VANDERBEEK: Intentional balks not the best way to end game

MODESTO: A's hitting instructor banned by California League over balks

bvanderbeek@modbee.comJuly 2, 2012 

Athletics Spring Baseball

Oakland Athletics outfielder Matt Holliday chases after a fly ball in a drill during spring training baseball in Phoenix, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009. Looking on is coach Todd Steverson.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

ERIC RISBERG — AP

— There were about 800 people left in the stands as the scoreboard clock approached midnight on June 23. It had been a sellout of 4,781 at John Thurman Field, the second-largest crowd of the season as the Modesto Nuts took on the rival Stockton Ports, and those who remained after the final out of the 16th inning likely were more interested in pyrotechnics than the final score.

As we soon found out, there was another interest at work — one that on Monday got an Oakland Athletics coach banned from the Stockton dugout for a year.

By the 16th, both teams were out of pitchers and had called position players to the mound.

In the Stockton dugout, interim manager Todd Steverson, managing that night only because regular manager Webster Garrison was on vacation, wanted the game to be over. In fact, bringing an end to the game without risking the arm of another position player became more important to him than winning.

Steverson, Oakland’s roving hitting instructor, ordered Josh Whitaker, an outfielder and the second Ports’ position player to pitch that night, to commit balks to move Modesto runners into scoring position. Whitaker blatantly balked twice in the 17th, but the Nuts could not get the game-ending hit until the 18th, after another balk.

The next day I asked Steverson if the previous night’s balks were intentional. Having known and worked with him since 2005, I was confident he wouldn’t blow up at the question. I wasn’t sure exactly how he’d answer. Without hesitation, he answered “Yes” and then explained why.

“We had a position player out there and I didn’t want to put another position player on the mound and get him hurt … I didn’t get any of my pitchers hurt and I didn’t get any position players hurt. So a game on June 23, 2012, well, these guys will be playing many more games more important than that.”

On Monday, California League president Charlie Blaney fined Steverson an undisclosed amount and banned him from being in the dugout during any California League game for one year, retroactive to June 24.

From Blaney’s written statement:

“While Stockton Interim Manager Todd Steverson’s intent was to protect his players from injury … he made an error in judgment by instructing his pitcher to advance 3 base runners via intentional balk for the purpose of expediting the end of the game … Mr. Steverson’s decision to advance the opposing team’s base runners into scoring position compromised the integrity of the game, which is paramount in this great game of ours.”

At this point I’m supposed to pontificate on one side or the other, about how either Steverson or Blaney was blatantly wrong in how they handled the situation, about how the only important thing is for a team to play to win until the final out or how the league has to realize the protection of prospects has to be its only interest.

But I can’t.

Steverson made his decision based on one of the top priorities of every coach and manager in a developmental league, which is to protect the future of what everyone hopes will be big league talent. I have no idea as to the amount of the fine, but I assume the Oakland organization will pay it. And Steverson is in the Stockton dugout maybe 12 or so games per year, so being banished to another vantage point, while a statement, will not keep him from performing his job.

Blaney has no choice but to protect the standings. As soon as fans have any reason to question whether the game in front of them is being played on the level, the league loses all credibility.

Yes, I can see both sides of this difficult predicament. But there may have been a better way for Steverson and the league to address the situation.

Once Steverson decided the game needed to end, his mistake was being so obvious. Pulling his team off the field would have resulted in a forfeit and a $50,000 fine, so that was not an option.

But instead of having Whitaker balk, he could have ordered him to be wild. A walk or a hit batsman and a couple of wild pitches would have ended the game in a much more subtle manner than a series of intentional balks. And from the league’s standpoint, how about imposing a limit on the number of innings that can be played before the game is ruled a tie?

If a team goes into the game knowing they won’t play more than, say, 12 or maybe 15 innings, the manager could pace his pitching staff accordingly and ensure he wouldn’t have to call on a position player to pitch.

No, that remedy isn’t perfect. But it would prevent a manager from having to make such a decision in the future.

And it just might keep fans from having to stick around until after midnight to watch fireworks.

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