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A case for changing the intentional walk

There are certainly things to be said for tradition. Most of them are not nice.

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There’s a fairly interesting episode of the interview podcast The Ezra Klein Show, if you are into those kinds of things, in which the titular Klein (who I should note, as grand poobah of Vox is technically my colleague,) talks for roughly an hour and a half with noted conservative and gay rights activist Andrew Sullivan. While the politics involved are dense and require a bit of background knowledge to not put you to sleep, it’s worth a listen if only to hear to people who even mildly disagree on the Internet do so civilly.

In the midst of what’s mostly an existential conversation about the nature of political identity, the two begin talking about the role God plays in their lives. What’s interesting is that Sullivan, a devout Roman Catholic, and Klein, a less devout agnostic, differ not on the role of religion in society or "how" someone might become religious, but why. While there’s much more meat to this part of the discussion, Klein is unable to see God – in the metaphorical sense, I’m assuming – when looking for things like comfort, no matter how hard he tries, while Sullivan has long found comfort through his belief in God.

It’s not on the order of a religious war, of course, and the disagreement is less of a disagree than an unbroachable impasse. This dichotomy peers into something that we don’t often think about: if religious devotion/professional wrestling fandom are any indication, no two people like or do something for the exact same reason. And in finding out why those two people react differently, we can find out what brings us to those things in the first place.

Which means, of course, that (presumably) without meaning to, the two find themselves getting to the core of the argument behind the biggest third biggest most recent news out of the Commissioner office: the end of the manually administered intentional walk.

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Now, sure, comparing having to actually throw four balls as a way to let someone walk to first base unimpeded or, you know not, and finding comfort in the abstract concept of divine grace probably doesn’t make sense. Unless you read the quotes totally devoid of context. Take Jayson Werth’s comments from an article in the Washington Post on the proposed changes: "I don’t know what the theories are, or who’s coming up with them, or what. But I feel like this thing’s worked pretty good for a long time and now, all of a sudden, we get a lot of changes."

And sure, this point of view is categorically wrong, even on its face. It becomes even more wrong when you accept that he may be talking not just about this specific rule, but the rule changes made in over the last few years. The idea that MLB hasn’t changed its rules frequently seems to ignore or not fully grasp the effect things like free agency, the number of balls for a walk (from 9 to 4 in 10 years), the banning of greenies, and the designated hitter have had in the game at large and on the field.

But it also highlights, almost too well, the philosophical underpinnings of what I like to call "athletic originalism".

This worldview feels, and maybe is, necessary on some level to keep the entire multi-billionaire dollar boondoggle of professional children’s games going. It’s the concept –similar to what some believe was the case of our founding fathers –that our athletic administrator forebears knew exactly what was the right thing to do, both in their time and for centuries later. And, most importantly, actually make said decisions even if it may have seemed unnecessary or even dangerous to something like "the integrity of the game" at the time.

Because, more so than any other part of decision making of this kind, doing what’s right for the long term health of a given entity -- even if it’s unpopular -- is where leaders "earn their stripes". But, not all people we perceive as great leaders do these kinds of things. Some are significantly better at the kind of authoritarian flexing that can actually be warranted in a rebuilding project in need of discipline. So, we create narratives not about the reasons things are the way they are, but how things being the way they are speak to the greatness of the people who made them that way. Then, sometimes, we name MVP awards after them, despite them being pretty ardent segregationists and also, jerks.

This need to cling to the narrative of former righteousness is just as responsible for Shoeless Joe’s not being in the Hall of Fame as it for baseball taking a full generation before they let video review make the game less of a morning radio joke every time an umpire blew a call. But even that, something embraced – though not without its flaws, dutifully pointed out by Nationals manager Dusty Baker in that same WaPo article – by essentially every other possible sport a decade earlier was not without people pushing hard against it.

They did so, of course, because of a burning desire to achieve the kind of intellectual clarity which allows for comparisons of errors across eras. Nuance and internal dichotomies are things that many push against not because they are bad people, but because they validate themselves through the things these notions challenge. They find, as Sullivan does, comfort through this sense of tradition and the weight of history behind it.

Werth, when not moonlighting on The Edge and Christian Show Which Totally Reeks of Awesomeness, likely takes great pride in his ability to succeed at something – at least as he perceives it – which hasn’t changed in a century. It allows him, in his own head, to rate himself against the Cobbs and the Ruths just as much as the Bonds and the Griffeys.

To, on this day, see clearly all the way back to 1879 and watch someone take an intentional walk the same way he can (though likely hasn’t in, like, forever). But, someone should probably tell him beforehand that it’ll take about twice as long as it always has.