I don't want to sound like the guy in the vodka commercial, but whatever happened to taking a big risk in sports? Maybe nothing's happened. Maybe it's always been this way. I'm always dubious of anyone (including the grumpy old man in me) griping about how everything was different, how in the old days everyone could bunt, touchdown makers calmly handed footballs to referees and and nobody cared about the name on the back of their jerseys. I suspect sports, like life, have always been filled with glory seekers, shortcut takers and coaches who coach not to lose.
Still … it's at least possible that something has changed -- maybe because the spotlight has become so much hotter and brighter. I started thinking about this again Saturday while watching the end of the USC-Stanford game with a friend of mine who is a football coach. Stanford, as you know, is led by quarterback Andrew Luck, who might be the most promising NFL quarterback prospect since ... maybe Elway? There have been other mega-hyped NFL prospects, of course, but I can't remember a player who so inflamed the imaginations of teams and fans that they actually invented a NAME for the process of losing to get him ("Suck for Luck").*
*As promising a player as Matt Ryan was, I don't remember the "Dyin' For Ryan," campaign. The "au revoir for David Carr," efforts didn't work too well.
Anyway, USC and Stanford went into overtime, and Luck led the Cardinal right down the field for a touchdown. USC then responded with a touchdown of its own. I, of course, thought USC should go for two because that's how I tend to think -- as long as it doesn't affect my life, I'm a riverboat gambler. Go all in! Fake the field goal! Pull the goalie! I was a bit surprised and gratified, though, that my friend agreed with me.
"You have to go for two here," he said. "Think about it. This is USC's one chance to win the game where Andrew Luck isn't involved. He's on the sideline where he can't hurt you. USC has a chance to win the game with their strength against Stanford's weakness, their offense against Stanford's defense. This is what we do as coaches. We stay up all night trying to find mismatches, even the tiniest mismatches. Our whole job is to try to exploit the other team's weaknesses while maximizing our strength. This is the ultimate example of that. You can win the game right now with your best unit against their worst unit. You have to go for two."
I'm paraphrasing there, by the way -- I wasn't taking notes -- but that's pretty close to word-for-word. And I think it's exactly right. If USC could have arranged it beforehand that winning and losing the Stanford game would be reduced to a two-point conversation, I think they would have been mad to not take that deal.
Of course, Lane Kiffin did not go for two. We were watching on TV, so we can't know for sure, but there seemed no indication that ever even CONSIDERED going for two. The by-the-book play was to extend the game -- nobody is likely to second-guess that decision -- and USC kicked the extra point. And what followed followed seemed the most likely scenario: Both teams scored in the second overtime. In the third, Luck drove his team for another touchdown and a two-point conversion (in the third overtime, there are no extra points) and USC fumbled and lost the game.
But win or lose is not the point -- I'm really not second guessing the strategy. I'm second-guessing the conviction. My old pal Herm Edwards became famous with his "You play to win the game" classic rant -- it even led to a book by that title. But I don't think many do play to win, not in any sport. You play to extend the game and hope that it works out for you. You play to delay the big confrontation until you have no choice. I don't know if it was ever different. But it sure feels like now coaching and managers try to avoid the big moment as long as they possibly can.
As you might suspect, this leads to the intentional walk. I hate the intentional walk, of course. That's no secret. I'm thinking of starting a Web site called "Ihatetheintentionalwalk.com." I think, at core, I hate the intentional walk because the punishment -- a single base -- simply isn't enough of a deterrence. As economists might tell you -- hey, I read Freakonomics and Scorecasting -- sports are driven by positive and negative incentives. Home runs are positive incentives and so some players use steroids. Steroid headlines with your name in them are negative incentives and so some players stop using steroids.
And the incentives within the game tell you what kind of game it is. If you made pass interference a 5-yard penalty with no automatic first down, well defensive backs are going to mug receivers all over the field. If you made a half court shot worth 20 points, players would practice and practice and practice the half court shot until they could make them a staggering percentage of the time. The intentional walk is a case where the negative incentive simply doesn't work well enough. One base and no advance is not enough of a deterrent for managers, and I think that's a flaw in baseball rules. More on that in a bit.
I have come in the recent weeks to understand that while I hate ALL intentional walks, I don't hate them all equally. There are "strategic" intentional walks, designed to set up double plays or force-outs at home. I despise those mainly because I think they are bad policy. I think that managers tend to overvalue the double play opportunity and underplay the extra man on base.* But a strategy disagreement is different. I despise those kinds of intentional walks the same way I despise sacrifice bunts or the Wildcat offense. I don't have any emotional objections.
*You may counter with the fact that the intentional walk often "works," and this is true but I would say that in baseball, like in blackjack, the odds are stacked against the hitter. If you decided to intentionally walk a pitcher so you could face Ryan Braun, that will probably "work" most of the time too. Braun, after all, makes outs more than 60% of the time. It's an incredibly dumb play, but in baseball incredibly dumb plays often work.
The second kind of intentional walk -- the avoidance intentional walk -- is the kind that makes me want to smash guitars. Take this year's World Series. I had no rooting interest this year. The writer in me usually leans one way or another -- one team tends to be a slightly better story than another, one manager drives me more batty than another -- but I thought both teams had good stories this time around, and the managers drove me equally nuts with moves they made.
