Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"Necessary (Albeit Odious) Compromises"

From its earliest beginnings, the United States Congress was the product of often torturous but necessary compromise.  There would be no country at all unless the larger and smaller states could agree on the manner in which each of their interests would be reflected in the national governing body.

The small states, fearful of being steamrollered by the larger states, achieved a Senate in which each state, large, small or Florida (medium-sized), was allotted an equal number of Senatorial seats – two (appointed, not elected – until 1913 – directly by the state legislatures.) 

The more heavily populated states got what they wanted with the creation of a House of Representatives whose proportion of members mirrored the varying population sizes of the states – the larger states receiving a greater number of House seats than smaller ones.   

This is just one of many, often agonizing, compromises  (See:  Slavery) that the Founders were required to accept in order for the establishment of a new nation to take place.  But I am not here today to talk about the history of the American government. 

“Oh good.  ‘Cause that’s boring.”

I am here instead to talk about baseball.

“Great!  We are going to be bored in an entirely unexpected arena.”

Our topic:  “The Designated Hitter And It’s Effect On The World Series.”

“Really bored.”

Helpful Preliminary Information:

Major League Baseball is divided into two leagues:  the National League and the American League.  Both leagues play by exactly the same rules, with the exception of one. 

In 1973, in an effort to inject more offense into the game, the American League instituted the “Designated Hitter Rule”, by which a player is designated to go up and hit in place of the team’s pitcher.  The reason this adds offense to the game is because generally, though not always, pitchers are abominable hitters.

The National League has held steadfast to tradition.  As pitiful as they might perform at the plate, the pitchers remain required to bat for themselves. 


In the World Series (and, less importantly, in inter-league series during the season.)

The annual World Series, the best-of-seven (whoever wins four games wins) showdown between the National and American League Champions, is the marquee presentation of Major League Baseball.  The Series is what the entire season has been pointing towards, an opportunity for even those with little interest in the game to watch the two best teams go head-to-head, to determine who will be crowned World Series Champions of, now, 2000 and whatever.

However, because one league has the Designated Hitter Rule and the other does not,

The World Series has become, to a significant degree, a joke, a disgrace and a laughingstock.


In order for neither competing team to suffer too great a hardship by playing under conditions that they do not normally play under, Major League Baseball has decided that the applying rule – whether to employ the DH or not to – will be determined by which team is the “Home Team” – the team on whose field the game is being played. 

In the course of the Series, the teams play games on both fields.  If the World Series game is being played on the American League team’s field, then the Designated Hitter Rule is enforced (for both teams.)  On the other hand, if they are playing on the National League field, then the traditional rules are applied, meaning there is no Designated Hitter, and both teams’ pitchers are required to bat.

What does that mean? 

It means that at some point during the most important and high profile series of the year – and in contrast to the championship game or series of any other major sport – both baseball teams will be required to play a version of the game that they have not played (with the exclusion of a handful of inter-league games) all season.

You want to hear “embarrassing”?  Wait, lemme explain something first. 

One of the complaints against using the Designated Hitter is that it removes a substantial amount of strategizing from the game.  Say it’s late in a very close game, and the terrible-hitting pitcher is due to hit.  In the American League that is not an issue because, with the Designated Hitter Rule, the pitcher is never due to hit. 

In the National League, on the other hand, the team‘s manager has an important decision to be made.  Does he “lift” the pitcher (who can then not return to the game) for a superior hitter?  Or does he keep the pitcher in there, despite abysmal his batting abilities, because he can still help the team with his pitching?

Okay now, back to “embarrassing.”

“Game Three” of the 2013 World Series – the (American League) Boston Red Sox versus the (Notional League) St. Louis Cardinals, the game being played in St. Louis, so there is no Designated Hitter.

It is the top of the ninth inning, the game tied 4-4.  Playing without the Designated Hitter, Red Sox manager John Farrell is forced to make a decision that, in his league, he is never required to make.  Should he leave relief pitcher Brandon Workman in the game, thus requiring him to go up and bat?   Or should he remove Workman from the game in favor of a more skillful and reliable “pinch-hitter.”

