Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ditch the DH

It’s Opening Day, and I don’t care what the weather’s like: spring is here. The start of the baseball season is psychological springtime, every year. You can’t explain the appeal of baseball to somebody that just doesn’t get it. It’s all tied up with childhood, the cycle of the seasons, optimism and rebirth and all that jazz. Besides, it means the warm weather is coming.

So I’m happy today. I’ll even try not to be a curmudgeon about the designated hitter. OK, I tried there for a second. Now listen up: once again this summer American League teams will play all their games in violation of the fundamental rules of baseball. Corrupted by this example, amateur teams across the country will follow suit, and countless games of baseball will be played by two teams of ten players each, with two players on each side leaving and then re-entering the game several times, in flagrant violation of the substitution rules. This infraction of baseball’s fundamental laws will enjoy the sanction of its highest governing bodies.

This is, of course, a scandal. But sadly, the designated hitter doesn’t provoke arguments any more. There just aren’t many people around making serious and principled arguments against it. Unless we can revive the outrage, we risk seeing this abomination become a permanent and unquestioned part of the game.

So what’s wrong with the DH? First, it violates the principle that every player goes both ways, that every player must play defense and offense. From prehistoric times, a baseball player has had to be able to catch, throw and field a position. If you didn’t have a glove, you couldn’t play. The advent of the DH has produced the baseball equivalent of the football punter, trotted out a few times a game to do his special trick, and hapless if asked to do anything else. In baseball it’s the lug who can hit the ball a mile (if he connects) but can’t throw or track down a fly ball to save his hide, and may not even own a glove.

I can hear you saying that the baseball equivalent of the punter has existed all along: the pitcher who steps to the plate to bat and looks as feeble as Granny at the family picnic. Sure, Dean Chance and his like were a sorry spectacle. But there have always been pitchers who can hit. Surely the pleasure of seeing Rick Sutcliffe knock one out in the playoffs is worth sitting through a few feeble at-bats by lesser athletes in the number nine spot. The reasons why pitchers don’t hit as well as position players are complex, but still insufficient to justify the DH. We should expect pitchers to at least try to hit, even if we recognize that as a group they will never do it as well as outfielders (or even utility infielders).

This brings us to the crucial point, the fundamental reason why the designated hitter is an abomination. The DH is wrong because it is based on a notion that has done great harm to American society in the past few decades: the notion that if people fail to meet standards, the correct response is to abolish the standards. It started in education: sometime in the sixties, the idea began to gain currency that when students fail to work up to standard, the only humane response is to lower the standards.

It was this idea that gave birth to the DH. “Pitchers can’t hit? So why make them? We’ll give them a pass. We’ll let these oafs who can’t field bat for them. We'll spare them both some embarrassment and while we're at it we’ll save the game, which is in dire distress because there isn’t as much scoring as in basketball.”

This latter idiocy, of course, was part of the package: the idea that baseball was dying because the public wouldn’t support a game unless scoring took place at promiscuous levels. This delusion grew with the decline in offense that occurred in the late sixties. Anybody who truly understood (and valued) the game knew that the batting freeze of the sixties was a phase that would eventually pass, as of course it did, even in the DH-less National League. The frenzy to “save” baseball took grotesque forms, including proposals to widen the foul lines, play baseball by the clock, and other idiotic ideas. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

With the unhappy exception of the designated hitter. We’ve had a generation of the designated hitter now, and we can compare DH baseball to the real thing. Has National League ball been less exciting than American League ball? Have NL fans left the ballpark in droves, disgusted by the sight of pitchers at the plate, bored to distraction by a dearth of offense? It was steroids, not the DH, that led to the last offensive explosion in baseball, and anyway that made us all realize that maybe offense isn’t everything. All the DH has done is to inflate AL offensive statistics, prolong a few careers (at the expense of a few young ballplayers stuck on the bench, it should be noted), saved a few pitchers a little embarrassment. It has made life simpler for AL managers. It has devalued the notion of the complete ballplayer and robbed some pitchers of a chance to show what they can do (sorry, you won’t be seeing Dontrelle Willis at the plate this year).

The DH has had its run. It is time for those responsible for the well-being of our game to come to their senses and send it back where it came from. It is time for the designated hitter to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lonely Colombia

It seems war has been averted in the northern part of South America, as Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador agreed to disagree at an emergency session of the Organization of American States in the Dominican Republic this week. This followed Colombia’s bombing of a jungle base on Ecuadoran territory which killed Raúl Reyes, a top leader of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the rebel group that has posed a serious threat to the Colombian state for thirty years. The raid elicited outraged reactions not only from Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, but also from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Venezuela and Ecuador sent troops to the Colombian border, and for a few nervous days it seemed as if a real shooting war might break out. The OAS meeting restored calm by agreeing to investigate the matter but, tellingly, stopped short of condemning Colombia. The countries have re-established diplomatic relations and sent the troops back to the barracks.

Mexico is up in arms as well, since it emerged that several Mexican students who were in the camp were killed or wounded. Demonstrations all over the region are condemning Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe for ordering the raid, and President Bush’s declared support for Uribe is taken as evidence that this is yet another case of U.S.-backed oppression of those who would lead Latin America out of poverty and underdevelopment. The FARC has the ear of the world’s university students and those whose sympathies lie on the political left.

Who you root for depends on your political convictions, of course, but it’s getting harder to pretend that the FARC is a legitimate political and social movement. They may have been starry-eyed idealists thirty years ago, but as Colombia has become more prosperous and more democratic, the FARC has become more and more criminalized. Their principal lines these days are drugs and kidnapping for ransom, both of which are lucrative enough to keep them going, but neither of which makes much of a political platform. Colombia’s previous president, Andrés Pastrana, declared a cease-fire, handed over a large chunk of the country to the FARC as a safe zone and started negotiations, only to see the FARC use the breathing room to step up recruiting and widen its drug and kidnapping operations. Many of the FARC’s hostages were kidnapped during the supposed negotiations and some have been held for years.

On the other side, Colombia is a functioning democracy, with alternation of power by elections, an array of genuine political parties and a free press. It is admittedly a democracy under stress, and the Colombian elite has been criticized for its links to the vicious right-wing militias which were as bad or worse than the FARC, but two things should be pointed out: the right wing paramilitaries emerged relatively recently, as a response to the government’s inability to stem rebel violence, and Uribe has made great efforts to dismantle them. The fact that perfect justice has not been achieved (some paramilitary leaders have gotten off lightly) should not obscure the fact that in Colombia today the principal source of violence is the depredations of the FARC, not the paramilitaries or the state.

As for Chávez, his reaction was a guilty one: computers seized by Colombian commandos at the site of the raid allegedly indicate that Chávez has been secretly funding the FARC. If proven, this is much more of an act of war than anything Colombia has done. Meanwhile, under Chávez’s stewardship, Venezuela’s agricultural output has tumbled, requiring it to import large quantities of food from the same Colombia Chávez threatened with war this week, and oil output is declining as Chávez squanders the oil wealth on utopian social schemes, proving again that socialist ideologues should never be trusted with the reins of an economy (see Zimbabwe). Chávez knows that a little saber-rattling helps to distract people from his own incompetence.

Colombia deserves our support in this fight. It is a struggling democracy whose principal problems come from abroad: the raging drug war imposed by the U.S. and the Neanderthal political vision of Hugo Chávez and the FARC, who learned nothing from the fall of communism. Álvaro Uribe has one of the toughest jobs on earth, and he is doing a creditable job.

Sam Reaves