But, again, that was strategy. Then came Game 6, tenth inning, the Texas Rangers up a run. The Cardinals had the tying run on second base. And Albert Pujols stepped to the plate.
Baseball fans watch for a million reasons. It's silly to try and reduce the game to a simple, "This is what the game's all about" cliche because the game is all about many, many things. But, Game 6 of the World Series, 10th inning, two outs, runner in scoring position, Albert Pujols at the plate, the whole city of St. Louis going bonkers -- yeah, that's a pretty good moment for the game. That's time you wake up your kids to watch. That's one you think about for the rest of your life.
And Ron Washington had his pitcher Scott Feldman intentionally walk Albert Pujols.
Now, you can question the strategy of the move … and you would be right. Washington was putting the winning run on base. The next batter, Lance Berkman, is one of the best hitters of the last generation, and he would have the platoon advantage being a switch-hitter, and in 2011, anyway, Berkman was actually BETTER against right-handed pitchers than Pujols.
2011 vs. righties:
But, I'm not talking strategy here. I'm talking about competition. I'm talking about conviction. I'm talking about guts. Ron Washington, in the biggest moment, didn't trust his pitcher to get the final out. Ron Washington, in the biggest moment, tried to win the World Series by means of evasion, tried to win the World Series with an out-of-court settlement. And it was grotesque.
People will sometimes compare the intentional walk to other strategies -- triple-teaming a receiver, fouling in the final minutes, even going for two with the other team's quarterback on the sideline -- but I don't think it's the same thing. In those strategies (and I don't particularly like all of them either) you are actively trying to beat the other team's players. If you foul a player, they still have the opportunity to score two points. They have to make the free throws, yes, but they have that opportunity. A triple-teamed receiver can still make a catch if the ball is thrown his way. I'm certainly not opposed to strategies (even intense strategies) to stop or slow a great player.
But only in baseball can you, by rule, simply avoid facing a great player. It's bad for the game, I think. And it was a bad moment for Ron Washington. I think Wash is a passionate leader … that's his great strength. Players love him. He inspires them. But in the biggest moment of the season, he had run out of his inspiration. He sent his pitcher a very clear message: "You … are … not … good … enough." Maybe he wasn't good enough. But maybe he was. And we'll never know.
When Feldman walked Pujols he set off a chain of events that led to the Cardinals winning the World Series. Berkman singled in the tying run. David Freese hit the game-winning home run the next inning. The Cardinals won pretty easily in Game 7 -- and in that game, Washington walked Freese in a big moment, because apparently by then he had become convinced his pitchers couldn't get ANYBODY out.
All of those things might have happened anyway. I'm well aware Pujols might have hit a 500-foot home run to win the game right then and there and people would be saying he was nuts to pitch to Pujols in that situation. Then again, Feldman might have struck out Pujols on a nasty pitch and the Rangers would have celebrated and that moment would be frozen forever in the minds of Texas baseball fans. Point is we were cheated out of that moment -- not only the fans, but the players and managers too. Everyone. Scott Feldman will never know. Albert Pujols will never know. Sports are supposed to be ABOUT those moments not how to sidestep them.
And that's why I am now going to introduce my fully-operational intentional walk idea. This is playing off Bill James' ideas and some thoughts I've had on the subject before. Now have a rule I feel good about it. The rule would be simply this:
-- If you are walked on four pitches, you have the right to DECLINE the walk.
That's the whole rule. I think this is not just fair, it also fits into the larger fabric and history of the game. Walks were created to impress upon the pitcher the importance of pitching the ball in the strike zone -- in other words, the importance of giving the hitter a fair opportunity to hit the ball.
Well, a four-pitch walk, by its nature, intrudes on those hitters rights. It doesn't give him an opportunity to play. And so in those circumstances, the hitter should be entitled to decline the walk and get another at-bat. And to make it fair, I don't think it matters what KIND of four-pitch walk it would be -- blatantly intentional or four close pitches, doesn't matter. All four-pitch walks would be treated the same.
So what happens if a hitter declines the walk? Well, before I get into that, I do want to say I think it would only happen in rare circumstances. It might happen before the pitcher hits. It probably would happen with the best player at the plate.
If the hitter declines the walk, the at-bat starts over and everything is the same except for one thing: If the hitter walks in the second at-bat, then it is a "double walk" and he gets two bases. I'm thinking that all base runners would also advance two bases, but I'm negotiable on that point.
I think this would do more than one good thing for baseball. First and foremost, it would probably more or less eliminate the intentional walk in key situations. If Pujols had a chance to decline the walk, I don't think Ron Washington would have walked him. Now, here's what might happen: Feldman might have tried to get one strike and THEN intentionally walked Pujols, but I'm OK with that. One strike makes all the difference. At least then the hitter has a chance.
Second, it would be exciting to see how many hitters/managers would take the chance and decline a walk.
Third, it would create tension and excitement in those wonderful situations where now there are only boos and frustration. And think about how much fun it would be to watch those declined-walk at-bats.
Bud Selig: Tear down this intentional walk.