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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

The Designated Hitter—Baseball's Folly
By Herschel Cozine

Picture this: Joe "Iron Boots" Kelly, thirty-eight year old catcher for the Arkansas Coondogs, steps into a fastball and sends it into deep center field. Dropping the bat, he lumbers to first base, beating the throw by a half step. On first base with a four-hundred-foot single, Kelly pauses to catch his breath while time is called. Out of the dugout trots Skip O'Hare. He heads to first base as Kelly walks off the field to the applause of appreciative fans.

The inning ends, and the home team takes the field. Kelly squats down in his position behind the plate. But wait! How can that be? Wasn't Kelly lifted for a pinch runner? No. He was replaced by the designated runner!

Ludicrous, you say? Perhaps. But is it that much different from the designated hitter?

In 1972, Charles Finley, then owner of the Oakland A's, persuaded the Rules Committee to institute a new rule starting with the 1973 season. It became known as the DH, and for better or worse, it is now an established part of the game—at least in the American League. And that's unfortunate.

With few exceptions, owners know very little about the finer points of baseball. Could any of them explain the infield fly rule? Owners are businesspeople, and baseball is their business, often not even their primary business. The bottom line is all that matters. Finley wanted to boost attendance, and believed that giving more pop to the offense would bring in the fans. After all, pitchers are not known for their hitting prowess. Sure, Don Drysdale and a few others could swing the bat, but all in all, pitchers were defensive players. Watching them hit was like watching grass grow. Fans want action. The bottom line.

The stodgy Rules Committee in baseball seldom makes a rule change of any consequence. That is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, to quote the old axiom, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." One need look no farther than the Coca-Cola boardroom to see the wisdom in that saying. So my question to the venerable Rules Committee is simple: It wasn't broken; why did you try to fix it?

The most likely reply would be: The fans want action. They don't care to see a pitcher's battle. They want "excitement." Home runs. Double plays. Rhubarbs. Even beanballs, unfortunately, are grist for the entertainment mill. But these are the casual fans. Knowledgeable fans see beyond that. They appreciate the finer points. How the infield plays in or out, depending on the number of outs, the score, the man at bat, and countless other unseen factors. They see the pitcher throwing high and tight, or low and outside. While the casual fan may boo the pitcher for walking a batter in a crucial situation, knowledgeable fans know that it was not because the pitcher can't put the ball in the strike zone; major league pitchers can probably throw a strike 90 percent of the time. Rather, the pitcher walked the batter because it was the best alternative for the given situation.

Watch the pitcher throw over to first base when a runner is there. Does he really believe he can pick the runner off? Most of the time that is not his intent. But the boos that emanate from the stands every time a pitcher does this come from those who do not understand the situation. To them, throw the ball, hit the ball, run is the essence of the game. Preferably hit the ball out of the park. It's no longer a game; it's a home run derby.

Baseball, unlike most other major sports, is not a game of intense sustained action. It is not on a clock. It is, for the most part, not a physical encounter—body meeting body. As a result, there is more strategy, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and thinking. In the other major sports there isn't enough time to "strategize." A ten-second huddle in football or a twenty-second time-out in basketball is not conducive to complex strategies. Granted, there are offensive coordinators, defensive specialists, coaches, press box spotters, and various and sundry folk doing their best to outmaneuver the other side in football. But this is not the same as that which occurs in baseball. Baseball, with apologies to Bob Costas, is chess to the other sports' checkers.

The DH has, unfortunately, taken some of that dimension away. The AL manager no longer has to decide if he wants to pinch-hit for a pitcher who might be throwing well, thus removing him from the game. The pitcher can be more aggressive on the mound, knowing that he will not have to stand up at the plate with a stick of wood to protect him against a ninety-mile-per-hour fastball coming at him in retaliation for a hit batsman the inning before. The style of play between the two leagues is different. And that difference is due exclusively to the designated hitter. Very few American League teams play "small ball": bunts, stolen bases, squeeze plays—facets that makes the game interesting, even exciting, to the knowledgeable fan. It is noteworthy that the Anaheim Angels played "National League" ball when they defeated the San Francisco Giants in the 2002 World Series.

By my way of thinking, the DH has taken some of the fun out of the sport. I am a National League fan. I have watched many a game where the pitcher has come to bat in a run-scoring situation and helped his cause with a dribbler, a bunt, or even a home run. The DH is expected to produce in this situation. It is no surprise and, therefore, not nearly as exciting as when a pitcher delivers in the clutch. Some of the edge is gone. And watching the pitcher in situations where he is a part of the offense can be extremely entertaining. Can he, or will he, try to break up a double play with a hard slide into the second baseman? Will he try to score from second on a single to right field? After an active effort on offense, will his performance be affected when he has to pitch the next inning? One of the less obvious strategies in National League baseball concerns how to handle an opposing pitcher if and when he becomes a base-runner. Given the option, the defending team will go for an out with other runners, leaving the pitcher to run the bases. To paraphrase: "A pitcher on the base is worth two in the dugout." It's an advantage, however small.

