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

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