Esposito: Solving the DH Issue

With the Baltimore Orioles leaving town this week meeting up with the Mets at Citi Field, before they meet their longtime division rivals up in the Bronx, the controversy will again arise for the billionth time as to whether and why the National League refuses to employ the designated hitter.

Since 1973, when the American League looked to infuse their league with greater offense and said the pitcher no longer has to hit – they can’t hit, anyway, right? – the DH has become a baseball staple. It was adopted by the AL, all of the minor leagues, independent leagues, colleges, high schools, Little Leagues, and all known leagues in Japan, China, Australia, all of the Latin countries, and just about anywhere where “Play ball!” is heard before first pitch.

Everywhere, except in the National League. Essentially they continue to say, “Nope. Not for us. Over our dead bodies. See ya later with that.”

So for over 40 years, the NL and the AL have been playing slightly different versions of the same game. It has affected Interleague play, the All-Star game, and the World Series one way or another, favoring one side here, favoring the other side there.

You know this. No new ground broken here. And you know that just about anyone associated with the NL are staunch defenders against inheriting the rule.

Viewers to SNY’s broadcasts of Mets games regularly hear Gary Cohen professing his distaste with the rule. He’s a National League traditionalist all the way.

His solution is to create 27 man rosters, eliminating the DH while adding personnel to offset the loss of big contract DHs. He believes the Player’s Association would be okay with this compromise.

Listeners to Ed Randall’s weekly show on WFAN often hear him joke that when Ron Blomberg stepped up to the plate for the Yankees in 1973 as the first DH, it was “the end of western civilization as we know it.”

We all know the pros and cons regarding the DH. AL fans love having another big bat in the lineup in place of the pitcher – although there’s nothing in the rule that says the DH has to replace the pitcher. It could sub for the shortstop, centerfielder, or any fielder, really. And NL fans love the traditional strategies of accounting for everyone on the field, and if you need to pinch-hit for the pitcher late in the game, how that will affect the eventual outcome.

We’ve all heard how the Player’s Association will never allow for the disintegration of the DH. It’s jobs and money. Big money. Occasionally, the team’s regular designated hitter is the highest paid player on the team.

The AL loves it. The NL hates it.

So how do we solve this dilemma? Easy. Bat ten men. Have the pitcher and a designated hitter in the lineup!

Controversial? Radical? A compromise that satisfies both sides or neither? Yes, and no.

If adopted, the “extra” hitter rule – because he’s no longer “designated” for anyone – would allow for the placement of a big bat in the lineup, and maintain all traditions of having the pitcher hit, and whether or not to pinch-hit along the way.

It’s a softball rule, really, what some called “beer” leagues, when fans get together with their buddies on a Sunday afternoon to play ball, and maybe the keg serves as third base.

So what. So what if you’re borrowing an idea that is used in softball leagues. Millions of fans continue to love and play the game after their organized ballgames are over. Or maybe you get together with the cousins at a family picnic. Or you’re in a league against rivals within your industry.

So here’s what would happen if the extra hitter rule is implemented. First, we’ll presume the Player’s Association will sign off on the concept because it retains big ticket DHs. And we’ll presume the NL will go along with it as it could put more fannies in the seats.

But some records and traditions will be affected. Say bye-bye to the batter who racks up nearly 700 at-bats over the course of a season. The simple math of it will decrease player ABs when players near the top of the lineup might get up regularly only three times instead of the occasional four times when rallies permit. Jimmy Rollins’ record of recording 716 at-bats in 2007 would be safe for quite a while.

While that seems like a quirky record to protect, what it also means your cleanup hitter might not get up as often, so when you’re down by a run in the ninth, and your leadoff hitter is up again instead of the big bopper, it’s time to put on your rally caps.

With less ABs for everyone, other records could be affected, including home runs, runs batted in, and all accumulation totals. But are we in the record business or a game of wins and losses?

Another aspect is the fact that nearly two generations of pitchers have grown up not hitting. Sure, they swing the bat once they get to the NL or are involved in Interleague play, often pathetically, but some pitchers conceivably rarely picked up a bat in the minors, in college, in high school, and maybe even in Little League.

Still, they couldn’t learn? Again? The funny thing is that years ago, often the best hitter on a team of youngsters growing up was the pitcher. He was the best athlete, and maybe he played shortstop or first base, or the outfield on the days he wasn’t pitching.

Baseball history is filled with the exploits of pitchers who could help their team with the stick as well – Warren Spahn, Don Drysdale, Jim Kaat, et al. They didn’t necessary hit for average, but they weren’t automatic outs either. Spahnie banged out 35 home runs over the course of his career. Drysdale launched 29 longballs. Legendary Met Tom Seaver was no slouch either, and hit a dozen home runs. Even Dwight Gooden, who spent a good portion of his career in the AL, hit eight home runs.

So while the NL could adopt the extra hitter rule right away, the AL might need a year or two to get their pitchers adjusted to the batter’s box on a daily basis once more.

Surely there will be fans who are aghast at this concept, possibly as many for or against the idea as they are for or against the DH. But baseball is in a state of change right now. They want to mess with the time of it, with keeping your feet in the box, with pitching to a clock, and even one nutty experiment in the Atlantic League of three balls equals a base on balls, and fouls on two strikes mean you’re out. Perish the thought.

What’s your call? Let’s hear ‘em. Bring ‘em on.

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