The Return of the Five-Ball Walk? (And Other Tales of Phillies Woe)
by Mike Carminati
In 1889 baseball changed the definition of a base on balls, making four balls the basis for a free pass to first. Walks shot up 55% that year, the highest increase since the founding of the National League.
The five-ball walk has been dead for 116 years, but for a time in Philadelphia tonight, it seemed that baseball had brought it back. With the Phils trailing the Metsgoes by a run (3-2), the bases empty and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Chase Utley stepped into the batter's box and appeared to a called ball on a 3-2 count but remained at bat. The local Phillies broadcasters had the count at 3-2. The scoreboard had a 3-2 count. And the fans, at least the ones that can count, were irate.
How could a ball on 3-2 pitch not result in a walk?
As it turned out Utley walked two pitches later. But it didn't matter when the next batter, Bobby Abreu, K'ed to end the game. All that was left was the academic question of a five-pitch walk, and the Phils were eliminated from the division title hunt in the NL East.
It wasn't until I went through the pitch sequence on MLB.TV with a different broadcast team that I realized that the home-plate ump made the right call:
- Called strike on outside slider, 0-1(I believe this was the one called a ball by the Philly broadcasters and the scoreboard operator).
- Swinging strike on a curve, 0-2
- Fouled off, remains 0-2
- High and Outside, 1-2
- Foul tip in the dirt, remains 1-2
- Ball in the dirt, 2-2
- Fouled down the first base line, remains 2-2, followed by a conference on the mound
- Low change, 3-2 (This was the one that raised the fans' eyebrows.)
- Fouled off on outside fastball, remains 3-2.
- Change inside, walk.
So Phillies fans have no one to blame for the loss. Except for David Bell who stupidly tried to take third when he was on first and pinch-hitter Shane Victorino hit a two-out single with the Phils trailing by a run. It was a close play, but Bell had no business trying for third. With two outs, it's the proverbial boneheaded play. Or maybe they could blame Charlie Manuel for leaving Bell, he of the 16 career stolen bases, in as the tying run.
Anyway, I wondered if the five-ball walk had made an appearance since 1889. I looked in up in Rich Marazzi's The Rules and Lore of Baseball. I found an example with exactly the same two teams:
It was early in the 1978 season when the Mets and Phillies tangled at the Vet in Philadelphia in what must have been a real yawner.
The Mets' Lenny Randle was batting with a count of three balls and two strikes facing Tug McGraw. The next pitch was called a ball, which entitled Randle to take first base. Apparently everyone in the park must have been napping including the umpires because Randle remained in the batter's box instead of talking his "walk" to first.
With the count of four balls and two strikes, Lenny hit McGraw's next pitch for a triple. Do you believe this happened in a major-league game.
Uh, yeah, I do. I'm surprised it hasn't happened more often as a matter of fact.