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The designated hitter and the National League

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Times change and even tradition-bound things like baseball have to change along with those times. That doesn't mean that all change is for the better, though.


Where do you stand on the question of whether the National League should permanently install the designated-hitter rule?

Put me down as all in favor of it. And that's from someone who, when the rule was first adopted by the American League back in 1973, ranted and raved that it was the worst idea since General Custer challenged the Sioux Indians to a fight at Little Bighorn. The outright heresy, I thought, of installing a permanent pinch-hitter into a starting lineup is a desecration of The Grand Old Game. Surely, I was convinced, it foreshadowed the beginning of the end. I was not even mollified when the Red Sox acquired future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda to serve as their first DH.

Cepeda would go on to hit .289 in his single season with the Sox to go along with 20 home runs and 86 runs batted in, not quite up to the stats he compiled in his great years with the San Francisco Giants, but much better than, say, Luis Tiant (who won 20 games for the Sox in '73), with his lifetime batting average of .164, would have had.

Someone asked me recently how I thought Ted Williams would do as a designated hitter. "Oh," I said, "He'd hit about .290 with 19 or 20 home runs." "Is that all?" the guy asked. "You have to remember," I replied, "That if he were alive Ted would be 102 years old."

Gradually, I came to reluctantly realize that, as imperfect as it is, the DH rule works. The bottom line is that it makes the game more entertaining, and that's what counts, since that's what all sports are: entertainment. It extended the legendary careers of Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice. Even more than that, it made Big Papi possible. The Red Sox would not have all that hardware in their trophy case if David Ortiz had not been their designated hitter. Without him and the rule, the Curse of the Bambino might still be haunting Fenway Park to this very day. I shudder just to think of it.

Oh sure, it takes away from some of the game's traditional strategy. It's been 47 seasons since an American League manager has had to decide whether to pinch hit for the pitcher. That's a trade-off well worth the price. National League teams are at a competitive disadvantage when they play interleague games in American League parks.

They can use designated hitters when there but their rosters are not constructed with a DH in mind.

For a long time, Hall of Fame voters had a prejudice against voting designated hitters into the Hall. They didn't have to play on defense was the mantra. That's like saying that Tom Brady shouldn't be in the Football Hall of Fame because he's never played on defense. There was a time when quarterbacks and everyone else in football played both offense and defense, but that was in the olden days. Nowadays, all football players specialize in offense, defense, or perhaps special teams; and, the last time I checked, the game was more popular than it's ever been.

When the National Basketball Association adopted the three-point line four decades ago, there was a great hue and cry from the "purists" about how heretics were ruining the game. Basketball seems to have survived, though. It's hard to imagine the blowback the NBA would get if it tried to rescind the three-point shot.

Last year, even the tradition-bound baseball writers finally took note of the fact that nothing stays the same forever if it hopes to survive. They voted Edgar Martinez of the Seattle Mariners into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Martinez came up to the major leagues as a third baseman but earned his stripes as a designated hitter; he played in 564 games at third and 1406 as DH. That should ease the way for Ortiz next year when he becomes eligible for induction. He played in only 278 games at first base while logging in 2029 as designated hitter.

Times change and even tradition-bound things like baseball have to change along with those times. That doesn't mean that all change is for the better, though. Take, for example, some of the changes in baseball over recent years. It's become a game of strikeouts, walks, and home runs. The pace of it grows constantly slower even as the rest of the world has been picking up speed.

Home runs have always been considered to be good things, but the recent explosion of them is too much of a good thing, like overeating at dessert. Baseballs travel farther than they ever did before; round-trippers have become more and more commonplace. When they were relatively hard to come by, a ball sailing into the stands was an exciting thing to behold, but now just watching a guy as he jogs around the bases doesn't get the pulse racing like it used to. What are the things you remember about this year's World Series? For me, they weren't all the four-baggers that were hit. They were Mookie Betts's derring-dos on the base paths. Those are the kinds of things we don't see often enough anymore. Dial back the liveliness of the ball and start to feature the great athleticism of the players. Baseball is a great game, the best of them all, but it seems to have lost its balance. It's out of whack.

Baseball should treat change the way a beautiful woman uses her makeup. Carefully applied it enhances an already wondrous thing. Just slapping it on, though, creates the opposite effect.

So, yes, by all means, the National League should adopt the designated hitter and get into step with the rest of the baseball world. The experiment the American League adopted 47 years ago seems to be working out just fine.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.

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