Allen Craig‘s obstruction call in the 2013 World Series framed several beautiful issues with baseball’s rules. First and foremost, Craig showed a key benefit for hustling in baseball: when you hustle, and force a play, you force the umpires to make a call. In this regard, Craig ultimately called to mind A.J. Pierzynski‘s dropped third-strike dash — also a World Series play. That Craig hustled raises the ultimate point that the umpires really had no choice but to call obstruction — just as there was no choice but to call Pierzynski safe. Not unlike a pitcher who loses a no-hitter bid on a bunt or fluke scoring call against an infielder, Craig’s play also calls forth the ultimate desire for “clean plays” in baseball. Really, so much of our analysis and cheering revolves around the clean play — in a deep way, baseball satisfies our desire for just desert. We use FIP and WAR to judge players because we desire to attain an understanding of their value on its own merit — regardless of whether that desire is methodologically or contextually sound. We desire a pitcher to pitch a no-hitter, or to lose it on a good, clean hit — nothing else. We cheer for “just a hit!”; that’s my favorite cheer, anyway. I love walks, I love homers, I love anything that forces the game along and isn’t an out when our beloved Brewers are batting — but I cheer for a clean hit. This tension creates an unwritten rule that stands against every written one: let the players win the games.
I wanted the umpires to let Craig’s out at the plate stand. It was a poetic play — no one in the 2013 National League made more outs at home than Craig. In fact, no one made more outs running the bases than Craig. He was a terrible baserunner in 2013, and such a play was a fitting summary of his baserunning performance. I wanted the game to go on because I wanted to see a clean win — a clean hit, a walk-off homer, even a bases loaded walk would be a better end than a walk-off obstruction call. There is this sense I have that a broken play is no way to end a ballgame. Baseball is about justice, in some sense, and no team (winning or losing) deserves an obstructed ending. If only there was a chain of courts, a system of appeals, where we could carry this World Series game along, for some judge to determine that these teams MUST play the game to its clean, logical end.
More than anything, Craig’s play called to mind one of my favorite Brewers moments: the walk-off balk. On July 15, 2005, my dad and I walked up to Miller Park, and decided to take in a last minute ballgame. Who could deny this great opportunity at the park? Already in the middle of the season, the Brewers were still holding ground, within a handful of games of the Wild Card race. Their opponent was the Washington Nationals, the shocking leader of the National League East division. On the mound, Livan Hernandez — one of my favorite non-Brewers pitchers of the time — faced off against Ben Sheets, my favorite Brewers pitcher.
Oh, that ending — in the 10th inning, Nationals newcomer Mike Stanton made his very first appearance for the Nationals, having just been acquired for the Nationals’ second half push. Chris Magruder lead off the bottom of the 10th with a double, and Brady Clark bunted him over. After the Nationals walked Rickie Weeks (1-4 with a stolen base and a run that night), Stanton entered the game to face Lyle Overbay. Stanton did not throw a pitch; in fact, he never even officially faced a batter. With two men on, he balked. In a confusing turn of events for those of us sitting beyond the left field wall, we saw Magruder march home. Brewers win! 4-3, and yet, we weren’t quite sure what to celebrate.
On the walk to the car, I remember the energy among the fans, a constant hum. “He balked!” Surely, no one could remember a walk-off balk. It instantly became one of those moments of baseball lore — everyone quizzed one another about the last time they saw such a thing, and everyone ultimately desired more. Oh, to have seen Overbay split the gaps with one of his signature doubles. To have seen a little Texas Leaguer, or a rope, or a walk, or anything other than a balk. But a balk was the fate, and Stanton handed a loss to Luis Ayala without even registering a pitch. Baseball gave us the best possible reward — a win, in person! — without satisfying our desire for justice. No one deserved such a fate, not Stanton, not Magruder, certainly not the fans.
