By the end of 1988, baseball was consumed by the Oakland A’s, who had won 104 games, being ousted in the World Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers,
In 1988, the A’s won 104 games. The Dodgers won 94. But Los Angeles won four of five against Oakland in October, which is all that really matters, and the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson’s Game 1 walkoff homer against A’s closer Dennis Eckersley remains one of the sport’s iconic moments.
But 1988 was about more than that. It was also Major League Baseball’s Year of the Balk. This comes up because it was on this day in 1988 that A’s reliever Rick Honeycutt tied the MLB record with four balks in a four-inning relief stint against the Mariners. He was the second pitcher in two days to do it, Rangers’ starter Bobby Witt – himself to pitch for the A’s in the mid-1990s – balked four times in a start a day earlier on April 12, 1988
To that point in baseball history, the balk was mostly an annoyance. Pitchers throwing out of a stretch needed to come to a complete stop before delivering the ball. The penalty was that all base runners would be moved up one base. For the 1988 season, “complete stop” was redefined as “a single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.”
To that point in time, the balk was perhaps best known for the July day in 1961 when Giants’ reliever Stu Miller was blown off the mound by a serious gust of wind with an All-Star Game’s national audience watching, his swaying leading him to be charged with a balk.
So, no big deal. But after the 1987 season, baseball powers that be tinkered. The idea was to make balks calls more uniform. The reality was that balks exploded. The A’s Dave Stewart was called for one balk on opening day, then three times in his second start. Fellow A’s starter Bob Welch was called three times the day after it happened to Stewart.
Baseball went balk crazy. In one spring training game between the Rangers and the Blue Jays, a dozen balks were called, nine of them against Rangers’ starter Charlie Hough alone. Hough was a balker as a general rule, but his nine balks in the 1987 regular season were crafted from 40 starts and 285 innings, not one otherwise forgettable spring training game. It was a foreshadowing of what was to come, the MLB regular season record at the time being 11 by Steve Carlton in 1979.
Once the 1988 regular season began, balks were everywhere. Games were decided on the call. Managers, including the A’s Tony La Russa, wore themselves out arguing with umpires, who said they were just doing what they’d been told to do by the rules change. It wasn’t until May 26 that baseball had a game played without a balk being called.
Stewart would go on to be charged with 16 balks. That was – and still is – a baseball record, but he’d broken Carlton’s old record by May 18. Welch, for his part, went down in history with 13 balks, which still stands as the second-highest total in MLB history.
By season’s end, a record 924 balks had been called. Look in the record books now, and the top 17 single-season team balk totals came in 1988.
The American League record for balks by a team had been 26; in 1988 only one AL team finished with fewer than 26 balks. The A’s, who led the AL in jut about everything in 1998, led the way with 76, eight more than runner-up Detroit.
It was a one-year thing. The rule was changed back before the 1989 season and baseball got back to being baseball.
Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3