We Surrender: Let the NL Have the DH

There was a time you would think the world would implode if the National League adopted the designated hitter, as the American League did in 1973 and as the Major League Baseball Players Association wants the National League to do soon. And some people still believe it. Well, there was also a time (and a rather noisy contingency arguing either way) when you would have thought the world would implode if the lights finally went on at Wrigley Field, which they did on August 8, 1988.

You still may find Cub fans who think that was a date equal in infamy only to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the Chicago Fire, the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots, or the Beatles opening the ill-fated/ill-managed Apple Corps operation. (Businessmen the Beatles weren't.) The only thing in Chicago infamous about the night the lights went on at Wrigley was the game between the Cubs and the Phillies being rained out before the fourth inning was finished.

Surely there were enough Cub traditionalists who believed the rains were God expressing His displeasure, as if decades of losing baseball with only the occasional rude interruption were worth the preservation of the great daytime at the Friendly Confines. All the rainout did was delay the inevitable. The following night, the lights went on at Wrigley Field again. And the Cubs beat the Mets, 6-4.

That and the world failing to implode on cue was the good news. The bad news was that that year's presidential campaign, the Preppie vs. Zorba the Clerk, continued apace. Little by little, from that day forward, Cub Country began assimilating the idea that some traditions weren't worth keeping if they secured other distasteful traditions — like losing baseball. They finally won their first World Series since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore's) at night, too.

Amidst the hoopla over the Major League Baseball Players' Association seeming to support bringing the designated hitter to the National League as soon as possible, maybe this season, there was what you could call the expected contingency of purists denouncing the DH as, yes, un-American. Well, they can relax for the time being. Commissioner Rob Manfred says it would be economically unfeasible to bring the DH to the National League so soon.

When you hear that you should probably take it with two grains of salt and a beer chaser. Because when a commissioner says something's "economically unfeasible," it usually means the owners wanting to let the players have something less than what they want for themselves, namely making more money. The good of the game isn't always the same thing as making money for either the owners or the players, and bringing the DH to the National League would be good for the game when all is said and done. So would penalizing tanking teams by costing them choice draft pick positions, another proposal the players' association has but Manfred thinks is economically unfeasible for now.

Manfred would rather talk about those things when it really is time to negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement after the current one expires after the 2021 season. The players' association is in a marvelous position from which they can force the issue on such things as Manfred's itch for a pitch clock (he wants it as soon as possible for the Show) and a three-batter minimum for pitchers. They could tell him that if he wants those, he needs to give these, never mind that Manfred can by baseball's rules impose the pitch clock when he damn well pleases.

But back to the "un-American DH" for now. Which isn't as un-American as you think it is. Actually, in one sense it is: it's an un-American League creation. The historically minded would like to remind you one and all that it wasn't something the American League dreamed up after a man on a flaming pie descended upon an owners' meeting proclaiming, "From now on, you are the DH league with a D." The original idea was first the brainchild of an owner in the National League.

That would be William Chase Temple, who owned the Pirates in the late 19th Century and also provided the Temple Cup awarded to the National League's postseason champion. You can look it up, and I did. Baseball historian John Thorn delivered it in 2016, when rumors wafted up that the National League was actually going to consider adding the DH. Thorn unearthed the story on the suggestion of a reader who felt there was a good story behind the idea even though said reader opposed its arrival.

Temple came up with a designated hitter concept identical to the one the American League brought to the Show in 1973. "There had been a widespread concern among baseball men with the game's declining offense," Thorn wrote. (Sound familiar?) Returning from a pre-season meeting of National League owners in 1892, after the league expanded to 12 teams by way of admitting four from the fallen old American Association, Temple told the Pittsburgh press that the DH got only a 7-5 vote, not enough to implement it.

The first time the DH crept into the mind of anyone in the American League was 1906, when Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack proposed it after he tired, apparently, of watching his pitchers such as Hall of Famers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender swinging as though they had cardboard tubes instead of bats. The idea went nowhere, but the National League flirted with it again in 1928, when its president John Heydler advocated for it ... but the American League turned it down. The National League gave it a try in a few spring exhibitions that year but ultimately rejected it. (The purists might flinch in knowing that among those who liked the idea was a pitcher who actually hit decently enough during his Hall of Fame career: Walter Johnson.)

