Baseball is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.
At least it used to be that way until Ron Blomberg became the major league’s first designated hitter in 1973. Now, for a DH, baseball has become even simpler: You eat some cheese fries. You hit the ball. You eat some more cheese fries.
Fortunately, this less-than-strenuous regimen might not last much longer. Baseball team owners have notified the players’ union of the possibility the DH will not exist in 1999. The DH is a part of playing rules, and owners said they can therefore phase it out without first receiving approval from the players’ union.
Players want to keep the DH for obvious reasons. First, the rule is responsible for the employment of 14 players – one for each American League team – and there’s little chance Donald Fehr and the players’ union willingly would sacrifice those jobs.
The rule allows crusty veterans, such as Chili Davis and Cecil Fielder, to earn between $3 million and $7 million a season when they otherwise would be worthless. Artifacts of the mid-1980s such as Harold Baines and Eddie Murray, who are more suited for senior citizen golf tournament than the major leagues, play well past their primes thanks to the DH.
Worst of all, the DH singlehandedly creates Hall of Famers. Of the players who have reached 3,000 career hits during this decade, only Robin Yount did so minus the aid of the DH rule. Neither Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor nor George Brett would have achieved that milestone were their careers dependent upon their ability to play defense. Spectacular careers notwithstanding, these players’ lifetime stats should be accompanied by asterisks the size of baseballs when compared with those of their Cooperstown contemporaries.
Such a move by the owners would be good for baseball on even more fronts. The American League’s big-thunder offensive philosophy has left the junior circuit totally devoid of the strategy that all big-league managers used to invoke. In the National League, managers play for the run. If the lead-off hitter gets on base, the No. 2 man bunts him into scoring position. An NL team can send half its lineup to the plate and see a total of only six pitches from the opposition.
When was the last time you saw Roberto Alomar or Alex Rodriguez bunt? With their brand of smash-mouth baseball, AL teams play for the six-run inning. A typical lineup card might feature one hitter who doesn’t bring the house on every swing. As a result, ERAs are higher, and games progress more slowly.
Sure, AL games are longer, too, but it’s the glacial pace of the contests that make them unbearable. With AL lineups stacked from top to bottom, pitchers avoid home plate like the plague. They go deep into the count in hopes of getting the big guns to chase bad pitches. Innings drag on longer than an episode of “The Young and the Restless.” (The refusal of AL umpires to enforce the strike zone doesn’t help much, either.)
Contrary to popular belief, the last thing baseball needs is more offense. Any time Brady Anderson hits 50 dingers in a season, or a 4.86 ERA automatically qualifies you as your team’s ace, it’s usually a good indicator that the big leagues aren’t hurting for run production.
What baseball does need is credibility. With players rejecting $10 million-a-year contract offers and owners dismantling world-champion teams, fans are looking for any excuse to walk away from baseball for good. It’s difficult to
maintain credibility when Terry Pendleton is still in the majors by virtue of the designated hitter rule.
You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. It’s baseball the way it ought to be.
Of course, if guys such as Davis and Pendleton insist on hanging around the game until they’re 80, maybe they should look into employment at ballpark concession stands. Rumor has it they serve up some great cheese fries.