Saturday, January 11, 2014

I Go All Geezer Grumpy Over Old Baseball Outrage.

On April 6, 1973 Ron Blomberg of the Yankees became the first Designated Hitter to come to bat.  He drew a walk with the bases loaded against Luis Tiant at Fenway Park in Boston.  A popular slugger whose promising career was cut short by a series of injuries, Bloomberg admires a display at the Baseball Hall of Fame documenting the occasion.

On January 11, 1973 Oakland A’s owner Charley Finley twisted enough arms at the winter meeting of American League honchos to approve a three year “trial” of the Designated Hitter Rule by a eight to four vote.  Forty-one years later half of Major League Baseball is still blighted by the rule.  Whatever else the quirky and innovative Findley did for baseball is dwarfed by this catastrophe.
The Designated Hitter rule removes usually light hitting pitchers from the traditional nine player batting line up and replaces him with a hitting specialist with no defensive position. 
It came after a decade in which pitchers were building a whole new wing of the Hall of Fame—The Dodger’s Drysdale and Koufax early in the decade, and dominating stand outs like Bob Gibson of the Cardinals, Juan Marachall, and Jim Katt later.  In 1968 alone Denny McLain of the Tigers won 31 games and Gibson had a 1.12 ERA.  And new comers like Tom Seaver, Steve Carleton, Jim Palmer, and Ferguson Jenkins were emerging to seemingly guarantee the continuance of dominant pitching.
Meanwhile after the dazzling displays of power hitting in the Maris and Mantle years, home run production had plummeted as had batting averages.  In the same year McLain dominated the American League, Boston slugger Carl Yastrzemski led the league with a respectable but unspectacular .301 batting average.  The result was fast games—less time to sell concessions in the stands, less revenue for broadcasters from TV and radio advertising.  And in the opinion of some pin heads, boring games for the casual fan who craved lots of action.  A 1-0 pitching duel might be a thing of beauty to a baseball fanatic, but it put the guys in the Lay-Z Boys to sleep clutching their cans of Schlitz.
Another argument for the rule was that it would extend the careers of beloved fan favorites, heavy hitters who had lost a step or three and could no longer shag deep fly ball in the outfield or turn a bang-bang double play.
The Senior Circuit, the National League wisely resisted all of these arguments.  It rightly believed that it stripped the game of much of tactical maneuvering that was at the heart of good managing—knowing just when to pull a pitcher for pinch hitter.
In its first season of use, the American League posted higher batting averages than the National, a trend that has continued ever since.
The rule was not originally applied to the World Series but in 1976, it was decided the rule would apply to all games, regardless of venue, but only in even-numbered years. This practice lasted until 1985 when the rule was adapted to its current format of only applying in games played in American League stadiums
The All Star Game was also originally exempt from the rule. In 1989, the rule was applied only to games played in American League stadiums. Fans elected an American League player to start at that position, while the National League manager selected a starting DH. Hoping to hype ratings of the sometimes boring All Star Game, beginning in 2010, MLB decreed that designated hitter has always been used by both teams regardless of where the game is played. 
As it is the National League and the Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League are the only major professional leagues to hold on to traditional baseball.  The DH has also spread to all levels of amateur and inter-scholastic completion and to rules sanctioned by international baseball bodies.
That means players coming to the National League have probably never had to play a traditional game, which puts the League at a disadvantage.
In recent years, American League teams have begun to shy away from keeping a full time DH on the parole. Most teams now use an assortment of regular position players or even utility men, who’s can bat when they are getting a day of rest from the field or are recovering from some injury.  Come to think about it, that was what pitch hitters do, too.  But, of course the DH, can come to bat more than once.
With the coming of in-season interleague play the disparity of rules has put visiting teams, who have to adapt to the other league’s rule, at a significant disadvantage.  Naturally that baseball genius Commission Bud Selig has proposed that the DH be standard in all interleague games—a permanent handicap to the National League unless it gets with the program.  It is likely that this is a signal for things to come and that eventually the National League will be compelled to come into line.
I hope not.  At least until they bury me with my Cubs cap.

1 comment:

  1. Well, there's nothing like spending a pleasant ten years with Big Papi to soften this old Senior Circuit heart on the topic. recently did a good feature on why this position is not as easy as it looks; the contention that mental focus increases from staying active on the defensive field has neurological proof as well.

    On the Hall of Fame front, while Edgar Martinez -- so far the best DH of all time -- struggles to win induction to the Hall of Fame, the BBWAA did just vote in The Big Hurt, Frank Thomas, who played the majority of his career as a DH. It is widely believed that Big Papi, who has the most career hits as a DH, will be the first to be inducted for a DH career, but MLB has bestowed Martinez's name on the DH annual award, in recognition of his accomplishments.

    There is some thought now that David Ortiz has been so successful as a DH in part because he has a personality which allows him to stay engaged in the game with human connection as well as intellectual focus. He reminds me of Pete Rose in his love of the game. He wants to see every pitch, every at bat, every relay and out. His play at first base during the World Series has pretty much silenced his detractors, and surely delighted his agent. But unlike Pete (I grew up in Cincinnati, and saw or heard most of his career on a night-by-night basis), David finds as much joy in the people of the game as in the adrenaline of its action.

    Between the MLB documentary and watching the divergent HoF fates of Martinez, Frank Thomas (an anchoring personality and towering talent in the midst of the PED era; watch his HoF interview and marvel), and Big Papi, it appears that we need to upgrade our views of DHs.

    What it does to managing is another story. Perhaps we cam quit blaming the demise of the bunt on the DHs and take a look at the rise of speciality bullpens and the rise of substituting for hitters at first rather than sending up weak hitters in the first place because they can run and field.