I remember a few years back when I was helping coach my kid’s little league team, every now and then we’d run into an opposing pitcher who couldn’t find the strike zone. After he’d walk a couple of runs in the kids would start taking hacks at anything because they grew tired of just walking, they wanted to hear the crack (ding) of the bat. Walks are boring.
When I was a kid we played a lot of stickball on the walls of P.S. 19 in Corona. Now there are different versions of stickball in different parts of the city. In some locations (Brooklyn) the lack of open space resulted in a street game where you basically toss up the ball and hit it on a bounce, there were no walks, and players often used parked cars and manhole covers as bases. Punch ball was another variation that worked best if you had a nice sponge ball. Sometimes we played stoop-ball. An interesting game that I think probably evolved from not having a bat, mop stick, broom stick, or whatever you might try and whack a ball with. You just threw the ball as hard as you could at a stoop and the opposing team would try and field it, again no walks, we didn’t need no stinking walks.
Our version of stickball involved the broad windowless side of our school building and the schoolyard. We’d chalk in the strike zone on a wall, mark the pitcher’s mound at a reasonable distance and begin. We’d use some sort of stickball bat and a Spalding (pronounced “spaldeen”) #4. They were sort of a dusty pinkish tan color and were actually surplus tennis ball cores that were put on sale in the 50’s in five and dimes across the city. You could get one in most any candy store or newsstand for like 35 cents. The #4 was the thickest highest bouncing ball they made, but it was also prone to breaking cleanly in half if you whacked it hard enough.
We were pretty damned good in my neighborhood. We’d hit the corners, we could field with or without gloves and anything in the air was an out if we could get to it. We didn’t walk many, and the nice thing about the chalk is if you really layered it on it would leave residue on the ball helping with close calls. When there weren’t enough of us around we played two-on-two or even one-on-one with imaginary runners on the bases. Off the fence was a triple, one hop to the fence a double, and over the fence was a homer. If it got past the pitcher it was a single, if the pitcher fielded a grounder he had to do so cleanly and hit the strike-zone box on the fly to register an out. It was way better than Wiffle Ball because you could throw hard. I don’t remember walking many, because, again, it got boring to just stand there.
These days when I go back to the old neighborhood it’s sad because they’ve put up temporary trailer type classrooms where the asphalt expanse used to be (although you can still play can on the other side of the building). They painted some fancy dragons to make the trailers look nicer but I still don’t like them. Seems like most kids are playing basketball or soccer. But enough of the reminiscing. The point of all this is that when we were kids we didn’t have much use for walks, it was hard enough keeping track of imaginary base runners.
Somehow, in the mid to late 90’s walks became the focus of an innovative approach by the Oakland A’s in response to having to slash their budget. They went about finding “hidden value” in players otherwise passed over for not having stand out tools. Plate discipline became the tool, on base percentage became the stat of the moment. They clogged the bases and pushed them home in droves with their big burly power bats. It worked and the idea spread.
It’s gotten to the point where it’s common for games to last three and a half hours. When I was a kid I remember thinking a ballgame lasted maybe just a little longer than a feature film. In 1970 the average game lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes. That’s almost an hour less than an average Red Sox Yankees game in 2009. Why? Well there are lots of reasons, but taking pitches is probably the biggest. The philosophy that any base runner is a good base runner and if you clog the bases you’ll score. I get it, it works, the strategy wears down starting pitchers and makes it more likely your offense will get into the soft underbelly of the opposing bullpen. Bullpen use hasn’t helped length of game either. Lefty specialists, righty specialists, long men short men, set-up guys, closers … relief corps have become a virtual late-inning specialty clinic, and with every change, more time, more commercials, another snack I don’t need. Now we have to deal with instant replay and reviews and challenges … you know what’s a challenge? Not eating an entire box of doughnuts during a game, that’s a challenge.
My mind goes back, however, to those empty ball-fields, to my old stickball playground crowded with temporary classrooms … kids who don’t even know what a spaldeen is. It’s sad. Truth is it was hard enough for me to sit through a game when I was a kid, these days expecting a 10 year old to sit through a 4 hour game is a bit much. It shouldn’t surprise us to see young athletes pursuing other sports.
Walks are boring. I don’t care if they help you win. Watching Lucas Duda take a 3 – 1 fastball down the middle of the plate is frustrating and tedious. There’s the obligatory chorus of “jeez that was right down the middle,” and “my grandmother could have hit that.”
I get the whole business about strike zone discipline and “attacking” pitches “in the zone.” The numbers all add up, it’s undeniable, the more pitches an offense takes and the more walks they garner and the more they score, yada yada, but since when did winning become more important than the reason the game exists in the first place? Namely fun. At the end of the day baseball is fun when lots of batters hit baseballs and fielders field them. As an entertainment industry, you are on a slippery slope indeed when you choose to make something boring for the sake of competitive advantage. People lose interest, kids run out to play soccer after about the 4th inning, draft picks end up in the NFL combine. It’s not good for the game. The fact that taking lots of walks helps score runs doesn’t make it any less boring, and when I last checked, Baseball is still a sport right? Sports aren’t supposed to be boring. Boring is bad. If I want to be bored I’ll watch golf or something … there’s lots of walking in golf.
Originally posted on May 24.