Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Designated Weirdness

As reliably as Columbus Day or Halloween, every October guarantees a bunch of sportswriters filing stories about the awful dilemma facing the manager of the American League’s World Series team: What do we do with our designated hitter in the road games, when the game is played by National League, DH-free rules? Do we sacrifice offense and put our DH on the bench? Or jeopardize our defense by letting him play in the field?

As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci points out, however, it’s hard to doubt that playing the World Series with alternating sets of rules is a serious disadvantage to the National League: “Colorado’s curious use of Ryan Spilborghs as DH in Boston (0-for-5) continued the trend in recent years of NL teams getting next to nothing out of the extra hitter. NL DHs since 1998 are hitting .149 (13-for-87) with one home run (Shawon Dunston of the 2002 Giants). Not entirely by coincidence, the NL is 4-20 in AL parks in these 10 years. What happened?”

Here’s a guess: When you play one sport under two different sets of rules, Darwinian natural selection comes to play a role in roster management. Before the American League began using the designated hitter, in 1973, there were a few good field-no hit players in the sport. In some cases their teams would put them at first base, and hope that the damage caused by their lack of mobility and general defensive skills would be tolerable and outweighed by their offensive production. Maybe they were better fielders than I remember, but I think of Frank Howard and Ted Kluszewski as this sort of player, kind of de facto designated hitters. Smokey Burgess was the alternative, a player who stayed in the league for several years solely as a pinch hitter, rarely playing in the field.

After 1973, those kinds of players became increasingly uncommon in the National League. The 14 AL teams have an obvious use for players like David Ortiz, Mike Piazza or Frank Thomas. NL teams don’t, and even if they did would be hard-pressed to keep them. The free-agency era started three years after the DH became a part of major league baseball, which means that players like Ortiz, Piazza and Thomas have no obvious use for the National League.

Thus, when a National League team plays a World Series game in an American League ballpark, it’s virtually certain that they won’t have a good hitter to add to their lineup as the DH. It’s very likely that the DH-for-a-day will be the ninth best hitter on the club. If he were a better hitter than that he would either be playing every day in the National League or, if his fielding is an intolerable liability despite his hitting, he would have moved his career to the American League and become a regular DH.

Although the DH came to the majors in 1973, it didn’t come to the World Series until 1976. That year the first National League DH was Dan Driessen for the Cincinnati Reds . . . but the 1976 Reds had one of the best lineups in baseball history: Pete Rose, Ken Griffey, Sr., Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, George Foster, Johnny Bench, Cesar Geronimo and Dave Concepcion. It’s no disgrace to be the ninth-best hitter on that team. Driessen was good enough to play 15 years in the majors, and retire with a career batting average of .267.

Lineups like the Big Red Machine’s are rare, however. Now that the two league’s teams have each adapted to their different environments, we can expect that future National League DH’s in the World Series are going to be a lot more like Ryan Spilborghs than Dan Driessen.

No one has had a fresh thing to say about the designated hitter for 20 years. At this point, I don’t care whether baseball keeps it or junks it. But a house divided against itself cannot stand. Baseball should be all one thing or all the other. They should flip a coin if they need to, but the entire sport needs to play by one rulebook.

Discussions - 5 Comments

This is all very interesting and I have to say that I agree they should all do the same thing if it's going to make the series so uninteresting and non-competitive. But I tend to think it is more authentic baseball to just play your line-up as it actually is.

On another but related subject . . . I know I'm going to sound like such a girl for asking this but it's been driving me crazy as I watched all these games with my son. What was the deal with the Red Sox and their beat up looking batting helmets? Manny Ramirez's helmet looked like it had been through a fire and then dragged in the mud. Can't they afford to replace them with ones that at least show the logo? Or is it some kind of superstitious good luck thing?

