Monday, May 15, 2023

Review: Intentional Balk (2022)

By Daniel R. Levitt & Mark Armour

Many of our games are simple. Baseball is not. 

Think about it. Football is at its roots a game of real estate. Claim the entire playing field, and you have scored a touchdown. Basketball is centered on throwing a ball through a net. Hockey is based on putting a puck into a net.  So is soccer.

But baseball is tougher to explain. Someone hits a thrown ball, and he/she runs around the circumference of a square until a "run" is scored or the batter is declared "out" in any number of ways. 

What's more, the rules surrounding the play of the game are complicated. A player or bystander never knows exactly what might happen on a given day, as new situations come up all the time. 

No wonder baseball has something of a culture of "cheating" surrounding it. The rules are so dense that someone has the job of interpreting them - he/she is called an umpire. And, to use the old phrase, it's not cheating if you don't get caught. 

That sort of approach affects baseball in a number of ways. Daniel R. Levitt and Mark Armour have written them down and examined them in a comprehensive way. The result is the book, "Intentional Balk" - and it should be said from the outset that this is a clever name for such a publication. They start with what they call "The Hornsby Doctrine," named after superstar Rogers Hornsby's philosophy: "Baseball players and others within the game will and should find ways to bend and break the rules. It is the job of the authorities to stop them."

The authors are kind enough to break the types of bending the rules into 10 categories, which is a little astonishing at first glance but certainly is true. They go through them, one at a time. We start with the slight edges obtained during the course of the game, such as a first baseman catching a throw but pulling his foot off the bag a split-second early to gain an edge. Binoculars have been used to steal a catcher's signals. Front offices have spied on the opposition off the field, an activity that may have grown a bit in the computer age. You know about the Astros' famous trash can scandal of 2017, but might be less familiar with other electronic devices used to gain an edge. Bats have been altered in an attempt to gain some sort of edge.

That's only half of it. We have ground crews tailoring the field to improve the team. Front offices signing players illegally, particularly in the area of very young foreign players. Then we get into physical enhancements, amphetamines and steroids,  with the end donated to pitchers and the way they can alter the ball to their advantage.

That's a lot of cheating. Some of it depends on degree. For example, if an opposing player can figure out the other team's pitching signals with the naked eye, the attitude is, more power to him. If someone watches those signals from center field, and turns on a light to tell the batter what's coming, then that's against the rules. It's interesting that computers can solve a catcher's signal pattern in nothing flat - which is why we're entering an era where electronic devices are the preferred method of communication between pitcher and catcher instead of the number of fingers. 

This all has been going on since baseball started to become popular back in the 1860s, when players used to cut from first to third without touching second if they thought the umpire wouldn't notice. The morality of all of this isn't really covered in the book. The authors are content to list the ways of potential cheating, and that's fine. 

If there's a complaint to be given about the book, it's that the subject can be a little dry ... unless we're talking about spitballs. Levitt and Armour are both executives with the Society for American Baseball Research. In most of that organization's books, the authors seem very conscious of writing for history instead of popular consumption. That approach may push some readers away. 

Even if this won't attract a vast audience, "International Balk" still fills a nice niche in the baseball library. Readers will find themselves thinking about the game and its philosophy in a different way when they are done, and that's all to the good.

Four stars

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