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Foes' message to Bonds: go for walk

Think about it. There may come a point during this weekend's interleague series between the Orioles and San Francisco Giants when the game is too close for comfort and superstar Barry Bonds is standing in the batter's box with evil intent.

Think about it hard. This is the first time Orioles fans will have a chance to see Bonds up close in Baltimore since he appeared in the 1993 All-Star Game at Camden Yards - and really the only time since he ballooned into the bigger-than-life Barry Bonds who has persuaded more than one manager to throw the book of traditional baseball strategy out the window.

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So what do you want to see, a little round chunk of history bouncing off the B&O; warehouse or four wide ones and a slow trot to first base? Chances are, you're going to see catcher Javy Lopez signal for the intentional walk, a move that has become so common that Bonds is on pace to obliterate his own single-season record for intentional walks and some baseball theorists are proposing new rules to limit the number of times a team can blatantly sidestep the same opposing hitter.

It might be boring. It might take much of the fun out of a rare visit from one of baseball's most dangerous hitters of all time. It might even backfire, if someone batting behind Bonds comes up big in the clutch, but it's an option that is hard to pass up when Bonds has a chance to make an opposing manager look really stupid with one prodigious swing.

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"As a fan, I want to see what he can do," said Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. "This guy is almost 40 years old, and he just changes the game. But for a manager, it's always a game about wins and losses. That's what goes into the decision, whether it's Barry Bonds out there or Mike Piazza or anyone. You've got to play the game. You've got to do what you think is right."

It has become baseball's version of Hack-a-Shaq - the practice of intentionally fouling NBA star Shaquille O'Neal to get him away from the rim and put him at the free-throw line.

No one thinks that's great basketball, but many coaches consider it a prudent way to neutralize the NBA's most dominating big man.

The same goes for the practice of walking Bonds, with one major difference. The NBA teams that choose to foul O'Neal repeatedly pay a price in individual and team fouls, which can come back to haunt them even when O'Neal is not on the floor. There is no limit to the number of times a team can intentionally walk Bonds, and - with the Giants lacking a major offensive force behind him in the lineup - there usually is no downside.

This wouldn't be an issue if the walks came in obvious intentional-walk situations. No one would think twice if Bonds were getting walked with runners at second and third and one out, but he's getting walked in almost every possible situation - even once with the bases loaded a couple of years ago.

Time to change rules?

With baseball facing stiff competition for fans from sports that move faster and more continuously, can the sport really afford to put that kind of competitive muzzle on one of its greatest stars? Some of the game's leading pundits think not, and would like to see the rules altered to make it more difficult to bypass the best hitter in a lineup. Author John Thorn, who edits the popular statistical volume Total Baseball, has proposed a progressive method of penalizing teams for repeated intentional walks.

"I admit that I came around to an extreme solution, but it was something that I suggested after the 2002 World Series, when I was disgusted with the way the Angels handled Bonds," Thorn said.

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He proposed, "only slightly tongue-in-cheek," that each manager should be given one intentional walk a game. A second base on balls would cost two bases and advance all other runners two bases, a third would cost three bases and a fourth would allow the batter to come all the way around to score.

Enough of a deterrent could be created by making additional intentional walks simply cost two bases instead of one, because that would put the batter immediately into scoring position, but there is little support inside baseball for any rule change.

"The problem with the early-inning intentional walk, it shows the brilliance of the manager and prevents any momentum from developing in the game," Thorn said. "It's about as interesting as watching Kasparov play Big Blue. It's ambulatory chess."

Of course, there is the sticky matter of what to do when teams pitch around Bonds without actually going through the motions of an intentional pass. Thorn would leave that up to the discretion of the plate umpire, but that might just open the can of worms even wider.

"I don't know how you're going to get around it," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "Somebody asked me, do you limit it to one [intentional walk] a game? What are you going to do after that, hit somebody?"

What numbers say

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Maybe you don't have to do anything. Maybe you just have to convince baseball managers that walking Bonds, who turns 40 next month, in certain situations is statistically unsupportable. Jerry Reiter, an assistant professor at Duke University's Institute of Statistics and Decision Sciences, has analyzed the scoring potential of the Giants when Bonds walks in various situations and found that walking him, say, to lead off an inning is a fool's errand.