That said . . . I have to give the Red Sox their due. I really wanted them to lose because we're Indians fans and I tend to dislike the arrogance of Sox fans (as opposed to the arrogance of any other teams fans, I know . . .). But as I watched these guys play I came to really respect and like them--especially the pitchers. Beckett and Papelbon were just unbelievably good. How can you not appreciate that? David Ortiz was always interesting to watch and--while Ramirez was a terrible showboat on occasion--I was able to use him to teach my son a great lesson in life (the time he only got to first because he walked out of the box and the ball--instead of going out into the bleachers--hit the wall and bounced back into the park). That was a great moral lesson for a kid. Everytime after when Ramirez came up to bat, he would shout, "Showboat!" It really made an impression and I don't think he'll forget the lesson now. I'd thank Manny . . . but maybe I should thank the wall.

It would probably be best if the league had made the DH rule apply to both leagues at its inception (or just never made the rule change in the first place). But now I think we are stuck with the current situation. The Players Union will never allow the DH rule to be eliminated in the AL. It extends the careers (and thus the paychecks) of many aging sluggers. Furthermore, it adds to the HR totals which are pleasing to the fans. Similarly, I can't see the NL agreeing to take on DHs either. Too many purists from NL towns think that the DH is an abomination that eliminates the beauty and strategy of the game for such a change to be tolerated. Unless the NL gets sick of getting taken down almost every October.

Julie, as for the Red Sox' helmets, it's all part of their mystique as a "bunch of idiots" (a label they wear with pride). Their helmets are covered with pine tar which accumulates on them as the season progresses when they adjust their helmets after having had their hands on their pine-tar covered bats. Eventually, using the same helmet day after day and never bothering to get it cleaned or replaced, it looks like Manny's. Even Trot Nixon, a former Red Sox player, had a helmet that showed some signs of this while he was with the Tribe. You'll notice that the Red Sox also have a lot of players with long hair and a lot of facial hair also. They seem to relish their image as bums.

When Johnny Damon played for the Red Sox, he was well known for his long hair and almost mountain-manesque beard. When he signed with the Yankees, Steinbrenner informed him that while he was with the Yankees, his hair would be cut to a suitable length and he would not have facial hair. None of the Yankees do.

Now, I loathe both organizations and don't really prefer either standard, but I think it's interesting that they are so different. It's almost as if they have diametrically opposed policies just to tweak the other team.

Thanks Dominick for that clear explanation. I felt stupid asking but I really didn't know what the deal was there and it was driving me nuts! I agree with you that it is interesting how different the Sox and the Yankees are and, like you, I like that it is so. It gives everything a great back-story and an element of drama.

But I don't loathe either the Yankees or the Red Sox--even though I do prefer my own Indians in the AL. In the NL, I have always liked the Mets (because my dad used to play farm ball with them when I was little). But out here, I will root for the Dodgers and the Angels just as happily as I do the the Mets and the Indians (except when they play each other--then first things come first). I guess I just like to watch good baseball no matter who is playing--(and even bad baseball if it happens to be my kid's team playing!)

And you are probably right about the DH rule. It sounds like it is entrenched to remain as it is.

Julie, the helmet thing could also be sheer superstition.

Athletes, like fighter and bomber pilots in WWII, tend to be superstitious. So a guy gets on a streak, and attributes it to the fact that his helmet hasn't been buffed and shined since his streak began. I've heard of stories of guys who wear the same pair of socks because they're "lucky" socks.

A movie that throws some light on superstition is THE WAR LOVER, starring Steve McQueen as a bomber pilot and Robert Wagner as his co-pilot. And of course there is a girl thrown into the mix too.

During the Battle of Britain, RAF fighter pilots would take a leak on their tail wheel just prior to taking off, so as supposedly to ward off the chance of going down in the English Channel. Going down in the Channel usually meant death. You might be alive when you hit the water, but air/sea rescue was not very reliable. A guy who skipped leaking on his tail wheel and was lost in the Channel would be said to have been "asking for it." Other pilots discussing his loss amongst themselves at the pub would ask "what did he expect....?" As if it was his fault. Strange but true.

Let's just hope that none of these ball players gets into their heads to try and do the same thing to their helmets as those RAF guys did to their tail wings, Dan . . .

When I ran track in high school there were some girls who got the idea that it was bad luck to shave their legs in advance of the meet. I could never bring myself to test that theory--but then, maybe that's why I rarely won my events.

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