Tuesday, July 17, 2012

MY PERSISTENT PET PEEVE (for baseball fans only)

         The recent All Star Game stirred up a pet peeve I have been harboring for many years. I do not like the Designated Hitter Rule. I never did, I never will. Here’s why: a) it was established on what I believe to be a false premise; b) it eliminates decisions that make the game more challenging for the players and more fun for the fans; and c) it denies a whole group of players (pitchers) the opportunity to experience a most important aspect of baseball and to exercise a key skill of the game ---BATTING!
         Let me elaborate a bit on each of these points. The underlying premise is false. I don’t know any real baseball fans who feel that hitting is all that makes a game interesting and exciting. It is true that a home run is always a thrill for fans —when it’s a member of their team who hits it!  Hitting, and base running, and scoring runs are an exciting part of the game. But so are pitching, and catching, and fielding, and defensive strategy.
         There is nothing more dramatic than a good pitchers’ duel. The drama builds with each inning, and seeing a possible no-hitter in the making will keep fans on the edge of their seat. A spectacular catch can bring the crowd to their feet as quickly as a home run. Great fielding is exciting to watch and it demands tremendous athleticism. I always like to get to a game early enough to watch infield practice. The choreography of that universal, rhythmical routine is beautiful to see.
It’s not an either-or situation between the offensive and defensive aspects of baseball. Both are important, and to be a good baseball player one needs to be proficient at both. Baseball demands many different kinds of physical skills.
         And that’s the point. The designated hitter rule implies that hitting is more important and more enjoyable for the fans than the other aspects of the game, and that is not true for me and any other real baseball fans I know. What you like at the moment, and what you want to happen at the moment, depends upon for whom you’re rooting. If your team is at bat, you want hitting. If your team is in the field, you want good pitching and stellar defensive play. If it doesn’t matter to you who wins, you will admire and applaud offensive and defensive excellence on either side.

         The designated hitter rule, furthermore,  removes an important strategic aspect of the game: Do you remove the pitcher for a pinch-hitter, or to you let him hit because you want him to go another inning? Do you let him hit away, or do you have him sacrifice the runner from second to third? Pinch hitting has always been an important part of the game, and players are substituted for defensive purposes as well. But in the old days, and in the National League today, players were expected to bat as well as to field, as long as they were in the game.
         The designated hitter rule has strategic implications as well, involving the substitution and positioning of players, but from my perspective there is something artificial about the rule. It smacks of the platoon system, which is okay for football, but not for baseball in my book.
         That brings me to my third and most important reason for opposing the designated hitter rule: it denies a large group of professional baseball players the opportunity to bat. The assumption is that pitchers can’t hit, so why not let somebody who can? The reason pitchers in the National League, which has no designated hitter rule, generally don’t hit as well as other players is that they don’t get as much chance to bat or to take batting practice. Starting pitchers are in the line-up at most every four or five days.  Relievers’ appearances vary in frequency and in duration, so they usually have even fewer opportunities to bat.    
         I wonder if I’m the only person who likes to see pitchers take their turn at bat. I love it when the “sure out” gets a base hit, or drives in a run, or draws a base on balls, or lays down a good sacrifice bunt. You never know when something good might happen. I like to see pitchers hustle down to first when they connect with the ball, and I enjoy watching a pitcher take a good cut at the ball, even though he strikes out.
         There have been many good hitting pitchers over the years, and many sports pundits have offered their lists of the greatest of these. You can do your own research on that subject. I simply want to point out that more often than not pitchers were the stars of their high school teams at the plate as well as on the mound. That was certainly true in my day. Those who went on to play in college or professionally as pitchers probably had natural hitting talent that could have been nurtured, even though they would not have as much opporunity to develop it, for the reasons I’ve already stated.
         Smart managers make sure their pitchers can bunt, because their ability to advance runners makes the decision of whether or not to pinch hit for them a lot easier. As an aside, I have always wondered why so many Major Leaguers can’t bunt. Every player on my high school team was expected to be able to bunt and could bunt whenever called upon to do so. It was no big deal. Now in the Majors players are getting high fives if they can lay down a successful sacrifice!  And probably because so few can, teams don’t try to advance runners they way they should.
         There are sure-fire ways to score a run when needed, but managers are either unaware of them or unwilling to try them. For example, with  runners on first and third and one or no outs, if one run is needed, a bunt down the first base line will score a run every time. How so? The first baseman is holding the runner at first and therefore cannot possibly field a sacrifice in time to throw the advancing runner on third out at home plate. My father, who was the greatest coach and baseball strategist I’ve ever known, used to call it the “safety squeeze,” because the runner on third does not have to break with the pitch, as one does in a typical squeeze play, but instead takes a slightly bigger lead off third, but hesitates just long enough to make sure the ball is on the ground and heading toward first, before breaking full speed for home.                                                                                                                              
         So why can’t a pitcher who can bunt be allowed to bat with men on first and third and one or no outs and one run is needed? I’ve seen pitchers bunt for base hits in that situation! That would be much more exciting than seeing a pinch hitter ground into a double play! Fans love it when pitchers contribute to their own cause!
         These, then, are my reason for opposing the designated hitter rule. I’m an American League fan, having worked for two different American League teams during my baseball days. But on this issue I am with the National League 100%!

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