Seattle Mariners

John McGrath: DH in the NL? It’s closer than you think

St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) ruptured his Achilles tendon while batting against Milwaukee on April 25. The injury cost him most of the season. National League owners are starting to warm to the idea of using the designated hitter like the American League.
St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) ruptured his Achilles tendon while batting against Milwaukee on April 25. The injury cost him most of the season. National League owners are starting to warm to the idea of using the designated hitter like the American League. The Associated Press

As somebody who grew up rooting for a National League team, but has lived in an American League market for 25 years, I am decidedly neutral about the designated hitter.

It allows flawed, but still productive players, to continue collecting paychecks from a one-tool skill set. This is a good thing, I think. If it weren’t for the DH, Edgar Martinez would be remembered as a former batting champion whose career as a third baseman was derailed by injuries. Instead, he remains among the most beloved athletes in Seattle sports history.

Long live the designated hitter!

It denies starting pitchers the chance to help their team score runs. This is not a good thing, I think. Specialization explains why games that once took two hours now take three hours, and the DH is the very definition of specialization.

Ban the designated hitter!

The American League added the designated hitter in 1973.

As I was saying, I’m neutral about the only rule distinguishing the AL from its 140-year-old big brother. What works fine in one league violates the identity of the other, and the result is a quirky compromise that bothers others more than it bothers me.

But momentum seems to be building toward making the DH universal. Although the owners concluded their most recent meetings Thursday without addressing the issue, Major League Baseball’s collective-bargaining agreement expires after 2016, and the players union is more inclined to create lucrative job opportunities for its constituents than preserve tradition.

Commissioner Rob Manfred noted the climate change.

“Twenty years ago when you talked to NL owners about the designated hitter, you’d think you were talking some sort of heretical comment,” he said Thursday. “But we have a newer group. This has been trending 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.”

One argument for the NL’s embracement of the designated hitter regards injuries: St. Louis Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright ruptured his Achilles tendon while racing out of the batter’s box on April 25 , essentially ending his season.

If you look at it from the macro side, who’d you rather see — ‘Big Papi’ or me? Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting a home run or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper?

Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer

Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer watched the replay and made a case.

“If you look at it from the macro side, who’d you rather see — ‘Big Papi’ or me?” asked Scherzer, referring to Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. “Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting a home run or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper?”

The question is legitimate, but ignores the fact that people also enjoy seeing a pitcher impersonating a real hitter. Remember Felix Hernandez’s 2008 grand slam at New York against the Mets — the first bases-loaded homer by an AL pitcher since 1971? The memory is almost as indelible as the perfect game he threw four years later.

Hernandez, by the way, suffered an ankle injury in that game, but not because he was required to swing a bat or run the bases. He was hurt covering home plate.

Stuff happens. Had Wainwright torn his Achilles hustling off the mound en route to first base on a grounder hit to the right side of the infield, is there an outcry about requiring pitchers to play defense?

I’m not concerned that two leagues abide by different rules that create tactical adjustments during interleague competition and the World Series. I just do not understand MLB’s stubborn refusal to expose crowds to the other side.

AL rules apply when the AL team is at home, and NL rules apply when the NL team is at home. It should be flipped. Mariners fans never have seen Hernandez take a swing at Safeco Field, and NL fans rarely saw Martinez take a swing when his team was on the road.

AL rules in NL parks, and NL rules in AL parks. Why is this complicated?

A final thought: Had the DH been adopted, say, 100 years ago, Babe Ruth probably is not a name Americans recognize. Ruth’s legacy —if any legacy at all — would be as a left-handed starting pitcher.

But Ruth had to bat, and he batted so well he saved a sport put on life support by a gambling scandal.

Something for the newer group of NL owners to ponder as they respect baseball’s history and traditions.

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