But with the DH, the pitcher is reduced to being a spectator on offense. He has no part in it, and must rely solely on the efforts of his teammates to do the job. It just isn't as interesting a sport when the pitcher doesn't have to bat, doesn't have to contribute on offense.

Beyond the obvious, however, is the basic integrity of the game. Baseball was designed to have all the players play defense and offense. For that reason, once a player is removed from the game, he cannot return. No other major sport requires this. A catcher has a position behind the plate. The shortstop covers an area between second and third base. The basemen and outfielders all have their territories to patrol and protect. But when they are on offense, every player is equal. At bat, every player is essentially on his own. One man—a batter—against nine others. The fact that some batters may be stronger, faster, or better able to hit a high inside curve was of no importance to the founders of the game. Every batter has the same opportunity as the next. (Barry Bonds and the intentional walk is another story.) To put it simply, it is not a game for specialists. It is a multitask sport where one is required to hit as well as field, to run bases as well as catch or throw a ball. It is unique. And this uniqueness is what makes baseball special.

™here are some who would argue that baseball has become a game for specialists over the years. They point to the pinch hitter or, more importantly, the relief pitchers. There are long relievers, "setup" pitchers, and—of course—"closers." Today's closers are valuable commodities, and much in demand. No team could hope to compete without an effective closer. (It is no surprise that the Cy Young Award was given to a closer in 2003.)

This argument has some merit. But it does not justify the designated hitter. Specialists such as pinch hitters and relief pitchers work within the framework of the rules as they were written. A pinch hitter can only be used once in a game. After he has been removed he cannot return. The same holds for a relief pitcher. He may be called upon to face only one batter, sometimes throw only a single pitch. Then he is removed and cannot return.

To allow for the designated hitter, however, the rules had to be changed. The DH is essentially removed (as is the pitcher for whom he is batting) every time he completes a time at bat. (More correctly, he is removed once the inning ends and he does not take the field.) But he is allowed to return to the game. It just doesn't seem right.

Philosophy aside, the DH has failed to do what it was designed to do. Attendance has not increased in the American League more than it has in the National League. In the past three years, for example, the National League has outdrawn the American League in average attendance. Granted, these are raw figures and do not take into account markets, team quality, and so forth. As Mark Twain said: "There are lies. There are damned lies. And there are statistics." Suffice it to say that should one wish to research the figures, particularly attendance—the reason given for implementing the DH—he or she would find very little to justify its existence. If the owners really want more people coming through the gate, there are far better ways to achieve that result than using the DH as a drawing card.

Today's fans are more sophisticated than the fans of thirty years ago. They do not need gimmicks to pique their interest. A well-played game, be it a slugfest or a pitchers' battle, is fun to watch. A good part of this can be attributed to that much maligned invention called television. Former ballplayers acting as color men provide insights that help the viewer understand and appreciate the game. Good color men, like Mike Krukow and Joe Morgan, are valuable additions to the broadcast booth.

Charles Finley, in addition to coming up with the idea of the designated hitter, had proposed the use of orange baseballs for night games. He was also responsible for using sprinter Herb Washington as a pinch runner. Dodger pitcher Mike Marshall made a travesty of that plan in the World Series, and Washington's time in the major leagues was short if not sweet. God only knows what else Finley had in mind. Bases that lit up when touched, thus eliminating that boring, time-consuming appeal play? Abolish the curveball to make it easier for the batter? Pom-pom girls dancing on the dugout would lend a certain attraction.

More and more, baseball fans are expressing their displeasure with the DH. While I do not advocate wholesale or whimsical rules changes to placate the public, I strongly feel that baseball should heed valid and thoughtful opinions of those of us who cherish the sport. We are, after all, the "bottom line."

›t best, the DH has extended the career of some players and provided jobs for others who may not have had the defensive skills to make the everyday lineup. At the risk of sounding unfeeling, it is not baseball's role to take care of the players. Rather, baseball should look out for the interest of the fans. They have remained supportive of the game over the years, through the Black Sox scandal, strike-shortened seasons, salary disputes, lockouts, World Series cancellations, drug and steroid use, and the Pete Rose scandal. Baseball owes its fans the best possible product. Is it too much to ask for an unadulterated game with only one set of rules? Not in my book.

Like orange baseballs, Olympic-caliber pinch runners, and midget pinch hitters, the designated hitter is a gimmick. It adds little to the sport, and runs counter to the basic spirit of the game. It is time for the Rules Committee, without the presence of Charles Finley, to make another historic decision. And that is simply to repeal the only major rule change that they have made in living memory. Let's pinch-hit for the designated hitter, and then send him packing. I for one will not mourn his passing.

—EFQ

HERSCHEL COZINE is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many children's and adult magazines. He has published several online stories with Orchard Press Mysteries and Judas e-zine. A lifelong baseball fan, he lives in California's Bay Area with his wife, Sue.

© 2004 Herschel Cozine

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