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2005-06-10 - 11:08 a.m.

Baseball for Casual Fans: Installment #10
Balks, or, Why Pitchers Shouldn't Pick Their Noses

Have you ever been watching baseball, without knowing too much about the intricacies of the game, with a group of friends who do know a lot about it? And then the pitcher looks like he's going to pitch and then stops, and all of the sudden all of your friends are jumping around shrieking, "Bawk! Bawk! Bawk!" like they're deranged chickens?

Well, I'm here to unravel that mystery. But first, you'll want to know that they're not yelling, "Bawk!", they're yelling, "Balk!" -- not that that makes much more sense to the Casual Fan.

What is a balk?

Pitchers are responsible for a lot of different aspects of the baseball game. Mostly, though, it boils down to not letting the opposing team advance around the bases. This can be accomplished in quite a few ways. A pitcher can strike a batter out, in which case he has prevented the batter from advancing to first base. Any other out (groundouts, flyouts, pop-ups) are all ways of keeping that batter off the basepaths. Once a batter has gotten on base, though, he's still the pitcher's responsibility. Baserunning is one of the more fascinating aspects of baseball, as it's almost entirely a mental game. The runner does need to be fairly fast, granted, but knowing how much of a lead to take off the base, being able to recognize a pitcher's pick-off move, and paying attention to what the batter is doing will all compensate for being excessively speedy.

Pitchers benefit from having a good pick-off move in many ways. They prevent runners from stealing by keeping them closer to the base. If the runner is closer to the base, he is less likely to score from first on a single. And mainly, if the pitcher doesn't have to be as concerned about the runner, he can concentrate on the batter more carefully and therefore throw strikes (one would hope).

In order to keep the pitcher/runner relationship in balance (to prevent one from having a major advantage over the other), the pitcher must adhere to a few (okay, MANY) rules.

Background: Before making a pitch, the pitcher goes into his wind-up. This is a series of movements (watch a pitcher carefully sometime and you'll see it), from keeping still on the pitching rubber, to a step back, to a leg kick, to the arm motion that puts the pitch in the air with the desired speed, power, and movement.

The umpire will call a balk when a pitcher:
-does not throw to home plate after starting his wind-up,
-fakes a throw to an unoccupied base,
-throws to a base while standing on the pitching rubber,
-does not come to a stop on the pitching rubber before starting his wind-up,
-drops the ball, or
-does pretty much anything after starting his wind-up that isn't an actual pitch.

This quote does a good job of expressing the craziness of a balk call:
"It may sound funny, but don't even scratch your nose or wipe your mouth when you are on the rubber with a runner on first. I've seen guys called for balks for doing just those things. You're concentrating so hard on the hitter, something itches, and you just do the natural thing. Just make sure you step off the rubber first."
-- Bill "Spaceman" Lee, former Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos pitcher

The penalty for a balk is fairly severe. Instead of being a ball or a walk, ALL runners on base move up a base. So if a runner is on third base, he would score. This can be frustrating or wonderful depending on which team you want to win.


I'm dying, here, people. Seriously. My apartment temperature hovers right around 90 degrees even in the middle of the night. Our bedroom has a window a/c unit, but I CAN'T COOK DINNER in the bedroom!!! I made pasta salad last night thinking that it would be a nice cool dinner, but then realized that I had to boil the pasta. Horrors!

I'm hoping that it cools down a bit prior to my husband getting fed up with my whining and leaving me. We'll see.

Memo to Chicago:
Cool the heck down soon or I will CUT you. I love you, and your many benefits are worth a little discomfort, but don't make me move to Juneau, Alaska during the summers. It's not an idle threat.

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