Let them hit

I do not remember baseball before the DH. I was six years old when the designated hitter rule was implemented in the American league, and I have no memory at all of the discussion and fury that went with the rule change. The DH, for me, was just always there, like the sun or the Rolling Stones. But it’s more than that. Because I grew up in Cleveland and almost never saw National League baseball, I was only vaguely aware of pitchers hitting. When the World Series came around and pitchers hit, it felt almost exotic … like seeing barefoot kickers.

“Hmm,” I would think, “I wonder how this will turn out!”

It usually turned out with the pitcher striking out or bunting, of course, but as a full-blooded American Leaguer, the oddity of pitchers hitting was interesting enough in short spurts. And I guess this is the starting point: I grew up with pitchers hitting being the oddity, not the other way around. I kind of liked it for something different but make no mistake, for me and everyone I knew: Real baseball involved designated hitters.

Later, of course, I became much more aware of the game’s history, and I started to hear the arguments about why the designated hitter was an abomination and why National League baseball was purer, more strategic, baseball as God intended. I never really bought any of those arguments though. The strategy stuff always seemed like shaky logic to me. Yes, a manager has to double switch and make tricky decisions to avoid having their terrible-hitting pitchers come to the plate. But that’s not the sort of strategy that’s very interesting to me. It would be like, in football, being forced to play one person on the offensive line and defensive line who has never played football before. You would definitely need to employ intricate strategies to keep that person from messing up everything. But I don’t really want to see it.

Also, pitchers hitting means a lot more sacrifice bunting … and sacrifice bunting stinks. Last year there were 450 or so more sacrifice bunts in the National League than the American League. Pitchers hitting also means many more intentional walks. There were 350 more intentional walks in the NL. I don’t need to go over how much I despise the intentional walk. Blech.

The idea that baseball is “purer” with pitchers hitting is more gibberish to me. Pure baseball involves pitchers throwing underhand from a box 50 feet away from home plate, and the hitter saying “No, throw it a little higher.” The game is constantly evolving and, for my money, not fast enough. I thought Chris Rock’s epic takedown of baseball for alienating African Americans had numerous good points about the game’s stodginess and tendency to look backward.

Despite all of this, I still find myself oddly saddened by the new and increasing momentum to add the DH to the National League. The momentum was sparked by the terrible news that St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright will miss the rest of the season because of a nasty Achilles injury he suffered while running out a pop-up. In smaller letter news, Washington’s Max Scherzer also got hurt batting — he jammed his thumb, and he had his next start moved back. Both injuries were somewhat freak things, but with pitchers already getting hurt all the time, it’s sensible to ask whether or not pitchers should really be subjected to even a minor injury risk involving hitting and running.

The Wainwright injury, in particular, has given new weight to the argument that it’s time to add the DH to the National League. Throw in that Interleague Play is now year-round — making these DH rules seem capricious anyway — then tack on that run scoring is at 25-year lows and there’s definitely a new energy to the pro-DH arguments now. Theyareeverywhereandtheyareferocious. And for me, a lifelong DH guy, it’s pretty hard to make a compelling case for pitchers hitting based on the arguments that have been made.

But I can’t put away this feeling that we will be losing something if the National League starts using the DH. Maybe it’s something we already lost but … I still wonder.

Twenty or so years ago, I was somewhat against Interleague Play in baseball. Well, looking back, I see a column I wrote for The Cincinnati Post in 1996 under the headline, “Road to ruin: Interleague competition,” so I guess it was a little bit more against it than I remember.

“Understand,” I wrote, “this Interleague Play is a rotten, stupid, lousy idea. And this has nothing to do with the purity of the game … Would it be interesting to see the Indians and Reds play? Mets and Yankees? Cubs and White Sox? Sure. The first time. Maybe the second time. Then what? Then it will become another game.”

Here we are, 19 years later … and I would say that what I wrote then has turned out to be partly true. It is true that there is no mega buzz when the Royals and Cardinals or Cubs and White Sox or Yankees and Mets play … but, to be fair, those games are still a little bit special in their towns. Last year, when the Reds and Indians played, for instance, they drew about 20,00 or so per game in Cleveland (better than their typical Monday-Tuesday crowds). They drew 32,000 per game in Cincinnati (a little better than their typical Wednesday-Thursday crowds). I think my bigger point was on but let’s concede that some Interleague games are slightly more interesting.

