USA TODAY Sports Weekly

Na­tional League bet­ter off with­out des­ig­nated hit­ter

- Howard Meg­dal Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY Sports Sports · NFL Football · Basketball · Major League Soccer · American Football · Soccer · National League (Baseball) · Rob Manfred · National Basketball Association · NFL · Arizona Cardinals · St. Louis Cardinals · General Motors Corporation · Philadelphia Phillies · Philadelphia · Kansas City Royals · Kansas City · Kansas · Fun (band) · American League · David Ortiz · John Mozeliak · Chris Paul · Ned Yost · Major League Baseball Players Association

Much of the fo­cus for Ma­jor League Base­ball over the past few years, when it comes right down to it, is about mak­ing the sport more like other sports.

The es­sen­tial rea­son Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred is so con­cerned with pace of play is less about the game ex­pe­ri­ence it­self and more about a sim­ple re­al­ity: To play a nine-in­ning base­ball game takes longer than it typ­i­cally does to play an NBA game, let alone a col­lege bas­ket­ball game or a Ma­jor League Soc­cer game.

The rea­son is tele­vi­sion: It is about fit­ting that prod­uct into a win­dow that max­i­mizes the num­ber of view­ers. (The NFL is un­con­cerned with such things, and jus­ti­fi­ably so: it owns en­tire win­dows of tele­vi­sion time and has bent Sun­days to its will.)

So base­ball has worked on pace of play, with suc­cess last sea­son. In­ter­est­ingly, the to­tal amount of time it takes to play a game has gone down, though the league has in­sti­tuted and ex­panded in­stant re­play, which slows the game down.

But the net re­sult is mak­ing base­ball more like bas­ket­ball, more like foot­ball.

And so it was with no small amount of trep­i­da­tion that I, along with many other base­ball fans, read the com­ments first of plugged-in St. Louis Car­di­nals gen­eral man­ager John Mozeliak, then of Man­fred him­self, re­gard­ing the des­ig­nated hit­ter and the pos­si­bil­ity of it com­ing to the Na­tional 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,’ ” Mozeliak said last month at the team’s win­ter warmup event. “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).”

And shortly there­after, Man­fred said, “Twenty years ago, when you talked to Na­tional League own­ers about the DH, you’d think you were talk­ing some sort of hereti­cal com­ment. But we have a newer group. There has 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.”

But frankly, the re­tort of Philadel­phia Phillies Chair­man David Mont­gomery speaks for me and many oth­ers: “We would like to re­main real base­ball.” And, for­tu­nately, Man­fred him­self walked back his com­ments, to the re­lief of all right-think­ing base­ball fans.

Be­cause at the cen­ter of the sport, there are things that make base­ball unique. There are rea­sons why the dec­la­ra­tions of base­ball dy­ing have lasted well over a cen­tury and rea­sons why ev­ery one of them has proved to be spec­tac­u­larly in­ac­cu­rate, the sport pop­u­lar in the post-Civil War age, the Gilded Age, through World Wars and seis­mic shifts in political, cul­tural and so­cial trends within this coun­try.

And the des­ig­nated hit­ter blunts one of those key dif­fer­ences, some­thing that a fan can­not get with any other ma­jor sport.

This is not about tra­di­tion. This is not about hold­ing on to the game as I grew up with it. Nor is this as sim­ple as the pre­sen­ta­tion from so many on the pro-DH side, that it comes down to a pitcher hit­ting or a much bet­ter hit­ter hit­ting.

It is the con­text that is so vi­tal as it re­lates to the des­ig­nated hit­ter. It is the con­text that el­e­vates base­ball above other sports.

The con­text of the pitcher hit­ting or not is a large part of the abil­ity of the fan to think along­side the man­ager in real time.

This is no small thing. Watch bas­ket­ball and the game is end­lessly de­tailed and com­pli­cated, just as the other ma­jor sports. But the vi­tal de­ci­sion-mak­ing hap­pens in an in­stant — a driv­ing guard sees whether a de­fender sags off the in­te­rior and opens a path to the bas­ket or comes over and opens up the three-point shooter he kicks to light­ning-fast. There’s no time to say, “Hey, Chris Paul needs to pass that.” It hap­pens. It is over.

The same in foot­ball. The blitz­ing linebacker makes his way to the quar­ter­back in a mo­ment. There’s no time to even say, “A blocker missed him!” be­fore the quar­ter­back is on the ground.

But in base­ball, once the early in­nings are out of the way and a game’s rhythm is es­tab­lished, like the early mea­sures of a sym­phony, that’s where the men­tal game be­gins.

In the fifth or sixth in­ning, score mat­ters when it comes to sub­sti­tu­tions. The NBA and NFL in­cludes play­ers who come and go as they please. It is base­ball where there’s a sin­gle mo­ment to use the right hit­ter, lever­ag­ing against fu­ture, un­known sit­u­a­tions, and then to play and re­play the game in your mind and in dis­cus­sion among friends and fam­ily over the en­su­ing in­nings. (There’s even more time for such dis­cus­sion now, with ex­panded re­play de­lays.)

Ask any man­ager whether he’s for the DH and he’ll tell you he isn’t, and he’ll do so for a very sim­ple rea­son, as Ned Yost of the Kansas City Roy­als said in Oc­to­ber when I asked him dur­ing the World Se­ries — man­ag­ing Na­tional League base­ball is more fun.

When base­ball, a recre­ational sport, is try­ing to sell it­self to a pub­lic with a ton of op­tions, “fun” has to be the very first pri­or­ity. And this isn’t fun that is rel­e­gated to the man­ager alone — this is pre­cisely a rule that puts ev­ery sin­gle fan in the man­ager’s seat. It’s why fans have such strong opin­ions about man­agers. It is a vi­tal part of base­ball’s in­fra­struc­ture, and the game ex­pe­ri­ence is al­ways bet­ter for it.

Sure, a pro­fes­sional hit­ter will have a bet­ter at-bat than a pitcher. But the game has dozens of those in­ter­ac­tions al­ready. The NL adds an el­e­ment that is oth­er­wise miss­ing.

As for the play­ers, the Ma­jor League Base­ball Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion might well want a DH in both leagues with the idea be­ing that 15 start­ing jobs would come along with the ex­pan­sion. Per­mit me to point out two things: Most Amer­i­can League teams do not fill the DH role with a sin­gle player, in­stead ro­tat­ing po­si­tion play­ers. David Or­tiz is the ex­cep­tion, not the rule.

Ac­cord­ingly, a bet­ter ne­go­ti­a­tion in the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment to come for play­ers could well be an ex­pan­sion of ros­ter size from 25 to, say, 28 or 30 — an op­por­tu­nity for scores of ad­di­tional play­ers to make MLB salaries while keep­ing ev­ery­body fresher over a long sea­son. It also al­lows for sig­nif­i­cantly greater man­age­rial strat­egy over the du­ra­tion of a ma­jor league game. It raises the fun quo­tient ex­po­nen­tially.

And as a con­ces­sion to the own­ers, I have just the thing: Elim­i­nate the DH from the Amer­i­can League.

 ?? DAVID RICHARD, USA TO­DAY SPORTS ?? The Red Sox’s David Or­tiz is a rar­ity in the Amer­i­can League: a full-time des­ig­nated hit­ter.
DAVID RICHARD, USA TO­DAY SPORTS The Red Sox’s David Or­tiz is a rar­ity in the Amer­i­can League: a full-time des­ig­nated hit­ter.
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