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THE HOT CORNER: When is a stolen base not a steal?

by Jim Allen / Daily Yomiuri Sportswriter (Jan 24, 2008)

Baseball would not be baseball without trivial and arbitrary scoring rules. Without them, where would we be? Should we care whether or not an uncontested late-inning stolen base in a blowout is ruled as a stolen base or not?

What would happen to interest in the game if fans didn't care whether a pitch that goes to the backstop with a runner on is a passed ball or a wild pitch?

The result is the same. It's not like the catcher is an innocent bystander on a wild pitch. It's simply an arbitrary finding of fault with the pitcher. An eager and acrobatic pitch blocker will stop more balls in the dirt than an indifferent, immobile catcher. But if the ball bounces, it is all the pitcher's fault.

After the Yakult Swallows set a Central League record with 65 wild pitches in 1998, catcher Atsuya Furuta told The Hot Corner the absurd total was caused by Kazuhisa Ishii's uncatchable slider.

That's nonsense. The truth is Furuta just didn't dive for balls--some say because he feared getting hurt.

With Furuta behind the plate 95 percent of the time, Swallows pitchers were going to throw lots of wild pitches with or without Ishii. Ishii's 20 wild pitches in 1998 were a Central League record, but the other 45 that got away were more than nine other teams had that year--and Furuta deserves blame for them, even if the rules say he was innocent.

Still, that is the way the game is, and the official scorer is required to rule on each play and assign the necessary blame on one and only one player.

This year, the scorer's job will be more involved. Until now, Japan has ignored the international scoring standards that deny credit for a stolen base when the fielding team makes no effort to prevent it. From now on, Japanese scorers will have to decide when a stolen base is not a stolen base.

The rule states the scorer must take into account the entire situation: the score, the effort to hold the runner on, whether fielders take a position to make a tag, whether the catcher bothers to throw. If he deems the fielders are indifferent to the runner's advance, he must deny credit for a stolen base and instead attribute the advance to fielder's choice.

However, the scorer is also instructed to grant a stolen base if the runner is approaching a record or a league statistical title. In other words, you can't prevent a runner from trying to win a stolen-base crown by ignoring him and expecting the scorer to not acknowledge the steal.

This is significant in Japan, because nowhere is the apparent conflict between sacrifice for the team and the pursuit of individual honors more noticeable.

Certainly, the most bizarre incident regarding an individual title race revolved around stolen bases.

In 1998, Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui trailed the Chiba Lotte Marines' Makoto Kosaka by one steal going into the season finale for each team. In that game, the Lions went above and beyond the call of duty to prevent Kosaka from adding to his total.

When Kosaka finally reached first base in the sixth inning, he did not budge on an intentional wild pickoff throw. Rookie pitcher Kazuhiro Shibasaki then prevented a steal of second by intentionally balking him. After Kosaka was at second, Matsui took the unprecedented measure of holding him close to the bag, and the Marines speedster was cut down trying for third.

Matsui then managed to steal both a base and a share of the stolen base crown. Players who win individual titles always thank their teammates but none have had more cause to do so than Matsui.

It was both a complete farce and standard procedure in Japan. One suspects that at some level, Japan's overbearing media attention to individual titles is just hype: something to fill space in the papers. Sometimes fans care, sometimes they don't.

One has to wonder if the game Marines manager Bobby Valentine likes to call "the consummate team sport" would still be the same without its accountant's addiction for assigning credit and debits to individuals.

Probably, but it might not be as much fun for fans to argue over. And in the end, what the fans care about should count most of all.


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