My concern about Interleague Play then was really bigger than that, even if I didn’t quite get it into words in 1996. I felt strongly that Interleague Play would fundamentally change the game from two distinct leagues into one mishmash of a league. And that HAS happened. And I think that has hurt the game.

The American and National Leagues used to be very different leagues. They, of course, began as rivals and competitors, with some very harsh feelings between them. Then there was an uneasy peace between them. But for more than almost 100 years, they had different strategies. At times, they had different rules. More, they had different ways of playing baseball. It’s easy to forget that the American League began as a league to counter the stinginess and rough nature of the National League.

The National League was much faster to integrate, which led to it being the more exciting league in the 1950s and into the ‘60s — the National League had Mays and Aaron and Clemente, Jackie and Frank Robinson, Gibson and Banks and Allen and Flood and Wills and so on. The American League, basically, had the Yankees.

Then, in the 1970s, the American League added the DH, and this led to seeing old hitting legends like Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew and Yaz for a little longer, it led to the careers of Molitor and Baines and Frank Thomas and Big Papi and Edgar. When I was young, National League fans watched Craig Swan and Bob Shirley hit, and I watched Andre Thornton. I felt like I was getting the better of that deal.

Two distinct leagues added something to the game. Mystery. The All-Star game died when Interleague Play began … what was the point any more? The World Series got less interesting too. There was no mystery, no intrigue, no curiosity when the Kansas City Royals played the San Francisco Giants in the Series. Why would there be? They had played a three-game set in August.

I know most people don’t mourn this, and most people like Interleague Play (according to the polls I see) and maybe they’re right … but I liked having two leagues, completely separate, developing their own strategies and styles. That’s why I would love now to see a real World Series between the U.S. champion and the Japanese champion. That’s a clash of different ideas about the game. The World Series now is two teams from one league who happen to survive the playoff gauntlet.

Anyway, I have this dream — one I know will never come true — that baseball will realize the value of having different leagues with different philosophies about what baseball is all about. The last bastion of that is the DH. It’s the one thing that makes the National League and American League different.

And people feel strongly about it. Most of the National League fans I know don’t just like having pitchers hit, they love it. They love the rhythm of baseball with a pitcher hitting, how it breaks up the game, how it limits the chances a team has of scoring runs, how it demands that managers think ahead and make moves that they might not be entirely comfortable with making. Most of the National League fans I know have NO interest in just adding another pretty good hitter to the lineup rather than having the pitcher hit. Most of the National League fans I know despise the DH and view it as a crass 1970s gimmick that nobody ever bothered to stop, not unlike Billy Joel.*

*OK, no, stop, kidding, don’t send me those Billy Joel emails, I’m sorry, that was a cheap shot intended only for my pal Vac, who I am having a longstanding Billy Joel fight with. Billy Joel is not a gimmick, I’m sorry, really, I’m sorry.

That is to say, most National League fans I know are firmly opposed to the DH philosophically just as most American League fans I know think having pitchers hit is kind of dumb. Maybe young NL fans are different. Maybe the threat of injury is enough to change some minds. Maybe I just don’t know enough of those National League fans who crave the DH.

While people talk about the rightness of having baseball under one system, if I was commissioner, I would go in exactly the opposite direction. I’d try to eliminate Interleague Play and make the two leagues 16 and 14 teams respectively (we can worry about the details later). I’d try, within reason (and with Player’s Association approval), to limit movement between the two leagues. I’d try to encourage the American and National League presidents to try different things to make their leagues fulfill the visions of their fans … maybe one league would experiment with ball-strike video technology, maybe one league would try a new extra-inning system, maybe one league would try innovative ways to speed up the game or discourage intentional walks or limit pitching changes or find ways to allow players to express their joy more. The game must respect and connect to its history. But it must evolve too.

In other words, I may not like pitchers hitting, I may not be willing to defend the logic of it, but I’d still like for pitchers to hit in the National League. I don’t have to like it. That’s a National League thing. And I am, from birth, an American League person.

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