And there the matter stayed until the 1960s, when several minor leagues including the AAA-level International League adopted it. That may have prompted both the National and American Leagues to give it a try during select spring exhibition games in 1969, but they chose not to stay with it. Not for long, anyway. Because the staying power of the DH in the minors caught the attention of Charlie Finley, the twice-removed successor owner of the A's who'd moved to Kansas City and then Oakland.

Say what you will about Finley otherwise, and plenty have, but after the 1972 season Finley noticed two things in particular: 1) American League attendance had dwindled considerably enough in light of lesser run production than he saw the National League enjoying; and, 2) in 1972, Oakland pitching couldn't hit with garage doors: the A's pitchers hit a collective .165 with a .198 on-base percentage and a .203 slugging percentage. (There was one A's pitcher who could hit that season: Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers, who batted .312: 6 hits in 19 at-bats.)

The rest of the league didn't hit much better. The '72 Orioles, to name one, had a .155 batting average among its pitching staff. (And I'm pretty sure that nobody even thought of paying their pitchers for their batting skills--not when every regular Oriole pitcher that year, starters and relievers, posted a collective 2.53 ERA.) And if the American League was looking for more run production, Finley not only had the answer, he had an unlikely ally.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn usually considered Finley about as pleasurable as unanesthetised root canal, but this time Kuhn was willing to let Finley have his head. Kuhn allowed the American League to introduce the DH on an experimental basis for 1973. (A Yankee first baseman/outfielder, Ron Blomberg, because the league's first DH to bat in the regular season; his first time up, he worked a full-count walk off Luis Tiant on Opening Day.) And in year One A.D.H. the American League out-hit the National League. What a surprise that the American League and practically all minor leagues, even those affiliated to National League clubs, adopted it permanently.

The National League got close to adopting the DH again in 1980. Unfortunately, Kuhn advised them that the proposal would bring the DH in for 1982. That's when things got interesting and dicey at once, because:

* The Phillies' vice president Bill Giles, who'd represent owner Ruly Carpenter at the voting meeting, had no idea how Carpenter wanted him to vote — because Carpenter was incommunicado on an extended fishing trip.

* The Pirates' general manager Harding Peterson was instructed to side with the Phillies. Oops.

* The Braves, the Mets, the Cardinals, and the Padres voted in favor of the DH. The Cardinals' then-general manager John Clairborne was the DH's most vocal supporter among the National League teams.

* The Cubs, the Reds, the Dodgers, the Expos, and the Giants voted against. (Which showed how forgetful the Reds were of their own recent history: the DH's first World Series appearance was 1976, when it was applied to both combatants and Reds first baseman Dan Driessen got the job--thus was he the National League's first-ever designated hitter — for the entire Series, a four-game Reds sweep in which you could argue the DH helped the last Big Red Machine team against the revived but overmatched Yankees.)

* The Phillies, the Pirates, and the Astros abstained. And five days after the vote failed to allow the DH in the National League, the Cardinals fired Clairborne and named manager Whitey Herzog to hold the dual jobs of manager and GM.

CBS Sports's Jonah Keri isolates one potential sticky spot if the National League accepts the DH now: it may not be the revenue pool enhancer the players' union may think it to be. Citing Los Angeles Times writer Bill Shaikin's observation that only two full-time DHs (Nelson Cruz and Khris Davis) qualified for the batting title in 2018, Keri says making the DH a central issue "risks wasting a bullet on a minor roster issue":

"Mega-sluggers who can't play the field like David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez are practically unicorns in today's game. Instead, teams typically use the DH spot to give position players quasi-rest days or to take pressure off minor, nagging injuries. From a pure labor perspective then, adding a mandatory universal DH merely grants NL teams the same ability to shuffle players across positions, but does not dramatically open up a new source of widespread, high-paying jobs."

