For Major League Baseball owners, management, players and fans, the hot topic the last few weeks has been the proposed realignment of division and changes to the playoff format.
The debate has been hashed out in a number of ways, with the major focus directed at putting 15 teams in both the American and National League and the implications of these changes (like eliminating divisions and year-long interleague play).
Strangely, one topic that seems to be a natural extension of the debate is not being mentioned in most conversations: the role of the designated hitter rule in baseball, particularly when at least one interleague series is guaranteed to be played at any given time.
For baseball fans, the idea that teams builds their rosters around the presence (AL) or lack (NL) of a designated hitter in the lineup is not a novel concept. Thus, a team playing an interleague road series late in the season may be at a distinct disadvantage compared to a rival team that is playing in more familiar territory.
One could spend hours debating whether or not this argument holds water, especially if all teams play an equal number of interleague games when the season is over. Regardless, it may be time for some baseball fans to stop and think about how ridiculous the DH rule truly is.
For all intents and purposes, baseball is the only major sport where teams competing for the same trophy play by different rules based upon which is the home team. Would football not be a ridiculous sport if teams played with 11 men on the field in the NFC and only 10 in the AFC? Would hockey fans not riot if nets were two feet wider in Boston than they were in Vancouver (OK, they would probably riot anyway.)?
And yet, baseball accepts that pitchers in the AL don’t have to participate in small-ball, and bumbling power hitters don’t need to showcase their lack of defensive skills.
Baseball fans typically pride themselves on the purity and history of the sport, which is why so many people debate whether or not season records should have asterisks because the rules and culture of the sport change over the years.
Maris hit 61* home runs in 1961 because the season was eight games longer; McGwire and Bonds hit 70* and 73* respectively because of the role of steroids in that era of baseball. Some fans will even argue the merits of achievements because of how much stronger players have become, how much smaller ballparks have gotten and the composition of the baseballs being used.
So why does a culture that is so rich in history not spend more time demanding that the sport return to its pre-1973 rules, where every pitcher was required either to bat or to be replaced by a pinch-hitter?
Perhaps fans like the more offensive nature of the American League. Without the pitcher in the lineup, fans are less likely to see sacrifice bunts or weak ground balls. But while more home runs and higher scores MAY make the sport more interesting to watch, do fans really demand to see this?
At least as many fans enjoy watching managers struggle with the decision to pull a solid pitcher in the sixth inning of a low-scoring game when he comes to bat with two men on and two outs.
Even if the majority of fans do prefer seeing the increased offense that comes with the DH rule, why have both leagues not adopted it?
The rule was instituted long before I was born, so I wasn’t around for the debate in ’73. But if this discussion were happening today, in the age of Twitter and blogging, I would love to see the public reaction to changing the rules for half the teams in the league.
Baseball continued to make itself appear nonsensical in the ‘90s by distributing the teams in the league unevenly, then adopting interleague play and making it seem like a huge deal (when every other sport does it without making a spectacle).
Realignment is a step in the right direction; there is no need for the AL and NL to have a different number of teams, and there is no reason for the Astros to have to beat out five teams for a playoff spot while the Athletics only have to beat three.
Without re-opening the debate on the DH rule, though, realignment will only exacerbate the flaws in the sport when the Yankees are forced to send a pitcher to the plate in three consecutive September games, while the Red Sox are able to reap the benefits of Big Papi’s bat without having to worry about Big Papi’s glove.
It is time for baseball to wake up and pick a side: DH or no DH. This ridiculous half-experiment has gone on long enough.