They say baseball never changes, but the truth is, every offseason brings a bevy of rule changes, some mere tweaks and some with obvious and dramatic effects.
In the aftermath of a wild 1987 season — and World Series — for example, baseball’s rule-makers decided to clarify the long-standing and long-confusing balk. In part, Rule 8.01(b) defining a balk was updated to replace “complete stop” with “single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.”
As to the impetus for the change, there was heavy suspicion that it traced back to the ‘87 Fall Classic, where Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog had complained vociferously about all the balks Twins starter Bert Blyleven got away with (according to Whitey).
Armed with the new, more specific definition, Major League umpires rampaged into the 1988 season in search of balks … and they found them.
To wit, he record for most balks in a full season by all teams and pitchers combined fell … on May 15.
And, though the pace slowed from that point until the end of the season, MLB pitchers still teamed up to commit 924 balks that summer, up from 356 in 1987 — that’s a 160% increase.
All along the way, no one really knew what a balk was or should be, same as always.
But that confusion didn’t save individual pitchers from the shredder, of course, and no one got hit harder than Oakland A’s starter Dave Stewart.
Though Smoke had amassed just four balks in eight big league seasons through 1987, he got nailed for 16 false starts in 1988, still the record (previously held by Steve Carlton with 11 in 1979).
To add insult to injury, Fleer “celebrated” that achievement with an intimidating shot of Stewart in their 1989 League Leaders boxed set.
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I mean, sure … technically, this card celebrates Stewart’s 1988 American League-leading totals in starts, complete games, and innings pitched, with further nods to his second-place finish in wins and number-four strikeout ranking.
But you tell me — would you rather obliterate a record, like Stewart did for balks (previous high was, or finish runner-up in some other category?
Yeah, this card celebrates the balks mark, pretty sure.
And, maybe even more interesting than Stewart’s ascension to the crown is that Blyleven got hit with just three balk charges in 1988 (though that did tie his career high).
It was all too much to digest, even for the baseball powers-that-be’d, and they reversed themselves in January of 1989. Which, if you’ve never tried it, is a painful experience. And which you shouldn’t try unless accompanied by an adult.
But baseball’s leaders were adults, ostensibly, and so they went ahead with the reversal.
And life went on.
And balks died down.
And Dave Stewart didn’t have any balks in 1989.
And then, in October, Smoke was named World Series MVP when the A’s swept the Giants.
So, happily ever after, thanks to a baseball change that got changed back, and changed everything in the process. And then unchanged it.
Who says baseball never changes??
Those great A’s teams from the late 1980s and early 1990s managed to win just one World Series, so that has left artifacts like this one all the more cherished by collectors:
That’s a signed ball from that 1989 team, including, of course, Dave Stewart.
Check out the full listing on eBay right here (affiliate link).