- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

Cuss words spewed from the mouth of Odalis Perez toward the clubhouse television screen. The Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander was incensed while viewing a replay of the incident that led to his team’s 2-1 loss to its archrival.

Earlier on the night of June24, Perez was rolling. Before the largest regular-season crowd ever at 4-year-old Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco, Perez had pitched four no-hit innings and had a one-hitter going in the sixth.

The Dodgers led 1-0 against a team they trailed by a mere game in the National League West, and Perez wasn’t about to let his team down. So when San Francisco’s Ray Durham reached on a one-out single in the sixth, Perez promptly cleaned up that mess by picking Durham off at first.

Or so he thought.

First-base umpire Angel Hernandez immediately began waving his arms and called a balk on Perez for letting his right leg fall too far toward home plate before throwing to first. Two batters later, ex-Dodger Marquis Grissom belted what proved to be a game-winning two-run homer.

As Perez walked toward the dugout after retiring the side, he had a few choice words for Hernandez and was quickly ejected.

“He knows he’s wrong,” Perez told reporters afterward. “We should have won 1-0 until he did what he did. I got mad, and I had to show him up.”

Also given an early dismissal that night was Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, who rushed the field after the call and hounded Hernandez with the same question over and over before he was tossed.

It was a three-word question that requires 781 words to answer in the Major League Baseball rulebook.

“What’s a balk?”


Like most of us, baseball players are creatures of habit. They’re used to their daily routine and all that comes with it. That includes a daily dose of game-related questions from reporters who invade their clubhouses each day before and after a game. But watch the eyebrows rise and quizzical expressions surface when the questions center around the balk.

“The balk rule?” New York Yankees left-hander Sterling Hitchcock said before a 10-second pause. “Well, I don’t think anybody’s really clear whether it’s your foot crossing the back of the rubber or the front of the rubber … or your knee … or I guess it’s your foot.

“Sorry, I don’t even know the interpretation of it, to be honest with you.”

Yankees catcher John Flaherty tried to summarize the rule with a similar result.

“I would say … to tell you the truth I don’t know what constitutes a balk,” said Flaherty, a 12-year veteran. “I don’t even know the rule on that. It’s just random because if there’s an umpire on first that wants to tighten it down, you better be ready. It’s all up to the umpire and what he’s going to let a pitcher get away with.”

The balk rule was established in 1898, primarily to force pitchers to throw to a particular base if a motion is made in that direction. It is officially rule 8.05, and it lists 13 different ways a balk can be called.

Of course, few associated in the game can pinpoint what all 13 are, let alone a couple.

“It’s an odd rule,” Baltimore first baseman Jeff Conine said.

Even ESPN baseball analyst Harold Reynolds, a 12-year major league veteran, announced his confusion on a recent telecast of a College World Series game by saying, “How’s that not a balk? I don’t even know what a balk is.”

This season marks the 15th anniversary of the infamous 1988 campaign in which the balk rule was strictly enforced. Before that year, the average number issued in a season was in the 200s. Today that average has dipped into the 100s. In 1988, the total was 924.

“The directive came down from the commissioner, and they were calling all kinds of balks,” said Baltimore outfielder B.J. Surhoff, who was a second-year catcher with Milwaukee at the time. “There were some real bizarre ones called.”

The major push was to force pitchers to make a discernible stop during their delivery out of the stretch — something that was difficult for veteran pitchers set in their ways to do.

Surhoff recalled a game the Brewers lost because of a balk issued on pitcher Teddy Higuera, who had a career-high six that season.

“Man on third, tie game,” Surhoff said. “And they call him for not stopping fully before throwing to third. It cost us the game.”

It was indeed a record-shattering year for one of the most misunderstood rules in baseball.

Montreal set the National League mark for most balks in a season with 41. That was still 35 fewer than Oakland’s major-league record that season, with Dave Stewart earning a record 16 of them.

The Athletics and Brewers each had a single-game American League record of five, falling one short of the Milwaukee Braves’ 1963 major league mark. Don Heinkel of Detroit and Jim Gott of Pittsburgh share the dubious distinction with three others for having a record three balks called on them in the same inning that season.

