What the Fuck Is a Balk? 

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

[R]emember, the balk is a longstanding and perfectly understandable rule of baseball, which can be violated in over fourteen ways—(like Paris Hilton)—and no amount of arguing over what is or is not a balk will change that fact.

Baseball fans are sure to enjoy this hilarious and enlightening explanation of just what constitutes a balk in baseball, and it can give even casual viewers something to keep an eye out for as they watch playoff baseball.

Update: Unfortunately, this site has disappeared. Fortunately, the Wayback Machine has a record. I reference this article often enough that I’m going to reproduce it in full below. Hopefully the post’s original author J.P. Melkus won’t mind:

“I never called a balk in my life. I didn’t understand the rule.” – Former Major League Umpire Ron Luciano

It is not only the most controversial call a baseball umpire can make, but based on the typical crowd reaction when one is called, the balk is one of the most controversial topics in all of American public life, just behind abortion, the flat tax, and my proposal to burn the elderly for fuel. Yet despite the blood boiling rage generated by a balk call, most baseball fans have precious little understanding of the rule or its history.

The word “balk” hails from the Anglo-Saxon balca, meaning, “What happened just now?” Contrary to popular belief, the balk was not created during the 1978 off-season by Peter Gammons and George Will while on a week-long ether binge in a Macau opium den. Rather, it has been with baseball since its earliest days. The balk first appeared as Rule 19 in Alexander Cartwright’s Original Rules of Baseball, published in 1845 under the working title, “Ribald Tales of Bawdy Mulatto Housemistresses”.

By 1867, the rule had been concisely set forth in Section 7 of the Rules and Regulations of the National Association of Base-Ball Players, as follows:

[W]henever the pitcher moves with the apparent purpose or pretension to deliver the ball he shall so deliver it, and if he fails in either of these particulars it shall be declared a balk.

This fairly simple explanation has been expanded slightly since Reconstruction, but it remains just as comprehensible and straightforward as any other rule of the Great American Pastime. The most common balk occurs when a pitcher fails to come to a complete stop when taking up his customary pitching position, but before beginning his delivery. (And just by way of example, it is also a balk to pitch while not facing the batter).

Some conspiracy theorists believe that the balk rule is so broad and obscure that it is now capriciously invoked by umpires just to remind everyone that they run the show, like the Second Commandment. This is clearly irrational cynicism; the balk rule is set out in black and white in the 1,757 words of Rules 8.01 and 8.05, just look it up. And before I forget, some umpires interpret any lift of the pitcher’s knee followed by a throw to first to be a balk, while others require that a right-handed pitcher’s left foot cross the plane of the rubber his right leg before a throw to first would constitute a balk.

Now, when a balk is called, all runners advance one base, and if a runner is on third base, that runner scores. If there are no runners on base, a ball is awarded to the batter. Oh, and it’s also a balk if a pitcher steps to throw toward one base and then throws to another while on the rubber.

Despite the elegant simplicity of the balk rule, many fans are unsure of how to react when a balk is called. The proper reaction to a balk depends on whether the balker is on your’s or the opposing nine. If a balk is called against your team, the proper response is to: 1) Roll your head back in disbelief; 2) Say, “What the fuck was that?”; 3) Shake your head; 4) Sip your beer; 5) Mutter, “That is such bullshit,” to the buddy in the seat next to you; and 6) Spend the next ten minutes arguing with your buddy about ways a pitcher could or could not commit a balk. On the other hand, if the balk is called against the opposing squad, the proper response is to: 1) Nod your head in recognition of your encyclopedic baseball knowledge, because you saw that balk coming; 2) Say, “That was such a balk,” to your buddy in the seat next to you; 3) Spend the next ten minutes arguing with your buddy about ways a pitcher could or could not commit a balk, 4) Get up to get another beer; and 5) Balk, especially if the pitcher faked a throw to an unoccupied base, because this is also a balk.

Just as importantly, it is critical to react appropriately when an obvious balk is not called. If Johnny Home Team balks and it is not called, do nothing. However, if the opposing team’s hurler does anything other than throw the ball to the catcher—absolutely anything—scream at the top of your lungs “Balk! Where’s my balk?! Come on, Ump, read the rules!” Then, explain to anyone within earshot why what just happened was a balk… unless you’re near me. If you’re near me, shut your ass… unless he threw the ball over the foul line, because that really is a balk.

Despite its bell-like clarity, the balk rule remained the flat-chested tomboy of baseball rules until it blossomed into a taut, supple young woman at the beginning of the 1988 season. It was then that Major League Baseball undertook to bring the long-neglected rule to its proper place in the pantheon of baseball boilerplate. In 1988, Dave Stewart of the A’s had a record sixteen balks for the season, while Rick Honeycutt, Gene Walter and Bobby Witt each were called for four balks in a single game, and Don Heinkel had three balks in a single inning. That year, the staff of the Oakland A’s had an unheard-of seventy-six total balks. On a sidenote, a pitcher can also balk by dropping the ball while his foot is on the rubber.

The balk’s finest hour, however, came during a four-day span from April 10th to April 13th 1988, sometimes remembered as National Balk Week. During that period, Bobby Witt and Rick Honeycutt set their respective records, and records were set in the American League for most balks in one game by one team, (Milwaukee and Oakland each had five on Aril 10th and 13th, respectively), and by both teams, (a tie for six by the Brewers’ and Yankees’ April 10th Balk-Off, and the Balk-an peacekeeping mission played by the White Sox and Angels on April 12th). Never before or since in such a short period have so many balks been called, and so many pitchers’ wives later “fallen down the stairs”. And before I move on, if you’re pitching, don’t go to your mouth while on the rubber, because that’s a total balk.

Also in 1988, the TV series “Perfect Strangers” reached its ratings peak. The show starred Bronson Pinchot as lovable, moronic immigrant named Balki Bartokomous. Balk-i… Coincidence? I think not.

The balk exists to protect base runners from being picked off by the deceitful pitcher who would feign a throw in one direction and then unexpectedly go another way, leaving the runner confused, embarassed, kind of hungry, and most importantly, out. Therefore, the balk, despite its misunderstood nature, serves an imporant purpose. In fact, it is so useful in preventing unfair deception and surprise in baseball, I propose it be introduced into other areas of life:

THE DATE BALK
I had such a great time tonight, Steve. I’m so glad I met you. Maybe tomorrow we could go to that jazz bar we talked about…with my boyfriend. And you could bring someone too!

THE INTERVIEWER BALK
Steve, we really enjoyed meeting you. We all think you are really top-notch, and would be a great addition to this company. We, of course, would want you start right away, and at a very high salary of course…except that I decided to hire my dangerously unqualified girlfriend instead, so you won’t be starting at all, actually. Sorry.

THE MOM BALK
Son, you know your father and I will love you no matter what you do, just as we would if you had been our biological child…woah… woops… Did you not know you were kidnapped from a maternity ward?

THE JUDGE BALK
Mr. Greenbaumberg, in light of the fact that is your first offense, and because you seem to otherwise be a responsible person who perhaps had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffer a momentary lapse in judgment, justice demands that your mistake… serve as an example to others. Two years, no parole.

So next time you’re bemoaning a balk called on your team, or righteously applauding a balk called on the other team, remember, the balk is a longstanding and perfectly understandable rule of baseball, which can be violated in over fourteen ways—(like Paris Hilton)—and no amount of arguing over what is or is not a balk will change that fact. And before I go, if a pitcher begins his customary pitching delivery while not on the rubber? Huge balk.


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