The major goal of every team playing a team sport is to win the game. Before you respond, “Well, duh,” let me assure you there’s more to that statement than first meets the eye.
Athletic competition, at least at the professional and collegiate level, is a combination of trying to win games and entertaining the fans. If stretching the spirit of the rule is necessary to win a game, so bit it.
Earlier this season, the Chicago Cubs swept the Washington Nationals in a four-game series, thanks in part to walking Bryce Harper six times in one game, tying an MLB record. In that game, Harper was walked intentionally three times, including two times in extra innings to load the bases.
In fact, Harper set an MLB record by reaching base seven times without recording an official at-bat. In addition to being walked six times, Harper was hit by a pitch once. He was walked 13 total times during the four-game series.
On this occasion, the strategy worked. Hitting behind Harper, Ryan Zimmerman batted just 2-of-19 during the series.
The Cubs’ approach to Harper was, “If you can’t beat him, walk him.”
Being intentionally walked is a compliment of sorts, but it can also lead to frustration. Nationals starting pitcher Tanner Roark called it “scared baseball.” Maybe it was scared baseball, but it was a winning formula for the Cubs on this occasion.
Baseball is a team sport. If a team chooses to pitch around Harper, his teammates need to get the job done. Of course, most baseball fans want to see the best players in the game have a chance to swing the bat, but who can blame the Cubs for putting him on base if no one behind him is making them pay for the free pass?
As a competitor, I understand the manager’s job is to do whatever it takes to win within the rules of the game.
As a fan, I can empathize with those who want to watch the best players in the game do what they do best, which in this case is hit the baseball.
However, I don’t know of a rule change that could prevent what the Cubs did in pitching around Harper. Most baseball fans are aware of the so-called unintentional/intentional walk, where the pitcher purposely throws the ball just out of the strike zone, hoping the batter will swing at a bad pitch and get himself out.
Do you change the rule so the pitcher has to keep throwing pitches until the batter has a chance to hit a ball in the strike zone? That would be awkward.
Baseball isn’t alone in having rules pushed to the limit because the risk/reward makes it worthwhile. For example, basketball fans at most every level of competition have witnessed players purposely fouling an opponent who is a weak free-throw shooter. We even witnessed that during the NBA playoffs this year.
I remember officiating a boys’ high school basketball game some years ago in which the trailing team kept fouling because that was their only hope of catching up late in the game.
The team with the lead kept missing free throws, which kept the game closer and more competitive than it should have been.
Finally, after yet another foul, the coach of the team in the lead said to me, “Hey Joe, can you shoot free throws?”
Sorry, but that option wasn’t available by rule, and probably wouldn’t have helped him anyway.
Big-time sports need to appeal to the fans. Taking the bat out of Harper’s hands or putting poor free-throw shooters on the line isn’t very appealing.
So unless or until the rules are changed, the best option right now is finding batters who can make the opposition pay for walking someone intentionally, and for players to learn how to make some free throws.
Hillsboro resident Joe Kleinsasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. He can be reached at Joe.Kleinsasser@wichita.edu.