Lance Niekro's at-bat against Shawn Estes last night made my heart all knuckly. There's a simplistic and reductive trap baseball fans can fall in when discussing a player who doesn't walk. Our prescription is for them to walk more. Duh. If they don't, we'll fold our arms and harumph. It's as if impatient players have a character flaw, and the only prescription is to smear them with the butter knife of disdain, hoping they feel the disturbance in the force.
Niekro will never become a walking fool. A consistent OBP over .400 would be a beautiful miracle, but that's not what he needs to become a good player. Looking for a specific pitch, in a specific part of the strike zone, is what he will need to do. Taking what the pitcher gives him, and not chasing breaking pitches in the dirt, is what he will need to do. Coming to the plate in a tie game with the bases loaded -- against a pitcher with a history of awful control -- and not jumping on the first pitch close to the strike zone is what he will need to continue to do. Estes wasn't winging balls back to the screen, so the walk wasn't a gimme.
Niekro might never be an average first baseman. He might be out of the game in three years. But a player's declaration that he's looking to be more focused and patient is the first step. Getting the perfect opportunity in the first series of the season and acting on it, is the next. It would have been a moral victory if he had worked the count to 3-1, and hit a well-struck sacrifice fly. His taking four straight pitches was more encouraging than a grand slam.
I can also remember Pedro Feliz walking on four straight pitches in an at-bat last year. So before we start giggling and passing the magnum of champagne back and forth, let's watch for the repeat performances.