I’m here today to lobby for more Herb Washingtons. Lots more, and in a vastly different, expanded context, possibly for what could lead to baseball’s most radical change since the American League’s implementation of the designated hitter in 1973.
Hurricane Herb, for those who don’t know or those challenged to recall, was Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley’s best case for getting Major League Baseball to embrace his idea of the designated runner in the early ′70s.
Finley was way ahead of his time with Washington, the blazing sprinter out of Michigan State, but the irascible owner was restricted by the framework of the MLB rulebook. Truth was, because of the rules that still exist, Washington was nothing more than a glorified pinch runner, his effectiveness not nearly what it could be today with a tweak of the rulebook.
Then-skipper Alvin Dark only could drop Washington into games at the expense of pulling someone out of the game. Washington, 22, lasted through the 1974 season, was a member of the A’s winning World Series team, and then was cut early the following season and never seen again, the idea of the DR disappearing with him. He succeeded with 31 of his 48 steal attempts.
Nearly a half-century later, the rulebook hasn’t changed: pinch runner in, player out. But what if it wasn’t that way? What if MLB changed the rulebook a tiny bit and made room for a true DR to have a major impact?
An effective, exciting, potential industry-changing use of a designated runner would include:
▪ Free, unfettered substitution on the basepaths. The DR enters the game solely as the runner, and not at the expense of any player, including the one he swaps in for, being sidelined for the remainder of the game.
Example: A hobbled J.D. Martinez, having just doubled off the wall, would surrender his spot at second base to the DR, a guy with burning speed and considered a sure shot to score on a single. Martinez, now on the bench, would remain in the lineup, be it as DH or as an outfielder, and keep his spot in the batting order. He is not done for the day. He’ll get his next rips, and the DR, too, can reenter the action at the manager’s discretion as the innings unfold.
▪ The DR could not be used until the opponent’s starting pitcher has been pulled for a reliever. Maybe Yankees manager Aaron Boone would have thought twice about taking out Gerrit Cole after only six outs in the American League Wild Card Game if he knew Alex Cora had access to a longer Red Sox bench, one with a speed demon who can be placed on base repeatedly throughout the remainder of the game.
How about the manager whose starter just gave up a leadoff double in the sixth? Sure, he can hook his guy and go to the bullpen, but then Cora can swap out the player who just doubled for a blazer who only has to eat up 180 feet to add another run. The guy who just doubled? He’s focusing on his next at-bat.
Decisions. Strategy. Speed. Excitement. All coming to a ballpark near you with a simple change in the rulebook, one that many of today’s casual fans (i.e. most of them) probably wouldn’t detect.
If you’re thinking this is not the way the game is played, that’s precisely the point. The idea here is to break away from the same ol’, same ol’ MLB, the game that now has even its few remaining purists grousing about long games that too often turn into boring home run and strikeout fests.
It looks from here like it’s impossible to trim back the length of games, especially in the postseason when TV spots rush to the screen every three outs louder and faster than a herd of stampeding wildebeests. It only will get worse as the gaming industry demands more space in the broadcasts, more time for viewers to place bets.
The games of the 1967 and ‘75 World Series, just to take two random gems, were played in an average 2:23 and 2:38, respectively. That does not count the Game 6, 12-inning epic in ‘75, ending with Carlton Fisk’s homer off the foul pole, that lasted 4:01 (shorter, by the way, than three of the six games the Astros and Red Sox played in this year’s ALCS).
The six games of this year’s World Series took at average 3:38 to play. Bubba, you can bet your last slice of Big Yaz Bread we’re not going back to the world of 2:23 or 2:38.
It was a far more frustrating issue, a central part of the Red Sox’ failed ALCS this year, that triggered the idea of the designated runner. Over the six games, the Red Sox and Astros each stranded 37 runners, 74 in total, in a series in which they combined for 64 runs.
Over the final three ALCS games, all Boston losses, the Sox were outscored, 23-3, and stranded 17 runners, compared with Houston’s 21. But while the Sox went a stupefying 0 for 17 with runners in scoring position, the Astros cashed in at 11 for 32 (.375).
No knowing, of course, if a latter-day Herb Washington, popped into each of those games, say, four or five times, could have changed the fate of any of the Red Sox 17 LOBs. The fastest guy alive can’t deliver the hit that brings him around from second or third. We’d need a much bigger change in the rulebook to get that done.
Meanwhile, the 1975 Topps baseball card of Washington is believed to be the only one in baseball history to carry “pinch run” as his position. In his 105 big league games, Hurricane Herb stole 31 bases, never made a single plate appearance, never took the field … and really never had a chance to succeed.
A call to Sportsworld, the collectibles shop in Saugus, failed to turn up a copy of Washington’s card.
“Sorry, don’t have one right now,” said owner Phil Castinetti, sifting through his humongous inventory of cards. “But I can get you one … they only go for about 50 cents.”
Small price for Washington’s commensurate amount of fame. Who knows what might have been, or could be, if the designated runner ever was really given some room to run?
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.