Ever since 1973, American and National League baseball has played by two sets of rules. In either league, three strikes is an out, three outs to an inning and 9 innings to a game. You will see no deviance regarding the infield fly rule and aside from ground rule doubles (which are defined by all 30 stadiums individually) the game basically appears identical. Despite the fact that nowhere else on the professional sports landscape do different conferences, divisions or leagues within the same sports entity (including NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS, AFL, EPL, CFL, UFL or the entirety of Minor League Baseball or even the NCAA ranks) endorse two different sets of rules, MLB’s Designated Hitter has been around for 40 seasons.
Recently there has been a mass migration of MLB sluggers to the DH-friendly American League – resulting in a spate of long-term contracts for superstars such as Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixera and Adrian Gonzalez. Very rarely would a John Olerud, Manny Ramirez, Chris Chamblis, Randy Johnson or Cliff Lee leave the AL for NL, rather the Mo Vaughns or Matt Hollidays of the world usually make their choices via free agency. This of course would augment a movement that began as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s, giving American League an advantage in what was then the burgeoning free agent market. Certainly MLB should not stand idly by and permit the majority of its marquee players to find themselves in either league. Not only will it continue to shift the balance of power, but perpetuates a growing dichotomy in the quality of play.
Ron Blomberg was the first DH in his debut with the Yankees in 1973 and since then, two generations of baseball fans have grown up knowing that the American League lineup has an advantage over the National League. 100 years of baseball history had been forever changed with the stroke of a pen – but time would tell if this change was for better or worse. Edgar Martinez was recently the first Hall of Fame candidate who spent most of his career as a DH and the practice has prolonged many other Hall of Fame caliber careers (Dave Winfield, Wade Boggs, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor and Reggie Jackson come to mind). The value of the position as a way to extend careers, salvage a player’s health (especially in the days of rampant artificial turf usage) and prevent fans from having to watch pitchers flail helplessly at taunting curveballs has never been in question. Testament to this value is the fact that the Designated Hitter has been adopted throughout the minor leagues, the NCAA (including the College World Series) and even in Japan and international leagues (including the World Baseball Classic).
We get it. Chicks dig the longball. Offense sells tickets and home runs guarantees the almighty AIS factor (Asses in Seats)! More importantly, the MLBPA (Players Union) has endorsed and supported the DH because it creates jobs, prolongs careers, increases player earning potential. TV networks buy into it for the same reason they support NFL practices to protect Quarterbacks and over-penalize defense. Then again, TV networks supported the glowing pink puck idea when broadcasting the NHL so let’s offer criticism where it is due.
How would Andre Dawson or Pete Rose or Johnny Bench or Mike Piazza or even Mike Schmidt have fared if their careers had been prolonged by absconding to the AL in their respective twilight? They identified themselves as National League players and while some did change teams via free agency, most spent as much of their careers with their original team as possible. What about Mickey Mantle, Hank Greenberg, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio or Babe Ruth extending their careers by not having to play the field? Actually Ruth did that employing himself long past his prime as a pinch hitter and using a pinch runner once he wheezed his way to first base (Ruth’s prime might have been extended by not downing a quick red hot and a brew between innings).
Would Hank Aaron have exceeded his already extended and illustrious career by bopping another 100 HR as a DH? Frank Robinson’s place in the record book would look very different as would Willie Mays, Boog Powell or Harmon Kilebrew.
The arguments on both sides are familiar and well-established. National League purists pledge themselves to the grandeur of the classic game, taking nine men onto the field and having them pitch, catch, bat and throw well enough to defeat the opposing nine. American League patrons cite that behemoth sluggers are far more interesting at the plate than sacrifice bunts by the pitcher. They call the National League style of play “smallball” while pundits for years have referred to the “junior circuit” style of play as that of beer league softball games. Is it scoffing at tradition or evolution of the game? The truth, as always lies somewhere in the middle but this issue is no longer as simple as merely “To DH or not to DH.”