What I remember most about the game, all these years later, is everything but the balk. That game featured just about anything anyone could have wanted to see. Within the first five pitches of the game, Sheets surrendered a lead-off homer and a double. Remember that? How Sheets never seemed to get warmed up for the first inning? We sat in the left field bleachers that evening, and got there early for our walk-up score. I saw Sheets warm up with my own two eyes, as young kids constantly heckled him for a ball. I was shocked at how built Sheets was — I had never seen him up close — and just how “heavy” his fastball looked. He warmed up at a pace that was steady, but not hurried. Was there any other way for our ace to go about it? Everything about Sheets seemed to follow his honest pace — I don’t remember any other Brewers pitcher going about his business so quickly, “Here it is, hit it!” I don’t remember any other Brewers pitcher being able to strike out batters on curveballs when everyone in the stadium knew one was coming. The greatest thing about Sheets was his honesty, and the honest goodness of his stuff — no tricks, fastball, curveball, and we all mourned his injuries and wondered how good he’d be if he got that change up working, too.
Sheets ended up throwing seven innings, but he only struck out three batters that evening. He scattered 10 hits, more than even his counterpart, Hernandez, would allow. I loved watching Hernandez — he never seemed to throw the ball faster than the mid-80s, and his pitches never seemed to be more than 4 MPH apart. Yet, he simply carved the Brewers’ bats, doubling Sheets’s strike out total despite approaching the game without a power pitch. If Hernandez’s legend was his ability to throw forever, this evening did not disappoint: over eight innings, I saw the man throw 136 pitches with my own eyes. In a game that so quickly adhered to pitch count orthodoxy (Sheets was pulled for a pinch hitter before reaching 100 when the Brewers trailed in the 7th, despite working seven efficient innings), Hernandez seemed like a throwback working during his own time. He was a contemporary pitcher, sure, but he was not of his era.
Despite pulling Sheets in the 7th, the Brewers could not scratch a run across. The club continued to trail in the bottom of the 8th, when Carlos Lee came to the plate. I knew a lot less about stats back then, and I only remember feeling that Lee was about as good as they got in terms of hitting homers. Whether my feelings were justified or not, Lee delivered a homer that landed just a section over from us in the left field bleachers. Tie game! With Lee, it seemed that the Brewers really were emerging from their rebuilding phase, and that 4.5 game deficit from the Wild Card seemed like nothing at that point of the season. With so many games to play, going punch-for-punch with the division-leading Nationals felt like a sign of good baseball to come. The atmosphere was electric — the Brewers would play on this evening.
With the game tied at 3-3, Derrick Turnbow and Hector Carrasco did not surrender anything in the ninth. One of my favorite firemen of all-time, Julio Santana worked a clean tenth. So, the stage was set for that fateful balk. Perhaps the surprise of the balk was amplified by that singular tension of extra-innings baseball. Once the game passes the 9th inning, nothing beats the tension that the game can end at any point. When your beloved team is on the road during extras, that feeling can eat you alive. When you’re at home, you know your team can win with just one swing. We were looking for that swing, and we never needed it. We didn’t even need Stanton to throw a pitch. No, this game was destined for a Brewers victory, that balk sealed it. As unlikely as a win seemed after Sheets’ second pitch of the game, the Nationals repaid that lead-off homer.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, this game foreshadowed their second half. After playing the very best ball in the NL East to that point, they were the worst team in its second half. The Brewers continued to fight, going 37-35 in the second half. They fought to their first non-losing season since 1992, and the improvements of the franchise suggested an inevitable era of glory.
That balk stayed with me, and I remember the feeling of surprise each time I watch the Craig obstruction play. There is something that seems extremely unfair about a ballgame ending from an umpire’s call. If baseball can proceed with unwritten rules that allow Brian McCann to be praised for bullying home plate and interrupting a deserved celebration, certainly there ought to be an unwritten rule to allow clubs to play on, through game-ending balks, through game-ending obstruction calls. If there is any unwritten rule that seems necessary, it is the unwritten rule that the players ought to win ballgames on good, clean plays. As ridiculous as this seems to the logical mind of baseball — for, the rules are rules, indeed — this unwritten rule stems from the deepest intuition of baseball’s justice. If there is any institution that can deliver on promises of good, clean justice, it is baseball.