Commissioner Rob Manfred insists he didn’t intend to rile up baseball’s Hatfields and McCoys, the faction of fans who adore the designated-hitter rule and the faction that despises it. But that’s exactly what Manfred did when he responded to a question last week at the owners’ meetings.
“Twenty years ago, when you talked to National League owners about the DH, you’d think you were talking some sort of heretical comment,” Manfred told reporters Jan. 21. “But we have a newer group. There’s been turnover. And I think our owners in general have demonstrated a willingness to change the game in ways that we think would be good for the fans, always respecting the history and traditions of the sport.”
This is what the pro-DH group heard: Shots fired!
No other sport views the past with as much reverence as baseball, where grainy, black-and-white highlights make the Zapruder film seem like high-def. Baseball is the only sport that routinely brings up old greats like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and uses them as measuring sticks for modern-day players. The national pastime has spawned a ferocious species of fan – dinosaurus puris – that bites off heads when history and tradition are threatened.
The DH might be the final frontier, one of the last vestiges tying the sport to its origins. The American League stopped forcing pitchers to bat in April 1973, when the New York Yankees’ Ron Bloomberg stepped in against the Red Sox’ Luis Tiant but never took the field. Ever since then, the AL and the NL have played distinctly different styles of baseball and fans have taken sides.
Manfred’s recent remarks gave hope to those who prefer to see nine hitters per lineup versus eight plus a pitcher. Nothing sinks their spirits lower than a two-out scoring chance early in the game with the starter coming to bat. Talk about your buzzkill.
Conversely, DH critics roll their eyes at the junior circuit’s brand of ball. They liken the strategy – if agreeing that any exists – to a simple game of checkers, requiring little thought by managers. If the only goal is lighting up the scoreboard, there’s always beer-league softball for that.
After watching his inadvertent firestorm engulf the sport for a week, Manfred broke out a hose, saying his remarks were meant as a basic pros-and-cons framework, not a precursor for change. “What I’ve said all along is I think we’re status quo on the DH,” he told ESPN Tuesday. “It’s the single most important feature that defines the differences between the two leagues.”
But the question remains: Why is a difference between the two leagues important?
Manfred, who this week celebrated his one-year anniversary on the job, hasn’t been shy in tweaking where he sees fit. He implemented pace-of-play initiatives and gave the Home Run Derby a facelift. He announced plans for a spring training game in Cuba and regular-season games in London. He upped baseball’s investment in youth programs and worked with the players’ union on a domestic violence policy.
He seems like the perfect candidate to end the separate-and-unequal status between the two leagues. Any change would require collective bargaining. Since the current labor agreement expires on Dec. 1, now seems like the perfect time.
We know the union would be all for it. Fifteen additional designated hitters mean another 15 high-paying gigs for the membership. I imagine a number of NL team executives would favor the move as well, removing their fear of aces being injured at the plate/on the bases – which happened to the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright.
At a fanfest this month, St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak told reporters there’s “more momentum” for the DH in his league. “I do feel like there were times I could look all of you in the face and say it’s a non-starter, it’s not being discussed at the owner level or GM,” he said. “But over the past year it has. I’m not suggesting you’re going to see a change, but I definitely think the momentum (has changed).
The sooner the better.
I enjoy a good double-switch as much as the next person, but not at the expense of .145 hitters clogging the bottom of starting lineups. The differences are highlighted during interleague play – most notably, the World Series – when the visiting team must abandon the style of play that won the pennant.
If a universal DH isn’t in the near future (let’s agree that eliminating the DH altogether will never happen), at least baseball could change the rule for interleague play. Forget about house rules; let the visitors play according to their league. That way, home fans would get a taste of how the other half lives.
That’s not a perfect solution. But two sets of rules for the same game doesn’t make sense, either.
Just because it’s been that way for 40-plus years doesn’t mean it should continue. Let’s take the bat out of NL pitchers’ hands and send a real hitter to the plate instead.