From 2001 through 2003, Bonds walked to lead off an inning 80 times, and the Giants scored an average of 0.9 run in those innings, which is about the same rate as the major league average in the same situation. In the 300 instances that Bonds was pitched to leading off an inning, the Giants scored an average of 0.6 run. The data do not differentiate intentional and unintentional walks.

"This data suggest that the Giants scored more runs and score more frequently when Bonds is walked to lead off an inning rather than pitching to him," Reiter said. "Going by data analysis, the preferred strategy would be to pitch to him."

Reiter concedes the numbers are different for different situations, but it remains statistically better to pitch to Bonds with a runner at first base and no one out. However, the numbers show it is preferable to walk Bonds with no one on and one out or more.

This isn't a new problem. Babe Ruth was walked 170 times in a 154-game season in 1923, which didn't sit well with a nation of fans who hung on his every swing. Bonds set all-time single-season records for walks (198) and intentional walks (68) in 2002 and is on pace to break the intentional-walk record by August with 43 in 49 games this year.

There is no question he is an intimidating presence of Ruthian proportion, but the lack of any other imposing hitter at the heart of the Giants' lineup makes him too easy to pitch around.

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Ruth played on the best team in baseball in 1923, and the quality of the lineup still appears to have been an issue. When he hit 60 homers for the Murderers' Row Yankees in 1927, he walked 138 times.

"Personally, I'd like to see Barry get as many at-bats as possible," said broadcaster and former Oriole Ken Singleton, "but I'd like to see the Giants get somebody to bat behind him. They let [Jeff] Kent and some other guys get away, and they made a conscious decision to not have any other thunder in their lineup.

"So what do you expect? What's the last question a manager wants to hear after a game? 'Why did you let Barry Bonds beat you?'"

'Knowing the situation'

Yankees star Gary Sheffield knows the feeling, though obviously not to the same extent. He walked 263 times over a two-year period with the Florida Marlins in 1996-'97.

"I've been through it," Sheffield said. "You know they [the pitchers] aren't coming close. You have to be shooting for goals to be that patient. You couldn't just be playing for fun to do that. He [Bonds] has to be that patient to hit the strikes that he does."

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Even Sheffield, however, is conflicted when the subject of sound baseball strategy comes up.

"I had 140-something walks in 1996," Sheffield said. "I was saying to myself, 'Why are they walking me?' But why should they pitch to you if they feel like they can get the rest of your lineup out? Nobody's going to give you anything.

"I look at it as a double-edged sword. I don't like it, because I think the game is about competing, but what if your team has a chance to win the World Series and walking Barry Bonds with no one on base improves your chances of doing that?"

Montreal Expos manager Frank Robinson, who led the National League in intentional walks four straight years from 1961 to 1964 and went on to hit 586 career home runs, isn't so ambivalent.

"I don't think it's right," he told The Sacramento Bee recently. "I just think pitching to guys is the way the game should be played. If you make a mistake, anybody has a chance of hitting one out, so it's a matter of making your pitches."

Maybe it's a coincidence, but Bonds is 3-for-15 with no home runs against the Expos dating back to the start of last season. Robinson did order him intentionally walked once during a three-game series against the Giants last month, but it was in an obvious intentional-walk situation.

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"We will walk Barry if the situation dictates it and first base is open," Robinson said. "But we'd walk other guys in those situations, too, as part of normal strategy. But I wouldn't do it with a guy on first base or just to put him on base."

Torre, whose track record suggests he isn't exactly timid in big-game situations, respectfully disagrees.

"I walked him intentionally last year when he represented the tying run," Torre said. "He's a special player. Even when he was in Pittsburgh, he was a great player. I walked him every chance I could. This guy, every time he swings the bat and makes contact, he hits a home run. He's very scary."

That might provide a clue about the likelihood of Bonds' getting a chance to beat the Orioles with a big home run, considering the influence that Torre has had on the career of the new Orioles manager.

"That's hard to answer," Mazzilli said, "without knowing the situation."

The supporting cast

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Barry Bonds is the Giants' offensive leader, batting .369, with 34 RBIs and 16 home runs. The following is a look at some of the other players who bat in the heart of the order.

Edgardo Alfonzo 2 HRs 23 RBIs .271 BA

Deivi Cruz 0 HR 5 RBIs .277 BA

Pedro Feliz 11 HRs 33 RBIs .270 BA

Marquis Grissom 7 HRs 32 RBIs .313 BA

Dustan Mohr 3 HRs 6 RBIs .208 BA


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