|Maturity Enhances DH In NL Eyes|
By Jim Henneman
This no doubt will upset a whole lot of my National League friends, not to mention the self-anointed baseball purists (a crowd that often has included yours truly), but more and more I'm becoming convinced that the NL is closer to dropping its resistance to the designated hitter rule. It's not going to happen tomorrow, next week or even next year -- but my guess is it will within the next decade or, at the very least, before the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated.
The whispers started last offseason, when the NL lost two of its most prolific sluggers, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, to American League teams -- the Angels and Tigers, respectively. The fact that Pujols has also been considered the game's most complete player for the last 10 years only adds to the agony.
When Pujols and Fielder both changed leagues, it became apparent that AL teams, with the DH rule now completing its fourth decade of existence, have more options to offer hitters as they approach, or even pass, their prime. The DH is a fallback option, which almost certainly will come into play for both Pujols and Fielder. That is an option NL clubs currently don't have -- but one that figures to be heavily debated during the coming years.
Lending support to the theory that the DH is destined to be universally adopted is the crucial fact that, one by one, the "old-line" owners, those that never admitted a good idea could come from the other side, are gradually becoming extinct. Many AL diehards are convinced the reason the National League never went along with the DH was that the so-called "junior circuit" put it into play without getting the approval of the "senior league."
In truth, whether you think the DH has tainted the game or not, the NL is virtually the only one in existence that doesn't use it, and it seems to be only a matter of time before it becomes a global rule. Of course, in 1973, when the DH rule was implemented, the prevalent feeling was that it was only a matter of time before the AL saw the error of its ways and did away with it.
There is no longer any such expectation, during an era when nothing that is relevant to the game changes without permission of the players. The Major League Baseball Players Association, fully aware of the benefits to its members, will never approve of the DH rule's elimination. In addition to potentially prolonging the career of all hitters, the DH position has indirectly benefited pitchers as well.
There's no question that the addition of the DH has put more pressure on AL pitchers, creating specialists in the process and resulting in teams carrying as many as 12 or 13, as opposed to the 10 that used to be standard on the 25-man roster. Both leagues have gradually embraced the ensuing change in strategies involving relief pitchers.
One fallacy generally blamed on the DH rule is the expanded length of games in the AL as opposed to the NL. The fact is that the difference has generally been five minutes or less and, while the average time of a major league game has risen to almost three hours, the difference from the 1960 average of 2.38 can be traced directly to increased commercial time between each half-inning.
One other item of interest in contemplating the future of the DH is that the wild card era has created leagues unequal in numbers, with 16 teams in the National League and 14 in the AL. That will change next year, when the Houston Astros move into the AL, a move that Lance Berkman, a former Astro now with the Cardinals, has lambasted as a strong-arm tactic commissioner Bud Selig employed as a condition of the sale of the team.
When the leagues are balanced at 15, meaning at least one interleague game every day, the DH will come under even more scrutiny, and probably more pressure to have the two leagues play under the same rules. There is still some strong opposition to the DH rule, and it won't go away easily, but the number of staunch enemies is slowly disappearing.
Because the two leagues now operate under the same MLB banner and answer only to the commissioner, rather than separate presidents, and with one set of umpires instead of two, it really does seem like only a matter of time before there is only one set of rules again.
Believe it or not, the AL would benefit should its counterparts eventually fall in line, because it's also only a matter of time before the AL becomes known as the "pre-retirement" league. Be assured the NL would be only too happy to use that tag if more of its established (read: older) players keep jumping ship.
Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, negotiated last fall, produced many interesting sidelights, some of which are still being sorted out.
I'm not sure this is one of them, but baseball has taken the unique step of adopting a media dress code for clubhouses and press boxes. I guess that means the days of the scruffy, rag-tag beat writes are behind us.
Some of the "no-nos" listed in the new dress code:
No flip-flops, short shorts, tank tops or team logos (not sure about the correlation there); also no ripped (as opposed to torn?) jeans, visible undergarments (?) or bare midriffs; no sheer, over the shoulder or strapless garments.
It's not quite like the old "coat and tie" rule the Orioles used to compel with their players, which most of the local media honored out of respect, but obviously baseball doesn't want its workplace to resemble a slumber party.
"I believe the baseball media in general could dress more professionally," was the delicate reaction of Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, who, as vice president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, is poised to become that group's first female president during the BBWAA's World Series meeting.
I think the flip-flop rule will be the first one violated. Peter Schmuck can relax -- there's nothing in there about "blousy" shirts.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Issue 172: April 2012