Recent interleague play (since 1997) and modifications to the World Series DH rule (plus the All-Star Game determining home field advantage) have driven the point home that more offense means better ratings, better attendance, more excitement and in general a better game value. Where would the 2004 Boston Red Sox have been without sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez? While Ramirez played the field (terribly), Ortiz was that much worse – but their Herculean heroics fueled half a dozen of the great postseason comebacks in history – and the end of an 86-year championship drought (or curse as the case may be). Reverse the Curse with Red Sox coming back from an 0-3 deficit in the ALCS to the Yankees could not have been scripted better!
However, if the All-Star game determines home field advantage and the DH is only to be used in the AL home ballpark, then it does have a serious effect upon the World Series (4 home games vs. 3). Interleague ratings (far more than All Star Games) prove that, in limited usage and in specific markets, the experiment has been a success. Statistics can be used to prove nearly anything but assuming that there is a shift in talent level, personnel and team payroll over time, 15 years of data is a strong Interleague sample. Empirically speaking, the American League holds a notable advantage over its National League counterparts – partially because it is more difficult to adapt to having a designated hitter than not having one. Simply taking a bench player and asking him to come to the plate four times a game doesn’t make him a designated hitter so much as essentially pinch hitting four times per game. Granted, the man has a bat in his hands and is a major league ballplayer, but asking a man to play third base doesn’t make him a third baseman either!
|Wins by League:
In 2013, the Houston Astros will migrate to the American League – marking the second time during the reign of Commissioner Bud Selig that a team has changed leagues to accommodate realignment (Milwaukee Brewers shifted from AL to NL). It will also mark the first time since the Expansion Era (1961) that each league will have the same number of teams for any prolonged period. While the number of Interleague games will not increase, season-long Interleague Play will be spread throughout the schedule, rather than in concentrated periods from May-July as has been the recent practice.
Following the announced Astros’ move there was much Owners Meetings debate (Nov. 17). Some proposals predicted as many as 30 — 40 Interleague games per club. That led to questions about a fundamental shift in the construction of teams, with arguably a reduced impact of the DH in the AL. Would the DH carry the same clout if an AL team played twice as many games without a DH? Conversely, would NL GMs put a higher value on bench players who could hit? Under one concrete proposal, teams will play 18 games against each of the other four teams in their own division (for a total of 72 games), plus 60 games against teams from their own league’s other two divisions plus 30 Interleague games.
When historians look back at this period of baseball history, they will note the post-Steriods era Hall of Fame candidates, the efforts to have the baseball landscape make geographic sense, the prolonged labor peace in the wake of the 1994 strike (cancelling the first World Series since 1904) and the renewed interest in what happens both on and off the field. Major League Baseball has completely recovered from the darker chapters of its storied history in the past (Black Sox Scandal, Desegregation, Collusion, Labor strife, etc) and has done so once again. The baseball world breathes a collective sigh of relief that unbalanced free agent migration and schedule relaignments are the pressing issues of the day.
For now, we are seeing a balance shift via free agency from one league to the other but these long-term contracts may be indicative of a more troubling trend. Believe it or not, MLB plans to analyze All-Star balloting as a “scientific” indicator of the severity of this free agent player migration.
To DH or not DH has been a quandary for 40 seasons and it is not going away any sooner than the bullpen closer, left-handed specialist or the sushi vendor. What is certain is that after 40 seasons, MLB must decide what to do.
It worked with integrating the majors in the wake of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut. On a lesser scale it worked reorganizing the umpires. It worked with instituting Interleague Play and someday very soon there will be some kind of resolution. There could be sweeping realignment, rotating divisions, unbalanced schedules based on economic forecasts or previous year’s finish or any number of changes. Most likely the National League will be compelled to adopt the DH rule, but it may not be voluntarily.
Interleague Play Leaders (1997-2010)
|Batting Average (min. 300 at-bats):
|ERA (min. 100 innings):
|Runs Batted In:
MLB All-Star Game: World’s Fair to Historical Footnote http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2010/07/20/mlb-all-star-game-worlds-fair-to-zzzzzzz/
Selig’s Odyssey: Expansion & Realignment http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2011/09/21/2012-expansion-realignment-seligs-odyssey/
Modest Proposal: MLB vs. Magellan http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2010/07/22/modest-proposal-to-make-magellan-proud/
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org