Kubek, “I hit a little two-hopper to the second baseman and didn’t run the ball out. Back in the dugout, Hank Bauer, the right fielder, came alongside me and jammed an elbow in my ribs. ‘You’re bleeping with my money, kid,’ he growled. That’s all he said. That’s all he needed to say.”

It is Kubek’s notion that when George Bell and Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams had a run-in during spring training over the decision to make Bell its designated hitter, somebody should have stepped in, as Bauer had done with him, “and policed George.” But Bell had his way, and the friction went on. Added Kubek: “In our old club, somebody— Bauer or Gene Woodling or Whitey Ford or Gil McDougald—would have stepped in and said, ‘Hey, buddy, don’t do that,’ to a guy like George, for the good of the ball club.”

The man who took the rap for below-par performances of the three Blue Jays outfielders and an erratic bullpen was Williams. One of the oldest axioms of baseball, as in all team sports, says that it is a lot easier for front office to save face with the fans by firing one manager than 24 of the noble athletes. Accordingly, there was surprise among fans and scribes alike when Williams was signed for another season last week.

Fans everywhere are notorious for their fickle nature. One night in Toronto, they

gave a standing ovation to Jesse Barfield upon the occasion of his 17th home run of the season (he hit 40 and led the league in 1986). At the time, Barfield had boosted his average from a low of .204 all the way up to .229 and was picking up about $1 million a year in salary. Williams, meanwhile, was roundly booed by the assembled thousands when he popped out of the dugout to change pitchers. His salary was slightly more than 10 per cent of Barfield’s. It can be argued that customers do not pay admission to watch the manager think, but they do not pay to watch millionaires skitter four-hop grounders to the shortstop, either.

In Montreal, even though the Expos compiled a poorer record than the Blue Jays, no job was safer than manager Buck Rodgers’s. That is because nobody thought that the Expos would annoy the talent-deep New York

Mets in the National League East. As it turned out, the Expos were a threat in the first half of the season, getting strong pitching from Dennis Martinez and Pasqual Perez, excellent relief pitching from Jeff Parrett and some house-wrecking at the plate by Andrés Galarraga, who was picked for first base on the league’s all-star game squad. “Andrés had two seasons in one,” recalls Monique Giroux, of the Expos’ media relations office. “In the first half, they couldn’t get him out. He led the league for a while at .347 and, by

the all-star break, he had 20 homers. After that, it was all downhill.”

Galarraga wound up with another nine home runs in the season’s second half, and his average, though among the top four in the anemic National League, dwindled to .302. The bullpen sagged, too, in the second half, partly because the highly effective Parrett required six stitches in his index finger when a ball hit it as he practised bunting in the batting cage. That is the kind of thing that happens when you let a pitcher near a bat. In the American League, that could never happen: they have the designated-hitter rule that keeps pitchers safely in the dugout when their side is batting. In baseball’s year of the doldrums, that was another tableau that sent National League fens, at least, into paroxysms of excitement: a pitcher and a Louisville Slugger juxtaposed.