Keeping DH can't hurt game's appeal
Looking for leverage

Thursday, April 9, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Concerning the designated hitter, I feel very strongly both ways. Baseball is a better game when runs are scarce and offense requires a range of skills beyond mere biceps. Yet everyone likes to watch the big boppers swing for the seats.

Who's to say the major leagues must be streamlined? As any Expos fan could tell you, Vive la difference.

After 25 years, the American and National Leagues remain at odds on the DH, and the Republic is in no danger of collapse. Fans who fancy themselves purists can thrill to the beauty of the sacrifice bunt, and rhapsodize over the ground ball hit deliberately to second base. Those who go to the ballpark for thrills can thrive on the three-run homer.

The American and National leagues need not produce exactly the same product in order to find an audience, and should not conform to the other's rules for the dubious sake of simplicity. If Baskin Robbins can make 31 flavors of ice cream, what's wrong with two brands of baseball?

Answer: Absolutely nothing. The efforts of major-league owners to eliminate the DH have nothing to do with taste and everything to do with expense. The reason American League payrolls are generally higher than those in the National League is that each AL team uses one of its roster spot on a seasoned slugger instead of another spare infielder.

Looking for leverage

Given the choice between pocketing a few million and prolonging the career of a Cecil Fielder or a Paul Molitor, most owners would overcome sentiment and side with their wallets. Yet few in the game believe the DH is in any real danger. More likely, the owners have raised the idea of dropping it to create leverage.

The owners claim they have the right to rescind the DH unilaterally. The union argues any alteration in its working conditions must be negotiated. Because designated hitters are typically veteran players with large salaries, the union reflexively resists any attempt to eliminate their jobs.

What the owners are probably after is more interleague play. Threatening to do away with the DH could be one way to win concessions. Actually doing away with the DH, though, might prove a mistake. American League fans have grown conditioned to the big inning, and the trend in new ballparks has been to make "little ball" obsolete. The manager who gives up outs to advance baserunners at Camden Yards does so at the risk of ridicule. If you play for one run in Seattle, you might as well surrender.

Yet the difference between the two leagues is not the difference between chess and checkers. Game strategy continues to be dictated by who's pitching on a particular night. With Pedro Martinez on the mound, the Red Sox might choose to scratch for runs instead of swinging for the Green Monster. Conversely, when the wind is blowing out at Wrigley Field, thinking small is suicide.

The basic difference between the two sets of rules is in the way they influence decisions. In the National League, a manager's moves are often mandated by the score, the inning and the pitcher's place in the batting order. In the American League, the only real consideration is how much gas a guy has left.

Those who find the National League's little nuances endlessly fascinating are the same people who leave a movie talking about the lighting. They think the DH as vulgar as a velvet Elvis compared to the priceless artistry of pitchers at bat. These people are a little full of themselves.

Andy Van Slyke once suggested the DH was the work of Satan, and it has been hell on earned-run averages. It promote deeper counts, longer innings, and a reliance on home runs that erodes the running game and strangles improvisation.

That said, the DH has allowed some stars to linger when their legs were no longer as quick as their bat. It has added offense to a sport that struggles to appeal to an audience with an ever-contracting attention span. It is a gimmick, but it is one that has succeeded in getting people in the gate.

If some fans prefer another level of sophistication, they have a choice. Nothing wrong with that.

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE