(Here’s a column I wrote today on Henry Genzale, who is retiring after a 50-year professional baseball career in Seattle. Genzale, the visiting clubhouse manager at Safeco Field, is the last remaining original Mariners’ employee. He and his father, Henry Genzale Sr. ran the visiting clubhouse together at the Kingdome in 1977, the expansion club’s first season. In fact, the two of them also ran the visiting clubhouse at Sicks Stadium in 1969, when major-league baseball came to Seattle for the first time with the lone season of the Seattle Pilots. Genzale ran the home clubhouse from 1978-96, then moved to the visiting side Genzale’s baseball career started in 1963 as a 14-year-old batboy for the Seattle Rainiers. He’s missed just one season since then — 1970, when he worked as an accountant after the Pilots moved to Milwaukee. He’s seen it all, and he tells a few funny stories in the column).
It barely caused a ripple of attention when MLB announced last month it was banning the pickoff move that involved the pitcher faking to third, whirling, and firing to first. You know the one — it invariably fooled mainly fans, who could always be heard yelling, “Balk! Balk!” when it took place. Actually, it was perfectly legal, but now it will indeed be a balk.
The move is believed to have been the brainchild of (or at least popularized by) right-handed pitcher Steve Busby of the Kansas City Royals in the 1970s. I’m not sure I ever saw it actually work, though there was a game at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 9, 2011 when the Angels, nursing a 6-4 lead with runners on the corners and Mark Teixeira at the plate, victimized the Yankees. Pitcher Jordan Walden pulled the move and picked off Curtis Granderson to end the game..
Veteran Jon Garland, making a strong bid for the Mariners rotation, says he’s nailed a few baserunners with the move. But that’s not the point, in his mind. That particular pickoff gambit was just another tool in his arsenal for keeping runners close, and he’s sorry to see it removed as an option.
“I’ve actually gotten a couple guys with it,” he said. “It doesn’t have to work to work, necessarily. It might keep that guy at first one step closer. Maybe on a base hit, he doesn’t hit to third. There’s little things like that that get overlooked. That’s kind of a part of controlling the game as a pitcher. If you can keep a guy at first as long as you can, one pitch can get you two outs. That’s the only tough thing for me as a pitcher.”
Garland sees this decision as just part of a trend to increase offense. In fact, this discussion came up when I asked him about the fences being moved in at Safeco Field.
“It seems like every year they’re trying to take something away from the pitcher,” he said. “You bring the fences in, you lower the mounds, balls are getting tighter, bats are getting better, guys are getting stronger. But that’s the way of sports. People want to see offense. That’s the big ticket. You can’t blame them.”
The mounds were actually lowered in 1969 — 43 years ago — but I understand his point. On the other hand, offense has declined precipitously since the advent of drug testing in the mid-2000s, so it’s not like pitchers are hurting too badly. This decision might have a slight effect on scoring by taking away one method of controlling the running game.
“Essentially, they’re making it easier for guys to steal bases,” Garland said. “They’re saying deception, deception. Well, isn’t that what you’re trying to do with everything? That’s why you throw different pitches – deception. You’re trying to get them out and you’re trying to do the best you can. But there’s always going to be changes in sports, especially for the better. Hopefully, it works out.”
As far as I know, no balks have yet been issued in spring games for violating the fake-to-third ban. But I’ll bet at some point, a pitcher will have a brain freeze and revert to the move purely out of habit.
“One of the first games out here this spring, I asked a few umpires to double-check, hey, what can we do?” Garland said. “If there’s just a guy on third, can we step and not throw? I don’t even think you’re allowed to do that any more.”
Yes, it’s the end of an era. Somewhere, Steve Busby mourns.