The Designated Hitter Rule Turns 40. Is It Good For Baseball?
April 6, 1973. The Yankees’ Ron Blomberg digs into the batters box against Boston’s Luis Tiant. In and of itself a plate appearance in Major League Baseball is not significant. This one, however, ushered in the era of the Designated Hitter in the American League, a rule change in one league only that has profoundly changed the way players approach the game, fans are entertained by it and how AL baseball teams strategize over it. I was 15-years old and a rabid baseball fan and player when the rule was instituted. You won’t have to get out your Ouija board to guess which one of the two I still am today.
July 13, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (34) at bat against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Boston Red Sox defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
In my heart and my head I’m an AL guy. Always have been and always will be. In my soul I’m a National League fan. This process of self-discovery has taken as long as the DH rule has been in effect. After decades of taking what the big networks wanted to feed me, I have like many other fans, been liberated from the tyranny of local, regional and even national broadcasts that limit my choice of games. The payment I make every March for my MLB package is one of the most satisfying things I do all year. In the age of wide-open, watch who you want whenever the hell you want baseball, my AL interests have been systematically eroded and are now being actively hijacked by the purity of National League baseball.
Don’t get me wrong. As a Mainer transplanted in Virginia, Red Sox blood runs through my veins and always will. I live and die with the team’s ups and downs. I actually think Truck Day is cool. I’ve got a dozen Red Sox caps (some rarely worn so I’ll have a nice one to go with my formal wear), drinking glasses, shot glasses, a 2004 World Championship blanket, Christmas ornaments and apparel of all stripes. Yeah, it runs that deep.
"But there are those times after a late night Sox game posting when my wandering eye turns it’s lusty attention to the seduction of a Giants/Dodgers or Cardinals/Phillies tilt, a siren song that I simply can’t ignore."
It’s the intrigue and drama of knowing that a pitcher who just drilled a guy in the ribs has to stand in the batter’s box the next inning. It’s knowing that even a weak hitting hurler can lay down a sweet bunt to move a teammate into scoring position. It’s that moment, as happened on Opening Day, when the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw had a stellar outing on the bump and greatly helped his cause by jacking a homer en route to a 4-0 Dodgers win.
April 1, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) rounds the bases after a solo home run in the eighth inning of the game against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium. Dodgers won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The strategy of getting ’em on, getting ’em over and getting ’em in is so much more palpable in the National League that it consistently forces me to re-evaluate the DH rule and how it has diluted the AL product. Sure, securing a power hitting raker or a singles/doubles hitting machine with speed is exciting for fans. More offensive pop equals more runs and that translates to more action. I among all fans have been blessed to watch David Ortiz do his thing with flair, drama and consistency over the years. Think about the Red Sox without Ortiz and how different the makeup of the team would have been if they hadn’t decided to get him anyway and make him a first baseman in a non-DH era.
"I wonder how Pedro Martinez‘ dominance during his Red Sox years when he was at the height of his powers would have played out. His no penalty drillings and brush backs of opponents may have ever-so-slightly changed his approach had he been forced to plunk his 170 pound soaking wet frame into the batters box. Sure he did it in the NL once he left Boston but he wasn’t the force of nature bully by then that he was in Boston."
With the two leagues still divided on the issue it makes for flat out weirdness during inter-league and World Series play. At the end of the day I suppose it’s a matter of taste; strategy over firepower, purity over entertainment, visceral over cerebral. After living through both non-DH and DH eras, if I had to come down on one side or the other I’d like to see the American League revoke, as in phase out, the DH rule and return to baseball as it was originally designed.
That’s my take. What’s yours? As the debate over the DH continues it is fittingly ironic to note that Blomberg drew a walk against Tiant.