Friday, January 22, 2016

Universal DH? No Way

I've been a baseball fan since I was nine and began rooting for the New York Giants because they sailed to the National League Pennant that year (1954), led by their superstar, Willie Mays. At that age, I was not totally capable of appreciating the style of their manager, Leo Durocher, who was definitely someone geared to be appreciated by an adult fan group. But they went into the Series that year as clear underdogs.

So everyone was surprised when they upset the highly favored Cleveland Indians, whose superb pitching staff had finally managed to break up the Yankees' seemingly endless dominance of the American League. Feller was just about through, but heck, he was the finest pitcher of his time. Then there was Bob Lemon, joined by Early Wynn and two now-less-recalled relievers, Don Mossi and Ray Narleski. Hitting hard were Vic Wertz and Al Rosen.

But the Giants, apart from Mays, who was not yet known as he is today in his old age as the greatest living ballplayer, were a lacklustre crew. They could play ball and sometimes Don Mueller, another outfielder, and Whitey Lockman, first baseman; Al Dark, shortstop and captain; Hank Thompson, third base; and the great Monte Irvin, a hard-hitting vet of the Negro Leagues who was injured all too often during his still-great career with the Giants, could get some hits. The pitchers didn't compare to the Tribe's: Hoyt Wilhelm became one of the first great knuckleballers and some of the others did well that year: Johnny Antonelli, Jim Hearn, Marv Grissom, Larry Jansen.

Wes Westrum was a reliable catcher but not a great hitter, compared to his New York City peers: Berra of the Yanks, and Campy of the Dodgers. And then there was Dusty Rhodes--the player who gets hot in the World Series, classically, as here, as a pinch hitter. He had an incredible Series...and never did anything again.

So I grew up loving baseball strategy. And that's what gets killed when you have the Designated Hitter or DH, in the American League for the past three decades or so. The National League held out. You see managers having to struggle with keeping their starting pitcher in when they have something going on the bases and there are two outs. In the post-season, these are magnificent moments.

I received a piece by an ESPN scribe this morning in the e-mail that argues for making the DH universal. As he notes correctly, it is being used in almost every baseball venue except the National League. And since the National League is the "senior circuit" dating back to the 1870s, he scorns their resistance as 19th-century thinking. Prospects do grow up with the DH. Pitchers get less training in hitting than ever and it is true that utility players complain that their hitting suffers when they don't play every day: pitchers of course only play every fourth or fifth day.

Sometimes I feel like the old English actor, C. Aubrey Smith, who led the Hollywood cricket players and often played old cricket types, colonial sergeant-majors, and the like, as Brit stereotypes in the movies of the 1930s. Those old denizens of the Marylebone Cricket Club resisted every innovation in cricket--and eventually most of the changes ran right over them. The game survived but it benefited from the resistance to too much change. I was living in England when the late E.W. (Jim) Swanton was the senior cricket commentator in The Daily Telegraph and The Cricketer, and was often on the BBC Test Match Special broadcasts. It would be fun to read his predicting the imminent demise of the game if players were permitted to wear colored clothing.

But the DH is an innovation that, to me, has not proven its worthiness. National League ball is still more fun because we have a pretty good balance in the majors today between pitchers and hitters. The DH came in because pitchers in the 50s were dominating the game, even with hitters like Musial, Williams, Mantle, Mays, and many more active.  Even the great Bob Gibson, the pitcher most resembling one of the great West Indian bowlers of the 60s and 70s, didn't always win.

It's bad enough that strategy isn't what it once was in the AL before the DH. Let's keep it as it is in the NL, even if we go mad with the practice of using it in AL parks but not NL venues in this age of interleague play. Baseball has survived...despite the worst instincts of those who run it.

1 comment:

  1. I was eight years old in September of 1954, and had just returned from three years in England, where my dad had been stationed. I was having to re-learn how to be American, which meant, among other things, to yell "We won, ya idiots!" when my side won a knock-down spelling bee instead of clapping and saying to the losers, "Well tried!" Another was learning about baseball, and my lesson came quickly after I started third grade, when we were allowed out of class in the afternoon to watch this thing called the World Series on a large TV sitting on the stage of the auditorium. To the extent I took any rooting interest I suspect it was for the Giants, as I had been in New York, although only for a few hours, just two months before, and had never been to Cleveland. The only thing of which I have a vague memory from that Series is Mays and his spectacular catch.

    The following year I made the lucky decision to back the Dodgers, scrappy underdogs against big, bad bully Yanks. Campy was my hero, though there were many who contributed mightily to Brooklyn's victory, and another thrilling catch, this time by Sandy Amoros.

    When I first came to New York as an adult, I fell into a crowd who were mostly Yankee fans, and, I'll confess, I followed suit. Then, in 1985, a friend not of that stripe invited me to a Mets game, in which the Amazins beat the Cards on a two run homer off the then "unlikely bat" of Howard Johnson. During the game, my friend said, "What you have to understand is that the Mets are the Brooklyn Dodgers continued by other means." (Of course, to lots of people they're the New York Giants similarly continued.) My conversion was timely, as my first full season of Mets fandom ended in their last Series victory.

    I'm fervently with you on the DH issue, especially since the Mets pitchers showed prowess at the plate last year. Like you, I want the strategy, not the speeded-up game or the marginally greater scoring.