At a point when this country is deeply divided on the best path to move forward it’s fitting that the national pastime is celebrating 40 years of ideological division and unresolved debate in the batter’s box.
This season marks the 40th anniversary of the designated hitter, a commemoration of four decades of Major League Baseball being a game divided against itself. The DH is baseball’s 38th parallel, bifurcating the American League and National League.
How is that in the 40 years since the first DH in major league history, Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees, strode to the plate to face Luis Tiant on a wind-whipped day at Fenway Park on April 6, 1973, that we have a unified Germany and a disunited set of baseball playing rules?
It’s time baseball’s Cold War ended and the game was placed on a level playing field. With the move of the Houston Astros to the American League this season, putting 15 teams in each league and necessitating near daily interleague play, the National League needs to adopt the DH.
If commissioner Bud Selig wants to cement his legacy as an agent of change and innovation for MLB, then he should usher in this uniformity to the playing rules.
This suggestion is anathema to fans of the senior circuit and traditionalists who rhapsodize over the double switch, well-placed sacrifice bunts, and the strategic permutations that are part of the DNA of National League baseball. But NL baseball, while entertaining, quirky, and the producer of the last three World Series winners, is the steam engine to a turbocharged V-6.
Like every other sport, baseball has evolved into a highly specialized endeavor. Pitchers should pitch and hitters should hit. I don’t want to watch Tom Brady tackle, and I don’t want to watch Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers swing a bat (more on the Dodgers ace later).
Baseball is the only one of the major North American team sports that has separate rules for separate leagues. Imagine if the NBA made the 3-pointer legal in the Eastern Conference, but not the Western Conference? It would be ludicrous.
Having the DH in just the American League was a compromise of convenience from the beginning.
Concerned about sagging attendance, American League owners pushed for the DH. On Jan. 11, 1973, commissioner Bowie Kuhn broke a stalemate between the 12 AL teams and the 12 NL teams, which were deadlocked on implementing the DH for three seasons on an experimental basis.
The American League would. The National League would not.
“I hope it works,” Kuhn said that day, according to a New York Times account. “I would have preferred that both leagues did it. But if it’s successful in one, then I hope the National follows suit.”
National League president Charles S. Feeney said, “We like the game the way it is.”
Those positions and quotes — like the rules dichotomy — have stood the test of time.
The DH wasn’t allowed in the World Series until 1976. From 1976 to 1985 baseball had the absurd practice of using the DH in all World Series games in even-numbered years and banning it completely in odd-numbered years.
Since 1986, World Series games have been played by AL rules in AL parks and NL rules in NL parks. The same format has been used since the adoption of interleague play.
A soft opening for making the DH standard practice would be mandating its use in NL parks during interleague play.
The novelty of interleague play has worn off. One way to invigorate it would be to play with American League rules in National League parks and National League rules in American League venues, giving fans an opportunity to experience live how the other half lives.
Opponents of the DH would argue that uniformity could be brought to baseball by the DH’s demise. MLB has threatened this in the past, but it’s not going to happen.
The Major League Baseball Players Association never will allow the abolition of the DH, a tool that allows players to stay in the game longer and drives up player salaries. They would rather agree to a salary cap — the most heretical words in the Gospel of Marvin Miller — first.
Plus, the DH is a winning proposition for players, owners, and managers. A team like the Red Sox gets to keep David Ortiz as the face of the franchise and a sorely needed good-will ambassador.
Ortiz doesn’t get squeezed financially the same way aging NFL players have this offseason.
Managers, second-guessed by fans about whether they should have had Cheerios or Chex for breakfast, have fewer decisions that can be derided and dissected because they don’t have to worry about pinch hitting for a pitcher in a crucial situation.
One set of playing rules also would help front offices make better evaluations on whether a pitcher who has succeeded in the NL can translate to the AL.
Admittedly, some thrilling moments would be lost if pitchers no longer swung the bat. One of the most memorable tableaus from Opening Day 2013 was Kershaw breaking a scoreless tie against the San Francisco Giants with a stunning eighth-inning home run at Dodger Stadium.
The Big Blue lefty became the first pitcher since Bob Lemon of the Cleveland Indians in 1953 to throw a shutout and hit a home run in an opener.
But Kershaw is a career .147 hitter in 337 at-bats. The homer was the first of his career and his second career extra-base hit.
An entire generation of baseball fans and players has grown up with the DH woven into the fabric of the game, yet MLB remains as it has been for 40 years, a league separated at the seams by two sets of rules.
It’s time to go to bat for some sanity.