To bat, or not to bat, that is the question. According to Major League Baseball’s current rulebook, all interleague games played in National League (NL) parks follow the NL’s no-designated-hitter (DH) rule, meaning both teams’ pitchers have to bat. The converse is true in American League (AL) parks, wherein the DH is allowed to bat instead of the pitcher. Since the AL pitchers only bat and run the bases during interleague games played in NL stadiums, and rarely even practice hitting or base-running otherwise, the AL is placed at a competitive disadvantage in such games. In actuality, the price to at least one AL team has been even bigger.
The DH or no-DH rule has been controversial since its introduction in 1973 in the American League. In June last year the rhetoric exploded after AL New York Yankee star pitcher Chien-Ming Wang severely injured his foot while running the bases during an interleague game in Houston versus the NL Astros and was unable to play for the rest of the season. Hank Steinbrenner, Yankees co-chairman, angry over the loss of his ace pitcher, subsequently fumed that the NL should join the 21st century and adopt the DH rule.
Although I’ve followed NL teams for the past three decades, on the DH subject I have to agree with the AL’s Mr. Steinbrenner. Major League Baseball (MLB) is a business which exists to make a profit. Teams have made huge investments in their players and want and need them to remain healthy and able to perform at their top level to maximize the teams’ chances of success and attract the most fans. Teams especially don’t want to see their star players get injured, even more so if the injuries can be avoided. That is precisely Mr. Steinbrenner’s point, that his top pitcher was hurt unnecessarily, because he was only running the bases after batting due to the NL’s no-DH rule. Under AL rules his pitcher never would have been on base at all, so his injury was completely needless and avoidable. With Wang out of the rotation, the Yankees went on to miss the playoffs for the first time in fourteen years, a serious hit to the Yankees’ pocketbook.
Consider the situation in professional football. The NFL has instituted several rules in recent years to protect the quarterbacks, arguably the most valuable players for most teams, from injuries so as to keep them healthy and in the game. A sound business decision. Since pitchers are baseball’s equivalent of quarterbacks, with the ball in their hands at the start of each play, it makes sense for MLB to have rules to protect them from undue harm as well. The DH accomplishes that in the AL by keeping pitchers out of the batter’s box and off the bases.
Another frequent DH rule argument comes from baseball purists, who believe that every player should swing a bat just like when they were kids, or because that’s how the game was originally played. These traditionalists support the NL no-DH style of play.
However, one can again look to pro football to see that a game doesn’t necessarily suffer by moving away from tradition and the game’s origins. In backyard football, kids play every down, offense then defense. As the game has grown up, football has evolved into a game of specialists. Nowadays, football is so specialized that some players are third down outside linebacker only, or kickoff return only, for example. Yet no one complains that these football specialists smear or defile the game by not being the well-rounded players like they were as kids. And the NFL is today at the peak of its popularity with American fans.
Similarly, just because a pitcher swung a bat as a kid, there’s no reason he has to do it now. Throughout modern society in this day and age, specialists are preferred. It’s time for the NL to recognize that pitchers are specialists and treat them as such, which the AL’s DH rule does. Fans can certainly adapt to this modernization of the game and quit griping about tradition, as they have for the NFL’s specialization and rule changes.
Additionally, do baseball purists really enjoy watching NL pitchers at the plate? It’s nearly a guaranteed rally-killing out every time the pitcher comes up. That’s no fun to watch. After all, the name of the game is to score runs. And which would you rather see, your team score lots of runs or only a few? By sending a good hitting DH up to bat rather than a lousy hitting pitcher, more offense is introduced.
Hank Steinbrenner was right. The National League needs to adopt the designated hitter rule, not just for interleague games, but full time. Pitchers have a difficult enough time just throwing the ball and remaining healthy. Keeping pitchers on the mound, out of the batter’s box, and off the bases also makes sound business sense. Come on, NL and MLB powers-that-be, adopt the DH rule throughout baseball and prevent unnecessary pitcher injuries. It’s time to level the playing field with the same rules for both leagues.