For those purists who insist (wrongly) that the DH "impedes strategy," shuffling players across positions actually has its strategic enhancements, particularly in things such as double switching in high-leverage late-game situations, not to mention the enhanced options pre-game or even pre-series in terms of differing defensive as well as offensive matchups when about to face particular pitchers.

Sure, it's fun when Madison Bumgarner hits those home runs every couple of blue moons, the way he did twice on Opening Day once. (We elders also remember one fine day in July 1966 when Atlanta Braves pitcher Tony Cloninger hit 2 grand slams in one game.) But as NBC Sports's Craig Calcaterra reminds us, Bumgarner's lifetime slash line as a hitter is .183/.228/.313, with a 54 OPS+. If you think the Giants pay Bumgarner for the 17 home runs he's hit in 10 major league seasons, hurry up before you miss the Orioles moving back to St. Louis. (Tony Cloninger's lifetime slash line, by the way, is .195/.205/.277. Even if that outlying July outburst leaves him still holding the Braves' franchise record for RBI in a single game.)

Oho, but the NL's lack of a DH "adds value to guys like Bumgarner and Kershaw and Scherzer who are good at all of baseball, not just part of it," says one tweeting responder to Calcaterra's reminder. "And it also adds strategy to the late innings."

If Bumgarner's batting slash line indicates he's good at "all" of baseball, then I've been learning about law enforcement from Bonnie and Clyde. Clayton Kershaw's batting slash is .163/.209/.188 with a 14 OPS+. Max Scherzer's lifetime slash is .194/.227/.220 with a 22 OPS+. All you have so far is Bumgarner out-slugging two fellow pitchers, as well as batting lines like that indicating that none of the three is good at all of baseball. And they're only being paid to be good at one thing which is a full-time job.

The late-inning strategic argument now makes as much sense as trying to put out a factory fire with water pistols. For longer than you might care to think, managers haven't been lifting as many pitchers as once upon a time for pinch hitters; assuming their incumbents and their defenses are getting the jobs done otherwise, the managers have been going to the bullpens to begin late innings, and they're going to pinch hitters for other than pitchers (depending on the depth of their position playing roster) more often.

Incidentally, pitchers overall in 2018 batted .115. Those who think bringing the DH to the National League would reduce it to the "kiddie league" they think the American League is with it should ponder Thomas Boswell: "It's fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he's Ty Cobb. But I'll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I've seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not 'pitch around' your way out of it."

Keri notices that if the DH came to the National League this season, three teams would benefit right out of the chute: the Mets, with a second base overload including aging Robinson Cano and injury-prone Jed Lowrie but also last year's impressive rookie comer Jeff McNeil; and, the Nationals and the Rockies, who could find more at-bats for such part timers as Matt Adams (the Nats) and Mark Reynolds (the Rockies). They wouldn't be the only teams.

The single most automatic out in baseball is the pitcher and has been for too long. Since the DH's advent it's gone all the way down to junior high schools, never mind college and the minors, so pitchers going untrained even minimally with a bat or on the bases didn't begin with the turn of the century. The world hasn't imploded because of it. If the world implodes, it'll be for reasons having nothing to do with whether you didn't get to see Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Luis Severino, or Josh Hader at the plate.

Nor will the world implode if some of the other changes being pondered by the commissioner and the union come to pass. A three-batter minimum for pitchers? Sound as a bell. Losing the one- or two-hitter specialist is no loss compared to the incentive to develop future Haders and Andrew Millers who can dispatch hitters from both sides of the plate and work multiple innings, on the assumption that their work loads are managed reasonably.

In fact, the three-batter minimum should help work load management by cutting back on warming pitchers up, sitting them down, warming them up again, maybe sitting them down again, and then bringing them in — after they've thrown the equivalent of an average game start's worth of pitches and might have tired arms ripe for being clobbered. (While we're at it, how's about cutting out the eight warmups for relief pitchers coming in for the first hitter or inning's work, since they should already be plenty warm? Thought you'd escape without me bringing that up again, didn't you?)