“You were getting balks called on you all the time, and it took some time to get adjusted,” said Philadelphia left-hander Dan Plesac, a teammate of Surhoff’s on the ‘88 Brewers. “That was the buzz thing to do that year. They came out of spring training saying they were really going to make an effort on balks, and boy did they! At the time I thought it was ridiculous, but like anything in baseball, any time there’s change there’s always going to be resistance.”

The trickle-down effect seems to have worked, though, as today’s players say they’re not aware of many balks being called. Sad Yankees shortstop and captain Derek Jeter: “Pitchers obviously are paying closer attention to their moves and actions.”

But that’s not to say balks have been nonexistent the past few years. Just ask Yankees pitcher David Wells about the time he balked in a game-winning run from third.

Wells hasn’t had many called on him during his 17-year career and said umpires will generally give him a warning if he’s coming close to a balk move. But in this instance, he admits he blew it.

“You never want to balk a guy from third, but I totally did it,” Wells said. “I thought I got away with it for a second but nope. But if you balk, you balk, and you got to deal with it. It’s there for a reason.”

Balks are generally called by the first-base umpire, which is why Orioles first-base coach Rick Dempsey is constantly scrutinizing an opposing pitcher in hopes of pointing one out to the nearby ump.

“Watching for the balk is probably the most boring part of the game for umps, so I try to help them along,” Dempsey said. “Sometimes I see one and I look back and I say something, and he goes, ‘Well, it wasn’t on purpose, blah, blah, blah.’ So, you know, the interpretation of the rule is different with every umpire.”

Dempsey spent Monday night’s game with his eyes focused on Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte, cited by many as having one of the best pickoff moves in baseball. As teammate Alfonso Soriano, the AL steals leader with 25 through Friday, put it, “I’d never steal on him. He has the same move to first as he does to home.”

Dempsey saw only one move by Pettitte on Monday that he thought was a legitimate balk, when the lanky southpaw’s right foot went behind his planted leg in a move that deceived the runner at first.

“I watched every pitch, and that’s all I saw,” said Dempsey, an Orioles catcher from 1976 to 1986 and in 1992. “He’s got good body rhythm. His head moves down at the right time. You can tell he’s put a lot of work into it. But Pettitte is just as guilty when it comes to the 45 degree rule as everyone else. It’s the most abused rule in the game.”

The rule requires a pitcher to “step directly toward a base before throwing to that base.” In general, it’s the “45 degree rule,” in which a pitcher’s front leg can’t cross the rubber toward home plate on an attempted pickoff move.

“Andy comes pretty darn close,” said Ken Singleton, an Oriole from 1975 to 1984 who’s now a Yankees television analyst for the YES Network. “He can get it to 44 degrees before throwing to first. But he’s got such a good move that umpires give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Umpires are the focal point of many opinions regarding the balk. The consensus is that if an umpire looks hard enough, he probably can find something nitpicky enough to warrant a balk. There’s one ump in particular, Bob Davidson, who is nicknamed “Balkin’ Bob.”

“You had to be on your toes when he was umping,” Plesac said of Davidson, an 18-year major league ump currently working Class A games after losing his job in 1999 over a contract dispute. “If you had a balk called on you when Bob Davidson was umping, it was your fault because you knew he was watching for it.”

Ron Luciano, who died in 1995 and was known for his memorable arguments with former Baltimore manager Earl Weaver (even ejecting Weaver in both games of a 1975 doubleheader), once said, “I never called a balk in my life. I didn’t understand the rule.”

Fortunately, for all parties involved, an informative video recently has been released titled “See a Balk, Call a Balk,” and it can be yours for only $29.95, plus shipping and handling. The video cover reads, “A pitcher’s balk is the fine line between legal deception and gaining an advantage illegally.”

Unfortunately, no matter how many explanations are given, the balk rule probably always will be puzzling.

“Each umpire, manager, coach, pitcher, writer and so on interprets it their own way to where something that looks like a balk to me may not look like a balk to you,” Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. “And that’s why we have umpires because if it looks like a balk to them, guess what? It’s a balk.”

Perhaps the only thing they can agree on is that nobody can agree on what constitutes a balk. Like beauty, a balk seems to be strictly in the eyes of the beholder.

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