In the third inning of the 19-8 epic third game of the ALCS with the score still 5-4, something odd occurred that I meant to comment on at the time, but it got lost in the shuffle when the game ended up with the Yankees counting runs in Base 12.
The Red Sox's Ramiro Mendoza, in relief of starter Bronson Arroyo, had just given up the go-ahead run on a Bernie Williams' single—if it were 1987, that would be the Game-Winning RBI. With Matsui on third, Williams on first, and none out, Mendoza had one ball and two strikes on Jorge Posada. On the next pitch, the oddity occurred.
Mendoza stepped off the rubber momentarily, stepped back on, and delivered a pitch, called a ball, to the plate. He did not move his hands, arms, or anything else above the waist. He simply stepped off with his pivot foot and then stepped back on before the pitch. You could have missed it if you blinked.
But a balk was called and what seemed like an important run at the time crossed the plate—6-4 Yankees. Mendoza would get Posada and the next two batters out to end the threat, and the Red Sox would end up tying the game in the next half inning—before the Yanks took off in the fourth. Therefore, at the time it seemed like a big run.
The play left everyone non-plussed. The announcers said, yes indeed, it was a balk but seemed unconvinced, and admitted to never seeing anything like it before. Boston manager Terry Francona came out to argue but seemed more confused than anything else, and I don't blame him. My reaction was the same as everyone else's. I watched it with sort of a raised eyebrow, like "Did I just see that?" It was basically the look everyone had on their faces walking out of the movie "Mulholland Drive" (and I don't mean just because of Laura Harring). Then when it was called a balk, my reaction was something like, "OK, that seems logical. There's something deceptive there, I guess, like a quick-pitch." But like everyone else, I had no justification for it.
Well, I didn't know then, but now I do know why it was a balk, and my initial reaction that it was like a quick-pitch were justified, so I'm gratified. At least I have that. The rule isn't even in the balk section of the baseball rulebook but rather in the definition of a legal pitch, it's so fundamental to pitching. That's probably why no one had ever seen it: it's something learned in Pitching 101. It would be like pitching with your glove hand while the glove's still on.
Here's the rule:
Legal pitching delivery… (a) The Windup Position… From this position he may:…(3) disengage the rubber (if he does he must drop his hand to his sides). In disengaging the rubber the pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first. He may not go into a set or stretch position if he does it is a balk.
Yeah, that's it, but like in study anything you need the gloss to understand the precise meaning of the terms used. So for you completists like me, here goes:
Legal pitching delivery. There are two legal pitching positions, the Windup Position and the Set Position, and either position may be used at any time. Pitchers shall take signs from the catcher while standing on the rubber. Pitchers may disengage the rubber after taking their signs but may not step quickly onto the rubber and pitch. This may be judged a quick pitch by the umpire. When the pitcher disengages the rubber, he must drop his hands to his sides. Pitchers will not be allowed to disengage the rubber after taking each sign. (a) The Windup Position. The pitcher shall stand facing the batter, his entire pivot foot on, or in front of and touching and not off the end of the pitcher's plate, and the other foot free. From this position any natural movement associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without interruption or alteration. He shall not raise either foot from the ground, except that in his actual delivery of the ball to the batter, he may take one step backward, and one step forward with his free foot. When a pitcher holds the ball with both hands in front of his body, with his entire pivot foot on, or in front of and touching but not off the end of the pitcher's plate, and his other foot free, he will be considered in the Windup Position. The pitcher may have one foot, not the pivot foot, off the rubber and any distance he may desire back of a line which is an extension to the back edge of the pitcher's plate, but not at either side of the pitcher's plate. With his "free" foot the pitcher may take one step backward and one step forward, but under no circumstances, to either side, that is to either the first base or third base side of the pitcher's rubber. If a pitcher holds the ball with both hands in front of his body, with his entire pivot foot on or in front of and touching but not off the end of the pitcher's plate, and his other foot free, he will be considered in a windup position. From this position he may: (1) deliver the ball to the batter, or (2) step and throw to a base in an attempt to pick off a runner, or (3) disengage the rubber (if he does he must drop his hand to his sides). In disengaging the rubber the pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first. He may not go into a set or stretch position if he does it is a balk. (b) The Set Position. Set Position shall be indicated by the pitcher when he stands facing the batter with his entire pivot foot on, or in front of, and in contact with, and not off the end of the pitcher's plate, and his other foot in front of the pitcher's plate, holding the ball in both hands in front of his body and coming to a complete stop. From such Set Position he may deliver the ball to the batter, throw to a base or step backward off the pitcher's plate with his pivot foot. Before assuming Set Position, the pitcher may elect to make any natural preliminary motion such as that known as "the stretch." But if he so elects, he shall come to Set Position before delivering the ball to the batter. After assuming Set Position, any natural motion associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without alteration or interruption. Preparatory to coming to a set position, the pitcher shall have one hand on his side; from this position he shall go to his set position as defined in Rule 8.01 (b) without interruption and in one continuous motion. The whole width of the foot in contact with the rubber must be on the rubber. A pitcher cannot pitch from off the end of the rubber with just the side of his foot touching the rubber. The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body and (b) come to a complete stop. This must be enforced. Umpires should watch this closely. Pitchers are constantly attempting to "beat the rule" in their efforts to hold runners on bases and in cases where the pitcher fails to make a complete "stop" called for in the rules, the umpire should immediately call a "Balk." (c) At any time during the pitcher's preliminary movements and until his natural pitching motion commits him to the pitch, he may throw to any base provided he steps directly toward such base before making the throw. The pitcher shall step "ahead of the throw." A snap throw followed by the step directly toward the base is a balk. (d) If the pitcher makes an illegal pitch with the bases unoccupied, it shall be called a ball unless the batter reaches first base on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batter or otherwise. A ball which slips out of a pitcher's hand and crosses the foul line shall be called a ball; otherwise it will be called no pitch. This would be a balk with men on base. (e) If the pitcher removes his pivot foot from contact with the pitcher's plate by stepping backward with that foot, he thereby becomes an infielder and if he makes a wild throw from that position, it shall be considered the same as a wild throw by any other infielder. The pitcher, while off the rubber, may throw to any base. If he makes a wild throw, such throw is the throw of an infielder and what follows is governed by the rules covering a ball thrown by a fielder.