The Designated Hitter Today and Tomorrow
Last week we took a look at how the Designated Hitter came to be. I will make no bones about it, I regard the DH as an abomination that distorts the game and skews results. Does it generate more offense? Historically it’s regarded as being worth about half a run a game, sometimes more. Over 162 games times 15, that’s a lot of runs. As you may remember the famous tag-line from the Nike commercials of the early Nineties featuring Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, “Chicks dig the long ball.” Certainly, since Babe Ruth and the end of the Dead Ball Era around 1920, we know that home runs (and home run hitters) sell tickets. It is no coincidence that the end of the Dead Ball Era coincided with the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 when baseball’s very integrity was called into question. The so-called “spit ball” was banned (only to be surreptitiously reclaimed by the likes of Gaylord Perry), and averages, offense and power numbers exploded in the 1920s, reaching peaks as the nation sank into the Great Depression.
Designated hitters over the years have tended to be great offensive players whose ability to play the field has declined past the point of no return; lumber yes, leather no. Some Hall of Famers such as Carl Yasztremski, George Brett, Paul Molitor and others have had productive sunset seasons after their last appearances defensively. At the same time, the prototypical Designated Hitter, the man for whom the annual award is made, Edgar Martinez, an unquestioned great hitter who retired from the field relatively early in his career, continues to be passed over the Hall of Fame; there is a kind of odor about the position that the voters cannot overcome, or at least have not yet (of course middle-infield wizards of the leather also suffer). This year we will watch Jim Thome conduct his final assault on 600 homers; without being able to retire to the AL to DH, Thome wouldn’t have reached 500.
It’s estimated that the DH adds 10-15% to the payroll of AL teams. This is another reason that makes the NL hesitate. Plus, attitudes in the AL seem to be shifting away from the idea of a “dedicated” DH, a veteran big bat with a commensurate big salary such as David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox. A great hitter coming off a fine season like Vladimir Guerrero has evidently misread the market; two weeks from the opening of camp, Vlad the Impaler is Vlad the Unemployed. Many teams are taking the approach that the DH spot is a place to rotate your players to give them “half-days” off.
Could the owners decide to push the Players’ Association on the DH? The MLBPA has long been enamored of the DH, since it historically has provided 14 players with large paychecks that might otherwise be filled by younger, cheaper alternatives. It’s possible that might be a bargaining chip.
Could you imagine the National Football League playing under two sets of rules? When the AFL and NFL merged, the differences were split: the AFL’s two-point conversion was adopted; the NFL’s slightly fatter ball became the standard (much to the detriment of one of my favorite players of the time, the Oakland Raiders’ Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica). When the NBA and ABA merged, the three-point shot stayed, the red-white-and-blue ball went. Baseball, however, continues to labor under disparate sets of circumstance.
Come to terms. Both leagues should play under the same rules. If that means the NL adopts the DH, so be it. There, surprised you, didn’t I?
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