And I can't really object to the pitch clock anymore, either. I've seen enough minor league games where it's been used a long enough time to know that it isn't hurting anyone. Not the pitchers, not the hitters, and certainly not the quality of the game. There should be a trap door on the mound through which to drop pitchers waiting the 21st second into an underground tub of Jell-O. Name it the Pedro Baez Door, for the Dodgers reliever who takes so long between pitches you can read the closing stock prices and Amazon's quarterly report.

But I'd throw in a batter's box clock, too. You get only one chance to call time per plate appearance, adjust your gloves, rub up a little more pine tar on the handle, knock the dirt out of your cleats, needle the catcher, congratulate the ump on the new arrival, insult the third baseman creeping down the line, whatever you like doing when you call time and step out of the box. Install a trap door likewise in the batter's boxes to trigger when the batter tries for a second time-out in the same plate appearance. Name it the Mike Hargrove Hazard, after the former player-turned-manager who wasn't nicknamed the Human Rain Delay because he liked to rush pitchers into throwing to him.

Meanwhile, back at the DH ranch, I'd like to remind you what happened when the now-late Hall of Famer Frank Robinson prepared for the first game he'd manage as baseball's first black manager, for the 1975 Indians. He gave in to Indians brass who suggested strongly that the fans in Municipal Stadium (a.k.a. the Mistake on the Lake) wanted to see him in the lineup as well as managing, and put himself into the number two lineup spot against Yankee right-hander Doc Medich.

With Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, in the house, Robinson batted with one out in the bottom of the first and hit one over the left field fence to bring down the house. If you can think of a better way for a brand-new player-manager to launch the second half of his new job description, feel free to send it this way. But add a third element to that day's job description. Robinson penciled himself in as the Indians' DH for the day. Who says DH's can't help pioneers pioneer?

Another question is why on earth would you care to risk a pitcher being injured while swinging a bat or running the bases? Stop laughing and remember Adam Wainwright. In his seventh game of 2015, in late April, Wainwright popped his Achilles tendon ... while batting. He lost the rest of that season, the Cardinals lost the division series to the Cubs, and he's never been the same pitcher since that he was before the injury.

Stop laughing and remember Chien-Ming Wang. He looked like a Yankee mainstay in the making, until a 2008 interleague game against the Astros, before the Astros were moved to the American League. Wang reached base as a batter and was rounding for home on a subsequent play when he tore the lisfranc ligament in his right foot.

He missed the rest of the season and never again looked like the pitcher who was the fastest Yankee to reach fifty pitching wins since Ron Guidry. His injury-pockmarked-from-there career ended in 2016, after three more major league teams tried to revive him and failed. But boy wasn't it fun to see one of those American League pitchers have to run the bases and play real baseball!

(Don't even think about uttering "Shohei Ohtani." The Angels never let him bat on the days he pitched last year, and they never let him pitch on the days they plugged him into the lineup as the DH. Ohtani is an outlier, albeit an extremely talented one who earned his Rookie of the Year award.)

Sandy Koufax's Hall of Fame career was shortened by elbow arthritis when he was, well, not at his peak but about ten dimensions beyond it. Do you remember how that arthritis made itself manifest after who knew how long it merely festered in gestation? It started in August 1964 — on the bases. On a pickoff attempt. (I looked it up for you: Koufax only once ever tried to steal a base and was caught red-handed, and probably red-faced.)

If you remember how futile Koufax was with a bat in his hands overall, you'd think the idea of him on base at all, never mind trying to pick him off, was tantamount to sending Willie Mays out to pitch a no-hitter. When Koufax scrambled back (he was safe), he made a perfect four-point landing on his elbows and knees, jamming his left elbow a little. Two starts and wins later, he awoke to a pitching elbow the size of his knee. Career days numbered, even if nobody realized it in the moment.

Koufax, Wainwright, and Wang are just three examples. You can also remember Randy Johnson's career finish — four mere relief appearances in 2009 with the Giants. Until he made those, Johnson spent about a third of that season on the disabled list with a torn rotator cuff — incurred while he was batting. Was that the way you wanted to see a great pitcher mosey off into the sunset of a Hall of Fame career?

