How a Gimmick Ruined My Favorite Sport

added 6/12/2012 by Bob Hulsey

Visit almost any youth baseball team and you'll quickly learn that the best athletes on the team are the shortstop, the center fielder and the pitcher. The center fielder has to fly around the outfield, the shortstop has to combine cat-like quickness and a powerful arm while the pitcher, well, the pitcher controls the outcome of the game more than anyone else on the field.

It should be no surprise then that many of the players who were not pitchers taken in the just-concluded June draft were, at some time, asked to pitch.

Only as they grew older and the game became more specialized were pitchers instructed not to hit. Many of them were not bad hitters at all but they had to focus their attention on the skills of pitching rather than how to hit.

When they got as high as the major leagues, many of the best pitchers were not as talented with the bat as the best hitters but you could still find the occasional guy who could strike fear in opponents with a stick in their hands despite being the pitcher (disregard Juan Marichal for the moment).

Back in 1966, Tony Cloninger of the Braves belted two grand slams and drove in nine runs in one game while he pitched a 17-3 victory. Every decade had some guys like Ken Brett (George's brother), Rick Wise or Carlos Zambrano who were a weapon at the plate. Astro fans were blessed to have guys like Mike Hampton and Brandon Backe who could deliver with the bat.

In the early 1970s, as attendance dwindled and scoring fell, baseball toyed with the idea of replacing the pitcher's spot in the lineup with a "designated hitter" to put more offense and excitement into the game. The American League decided to experiment with this rule, beginning in 1973.

The idea was attacked as a "gimmick" but now the DH has almost engulfed every level of the sport except for the National League. One consequence of the sale of the Astros last year was the forced switch of the ballclub to the American League and, with it, forcing future Hamptons and Backes to take a seat when their turn to hit comes up.

You could probably blame the success of the DH on Tony Oliva. The eight-time All-Star of the Twins had won three batting titles but missed most of the 1972 season after knee surgery. The DH rule allowed him to come back in 1973 to hit .291 with 16 homers and 92 RBIs while never wearing a glove. For the rest of his career, Oliva never took the field again as a defender.

The Players Union immediately saw the benefit. A star player could sign a big contract and pay higher union dues while prolonging his career as a batter for hire even though his body was no longer up to the pounding of playing a position. The Twins, too, saw the benefit of having another star to market.

But baseball purists wailed as they noted the loss of strategy and the lack of nuance when bunts and hit-and-runs were replaced by more three-run homers.

Personally, that lack of strategy reduces my enjoyment of the sport. I want to think along with the manager about when to make personnel moves - whether to pinch-hit for the pitcher or how to negotiate that spot in the order during a critical point in the game.

The American League game with the DH is like checkers where all the pieces have exactly the same value and the same duties. The National League game without the DH is more like chess where the knight moves one way and the rook moves another while a bishop moves still another. You find yourself sacrificing a pawn in order to protect a piece of more value or flexibility. You have to understand what each piece can do so you can not only maximize their offensive contributions but also not leave your defense vulnerable.

In Sunday's 11-9 win over the American League Chicago White Sox, the Astros simply left the same nine players in the lineup the entire time. The only drama was in wondering whether the bullpen would cough up a big lead and require the closer to come in. Had this been a National League contest, we might have seen the manager juggle pinch-hitters and defensive changes in order to get the most out of his bench and bullpen.

Some defenders of the DH complain that all pitchers ever do is make an out or bunt. Yet that lineup liability opens up so many possible strategies. And, frankly, few things deflate the opposition more than when a pitcher gets a hit (or, worse, when they draw a walk).

Through Sunday, Astros pitchers have hit .133 in 105 at bats. They've also drawn four walks. That means that roughly one out of every seven times they come up in a non-sacrifice situation, the pitcher gets on base. Is eliminating the number of outs caused by pitchers batting worth the loss of strategy from not having a pitchers spot in the batting order?

The defenders of the DH would tell you "of course". They'll point to how the DH is now used all over the world at every competition level except the National League, preening that it must be popular or nobody would be using it.

But that argument would also support the need for the majors to switch to aluminum bats. Just because something is common doesn't make it necessarily correct.

The original purpose of the DH was to increase attendance. It did give the American League a temporary jolt when it was first introduced but if the style of play is so popular, why were eight of the bottom ten teams in major league attendance from last year American League teams and seven of the bottom ten this year? If the AL style is so popular, why did they have to hold a new owner at financial gunpoint in order to get his team to switch to it?

I'd argue that the DH flourishes at other levels of the sport because of the perceived increase in participation or purpose rather than a preference of style. In youth leagues, coaches and managers want to get as many people into the game as possible. Mommy and Daddy sit in the stands and they don't sit there for three hours to watch their son scratch his crotch in the dugout. They come to see him play. Ten people in the lineup means one less set of parents nagging the coach to put their son in the game.

In the minor leagues, the organization wants their hitters hitting and their pitchers pitching so the DH gives the management more chances to evaluate their players while putting them in fewer unfamiliar situations. Since wins and losses aren't paramount, this lets players work on the particular skill they'll need at the next level, even if it reduces the importance of that particular contest.

Then, of course, there's the "chicks dig the long ball" mentality that says people come to the ballpark to watch home runs the way auto racing viewers come to the track to watch the pileups. They may pretend to understand the nuances of the sport but they really just want the violence of bat making ball travel a long way.

Now it has reached the point where American Leaguers whine that it's unfair whenever the DH isn't allowed. They bring it up every time a pitcher hurts himself batting or running the bases. They moan whenever a fielding-impaired oaf like David Ortiz has to don a glove and stand in the field. Oh, the humanity!

The American League fan can be smug in knowing that the Players Union is on their side and the Commissioners Office, while feigning neutrality, would also like to see both leagues act as one. Within ten years, many predict, the National League will be forced to adopt the DH full time. No more Cloningers.

Who knows? Maybe Babe Ruth would have gone his whole career as a top lefthanded pitcher if the DH was invented 60 years earlier.

So while "nine-on-nine" baseball, the way it is meant to be played, may be in its death throes, fans in Houston and throughout Texas will have to adjust to the loss of one more American icon in the name of "progress". Devoted fans of National League rules will now have to travel as far as St. Louis or Atlanta to see a pitcher bat in person.

The game will be poorer for it even as the players and their union get richer.