USA TODAY Sports Weekly
National League better off without designated hitter
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.