Sure, we all had a blast when Bartolo Colon, then a Met, bombed James Shields into the left field seats in 2016, in San Diego, for Colon's first major league home run. It was a laugh and a half of pleasure watching Colon run the bases like a cement truck with a flat inner rear tire, and watching the Mets empty the dugout before he arrived after touching the plate.

It was such a blast we almost forgot Colon was 43-years-old, in his nineteenth major league season, in only his 226th lifetime at-bat since he spent the big bulk of his career in the American League. His lifetime slash: .084/.092/.107, and an OPS+ of minus-45. And I didn't notice the Mets in any big hurry to have him grab a bat and starting loosening up to pinch hit in the wild card game they lost that year.

You've probably heard it said often enough that American League teams with the DH can put what amounts to an extra leadoff hitter into the number nine batting lineup slot. Why would it be so terrible for National League teams to do that? Especially since sliding in an extra leadoff hitter might move the line appropriately enough for them to slide an extra potential run producer into the number two slot?

America is a country that has had growing pains enough in its comparatively young life that several traditions have died to no regret. Some died very hard, though die they must. (We fought a civil war over one of them.) Some died over longer and more cumulatively painful times, though die they must. Enough of them absolutely had to die and we are by and large better for that. The question to ask of tradition is not whether tradition qua tradition is to be preferred, it's whether there are those traditions that are hazardous to a nation's core principles or a game's health.

Baseball's had some growing pains, too. There was once a time when the nation and some of the game's leading figures thought the home run would destroy the game. Ty Cobb and John McGraw objected to its impediment (so they alleged) to "scientific baseball." (Which didn't stop McGraw from nurturing and turning Hall of Famer Mel Ott loose when that National League home run king came under his wing and of age.) Ring Lardner once said the advent of the live ball (he called it "Br'er Rabbit Ball") and the home run ruined baseball for him far more than the Black Sox scandal could. And formally organized baseball held out for how long against admitting (or re-admitting, if you know the story of Fleet Walker) black and other non-white players to the ranks?

There was once a time when baseball feared such things as broadcasting, night ball (and remember, again, how long the Cubs held out against it), and shifting franchise locations would be the end of the game as we know it. They thought free agency would make the game competitively imbalanced, too. As if the game was in perfect competitive balance when the Yankees won all those 20th century reserve-era pennants and there were only two exceptions to New York World Series winners (the 1957 Braves, the 1959 Dodgers) during the 1950s.

The National League has held out against the DH about as long as the Cubs once held out against night ball. (The Cubs actually started planning night ball before Pearl Harbor and the world war to come compelled then-owner Phil Wrigley to send the planned lights and support structure materials away on behalf of the war effort.) And like the Cubs and their faithful regarding the lights, the DH in the National League won't inflict curved spines, hairy hands, or erectile dysfunction.

Baseball suffers more profound compromisings. Things like tanking teams. Things like hitters obsessed with launch angles. Things like hitters and coaches un-obsessed with busting the shifts by thinking about hitting into the wide-open spaces even (especially?) when there's a no-hitter in the making against them. (You're fool enough to leave that wide open a space for me when your guy's pitching a no-hitter, you've bought your own busted no-no.) Things like the so-called "unwritten rules" to which too many players keep clinging. (I say again: you want to play baseball like businessmen, wear three-piece suits on the field.)

The Opening Day Bumgarners and the Twilight Zone Colons are the extremely rare exceptions, not the rules. What would you prefer, really, the thrill that appears as frequently as Halley's Comet; or, the thrills that come every day from men doing their proper jobs for nine innings or more, without risking losing one of them to injuries doing things they're not being paid to do? (Speaking of thrills, I'm sure even die-hard National League fans weren't immune to those provided by David Ortiz, designated hitter, to name one, for several postseason Red Sox conquerors.)

"We try every way we can think of to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it," said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, once upon a time. The sun will still rise, the moon will still shine, the flora will still bloom, the fauna will still roam, life as we know it will go ever onward, and baseball will remain a transcendent game, even when the National League accepts reality and the designated hitter.

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