(Do you see how strategically exciting this is?)

To keep him in the game, Farrell sends his pitcher up to bat.   

Brandon Workman, whom Wikipedia informs us has never batted in his entire professional career, now stands at the plate, in front of twenty million people during a pivotal moment in the World Series, looking like a Fifth Grader suddenly instructed to take a surprise algebra exam.  Though he tries to cover his discomfort, Workman’s entire body language is screaming,

“What do I do?

The grievously overmatched Mr. Workman proceeds to strike out on three consecutive pitches.  (And the Red Sox ultimately lost the game 5-4.)

Why did this happen?

Because the two leagues play by a different set of rules.

I personally am against the Designated Hitter Rule, adding my voice to the view that it upsets the symmetry of the game and diminishes the strategizing, which is always enjoyable for the viewer to “manage” along with, and second-guess.

But I know that the American League will never give it up (because it does inject more fan-pleasing offense into the game.)  And the Player’s Association will never allow it to go away, because it extends years to the careers of players who’ve become liabilities in the field but who are still able to hit.

The “agonizing compromise”?

I say, for the good of the game – and especially the integrity and reputation of the World Series

Heavy sigh…

Require them to have the Designated Hitter Rule in both leagues.

I’d have made an admirable Founding Father, don’t you think?

Except maybe for the wig.


Canda said...

Congratulations, Earl. I know how agonizing it is for a National Leaguer to suggest that.

However, when the vote was taken in 1973, the NL turned down the DH vote 6-4, so it was close. Legend has it that the owner of the Phillies wanted the DH, but couldn't attend the meeting when the vote was taken,and the Phillies voted against it. Had they voted yes, supposedly the Pirates would have voted yes, also. Could be apocryphal.

But the NL is not as "pure" as they think, since they are the league that introduced astroturf, and in the glory years, had many parks with astroturf. As for strategy, when the 8th place hitter gets on base and the pitcher is coming up, there is no strategy, since the NL does the very same thing every time - has the pitcher bunt. Strategy is when you're not sure way the 9th place hitter will do, which is true in the AL.

Also, given the enormous contracts being paid pitchers these days, I'm not sure how any NL owners are happy seeing their pitchers at the plate and running bases, where injuries can easily occur to athletes not used to being in that position.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I have to assume that more strategy applies than you've stated here: the DHR applies as well when you're drafting your team (do you pick the best pitcher, or maybe a less-best pitcher who can hit a little better?). However, I must take issue with the statement that this is the only sport in which the biggest event is decided by a version of the game they don't play the rest of the year. In tennis, the only sport I actually follow, the male players play best-of-three sets throughout the year, but at the four major events (Australian, French, and US Opens, Wimbledon, collectively the Grand Slams) they play best of five. (There are also games, such as snooker and darts, where the number of seats increases through the tournament as you get to the bigger matches, but that's a little different). The upshot is that newcomers to the Slams may well be expected to play a format they've never expeienced before. Five sets requires a different mental set, affecting everything from what food and drink you consume, to how you pace yourself, what you do if you're down 0-5 in a set (do you fight back or let it go and focus on the next one?), how many shirts, racquets, and pairs of socks you pack in your bag, everything. At Wimbledon, for many years a newcomer surprise semi-finalist might not have played on Centre Court until the big match. Fred Perry, in commentary, used to talk about how unfair that was because the way CC is constructed makes it special with the ball more highly visible than elsewhere ("you think you have all day to hit it") with the result that newcomers frequently lost the first set in a daze before they acclimated. I believe the tournament now allows players in that situation a little practice time before the match, which seems to me necessary if they want good matches).

It is also, I am told, the case that the World Cup (soccer) is the only event that settles matches with penalty shoot-outs if they've gone past a certain point. So there, too, is a format that isn't played the rest of the time. (It's a reason why I have no interest in soccer, by the way.)

Enjoy your baseball, folks.