SPidge Tales

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Abolish the Designated Hitter

Once Upon a Time, baseball, boxing, and horseracing ruled as kings, the big three professional sports in America. In the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and fourteen, dawn of this golden age of sport, the Boston Red Sox signed a young left-handed pitcher from the minor league Baltimore Orioles. This young pitcher won 87 games, losing only 45, between 1915 (his first full season) and 1919, helping the Red Sox win back to back World Series championships in 1915 and 1916, and victory in their final World Series in 1918, the second to last World Series ever played. Sadly, professional baseball collapsed following the 1919 season. The Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series, losing on purpose in an attempt to make money off mafia gamblers. Baseball never recovered, and faded to the dustbin of history, to be followed in the next half century by horseracing and boxing. America never got the chance to see this young left-handed pitcher become one of the all-time greats, although, if you had asked him, he would have claimed capable of being an all-time great slugger. Stories spread and about his legendary hitting prowess in the minors on days he didn’t pitch, but the institution of the designated hitter rule in 1914, right before his major league call-up, prevented any talk of letting some overweight pitcher hit. At any right, with the demise of baseball, no one would be doing any hitting or pitching for a long time.

This young left-handed pitcher is historical. His name, you may recall, is Babe Ruth, and he quickly established himself as an elite pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. His pitching feats described above are no fiction, and neither is, sadly, the story of the Chicago Black Sox and the thrown World Series of 1919. But the demise of baseball, thankfully, is a myth. Baseball, boxing, and horseracing would remain the big three through the 1940’s and ‘50’s. Boxing and horseracing have since faded into niche sports, replaced at the top by football and basketball. But baseball never did fall off the map. The designated hitter rule was not instituted until some sixty years after 1914, Babe Ruth’s slugging feats during his pitching days led the Red Sox to slowly shift him into a full time hitting outfielder, and his record setting 1919 total of 29 homeruns, followed by his record shattering 54 in 1920 saved baseball from the Black Sox scandal. If the designated hitter had been in place at the time, the icon Babe Ruth would never have come into being.

The powers that be ruined baseball forever in the 1970’s with their decision to institute the designated hitter in the American League. In a sport where all nine players must play the field and bat, the American League created the designated “pinch” hitter, a player who would leave his glove at home, bringing the batting gloves and bat to the plate each time the pitcher’s spot in the lineup arose. And, to be fair, I find it kind of interesting and novel to grant the American League a designated hitter while preserving the integrity of baseball in the National League. With the rise of free agency, the distinction between the two leagues began to fade. The DH American League and the no-DH National League: it adds a tangible ingredient to the heretofore mystical differences announcers spoke of when they debated the merits of National League ball versus American League ball.

If only the designated hitter had stayed in the Major Leagues, where it belongs: The problem with the DH is the trickle down effect it has induced upon lower levels of baseball. No longer is the American League a cute little novelty. The American League is the norm, the standard, and the National League is the novelty, the cute little outlier, clinging to the traditional form of baseball, while every other level of baseball above Little League has drank the Kool-Aid and adopted the DH.

Pitchers, let’s be honest, have never been great hitters in the Major Leagues. Babe Ruth, to be fair, is the only elite pitcher who also hit at an elite major league level (Rick Ankiel of the Cardinals is attempting to become a regular outfielder after failing as a pitcher. We shall see how that goes). And, it would be more proper to say of Babe Ruth that he was a great hitter who also could pitch exceptionally at the big league level. But part of the joy of baseball is that every player in the field must hit, every baller with a bat must put on a glove and try his hand at defense. And, just about every major league pitcher was an above average baseball player at other positions, and at bat, while growing up and playing amateur ball. The major league pitcher no longer plays infield or outfield on days he does not pitch, like he did as a Little Leaguer, high school player, and in college, but he has swung a bat at each step up the baseball ladder, so he is not completely helpless standing at the plate against other major league pitchers.

But this DH trickle down effect has left the National League and Little League as just about the only leagues allowing pitchers to hit. Every level of the minor leagues uses the DH. NCAA college baseball plays by American League rules, using a DH for the pitcher. High school baseball even allows the DH (although many high school coaches don’t use it, since often the star pitcher at that level is one of the best hitters on the team and plays shortstop of centerfield when not pitching, or if the DH is used, it is used on the second baseman or rightfielder or another position player who hits weakly). A pitcher brought up to the major leagues will not have swung a bat since high school (not even in practice. Since the DH is allowed, pitchers on college teams and minor league teams don’t even get to take batting practice). If he plays for a National League team, he will be hopeless in his turn in the batters box.

Let’s abolish the DH and return baseball to the way it was meant to be. Do I think we miss out on the chance to find the next Babe Ruth? No. Babe Ruth was a once in a lifetime (once in many lifetimes) player. Do I think pitchers will prove themselves at the plate if given a chance? Again, no. The typical pitcher batting average in the National League will continue to remain firmly below the Mendoza line (that’s below .200, for those unfamiliar with baseball slang). The DH should be eliminated because it separates teams into “hitters” and “pitchers”, with pitchers looked at as if they are these quirky non-athletes who provide a specialty (like the kicker in football), while the hitters do the “real” ball playing. Pitching is as important as hitting, more so for winning championships, and it’s time we stop demarcating pitcher’s and hitters through the tacky 1970’s DH rule. Like hot pants, disco, and That 70’s Show, the DH is a relic from that bad hair decade, and it needs to go.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home