TORONTO – It’s easy to understand why the National League snobs tend to fight the concept of the designated hitter. I know. I was once one of them.
Used to be that there was a running gag among baseball writers back in the late 80s. Guys who covered NL teams wanted to be managers; guys who covered American League teams wanted to be general managers. This, of course, was back when the leagues meant something: different presidents, different league offices, different umpires and different rules. There was a real sense that the game itself flowed differently: the NL was faster and cleaner. The AL was messy. Misshapen. The NL was San Francisco. Montreal. The AL was Oakland. Cleveland. Detroit … Detroit!!!
Even the Los Angeles-based AL team was kind of white bread. Anaheim. Really? Compared to the romance of Dodger Stadium, it was no contest …
And, of course, the pitchers hit. Or, at least they stood at the plate. That meant the decision to remove a pitcher from the game wasn’t just dictated by his effectiveness; when he was due up in the next inning also played a role. It also meant that if you wanted to start a bean-brawl war, well, you were effectively making yourself a target as well. So not only was the NL game cleaner and smarter … it was more just. Or, something like that.
Now, I’m not comfortable sitting here and declaring the death of pitchers hitting just because Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters on Thursday following quarterly meetings that: “Twenty years ago, when you talked to National League owners about the DH, you'd think you were talking some sort of heretical comment. But we have a newer (ownership) group. There has been turnover, and I think our owners in general have demonstrated a willingness to change the game in ways that we think would be good for the fans, always respecting the history and traditions of the sport."
As Manfred has already shown, his herd of sacred cows is significantly smaller than that of his predecessor, Bud Selig. We saw this early in his tenure when instead of skating around the issue of baseball returning to Montreal, he said it was absolutely a possibility, going further to say that it would be irresponsible to demand a new ballpark be completed before a team moved to the city – that, essentially, a show of good faith (sound financing and logistics) would be enough to pique baseball’s interest.
From press reports following Thursday’s meetings, it was clear that even though many NL general managers are open to the idea of adopting the DH, ownership is less inclined to do so – even though Manfred felt emboldened enough to suggest the matter could be brought up in this year’s collective bargaining with the Major League Baseball Players Association which, theoretically at least, opens the door for the adoption of the DH as early as 2017.
I’ve come around to the DH – although not enough to vote Edgar Martinez into the Hall of Fame. Seeing a pitcher with a bat in his hand makes me weep; watching some gilt-edged arm squaring to bunt against this generation of hard throwers with filthy stuff makes me sick to my stomach. Plus, while I liked a well-pitched, crisply-played, tight defensive game as much as the next baseball fan, the simple fact is that offence keeps diminishing. Post-steroid baseball might be better for the soul, but I think inserting another bat into the lineup of NL teams might prime the pump a little bit. I’d certainly rather see that than have baseball tinker with the pitcher’s mound or give in to the insanity of the pitch clock, which will just put more pressure on the currency of the realm: pitching, specifically young pitching. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Marcus Stroman’s ligaments or muscles rushed suddenly in a game in which he’s battling his control just because he catches sight of the game clock running down.
So, yeah, I’d be open to the NL adopting the DH. It would remove the unfairness of AL teams getting short-changed when they travel to NL parks for inter-league play. It also, frankly, increases the flexibility for ownership should baseball ever decide to undergo another realignment – perhaps significant realignment – as a result of franchise movement or expansion.
So will we see the DH in the NL any time soon? It’s no coincidence that this discussion is being held now, since Manfred and ownership is on the verge of beginning its first round of collective bargaining negotiations with Tony Clark and the MLBPA. Clark replaced the late Michael Weiner, who in turn had replaced Donald Fehr. Manfred, as commissioner, will no longer be ownerships’ lead negotiator. In other words, everything that is done, said or even mused by Manfred or anybody else in the game must be viewed in the context of labour negotiations.
There have been rumblings for the past two seasons that some big market teams want a reworking of revenue sharing; players, meanwhile, wouldn’t mind seeing the system of qualifying offers overhauled. And what about the possibility of taxi squads, which would allow a team to carry, say, two extra pitchers plus a catcher but still declare a roster of 25 men for any one game? Yesterday’s starter and tomorrow’s starter, who wouldn’t be used anyhow, could be placed on the taxi squad, their spots taken by maybe a usable arm or another bat or a catcher (handy for a team carrying somebody like Josh Thole, no?) Let’s see: that’s two or three more big-league jobs multiplied by 30 teams. Think the players might trade something for that? Or how about that 154-game regular-season schedule that is oft-discussed?
So while I don’t know if we’ll see the DH in the NL as early as next season, I do know this: with Manfred as commissioner, we’re going to be talking openly about things that were in the past merely spoken sotto voce, and when that happens, change usually follows and as ownership turns over, fewer owners and teams will be wedded to the past. If the DH is on the table, so are a lot of other things – which is the way it should be.