It's April 11. And eight American League pitchers have already found themselves at home plate with a bat in their hands.
It's April 11. And the Angels have already visited Cincinnati. The Royals have already gulped down a bunch of pregame cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. And the White Sox have already played baseball in Washington -- for the first time since 1971.
It's April 11. And interleague play is already upon us. But get used to it.
It's never going away. Ever. From now until September. And, ohbytheway, for the rest of perpetuity after that.
With 15 teams in each league, there's now no choice. The only way to make out the schedule is to play at least one interleague game virtually every day. So barring expansion or contraction, there's no turning back.
Daily interleague play is going to be part of the baseball experience for ever and ever. Kinda like watching games on your phone. And Darren Oliver.
"It's definitely different," said Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto last week, as he found himself and his team in Cincinnati, minus its DH, for the very first series of the year. "It made putting a roster together [this spring] a little unusual. That's for sure."
It might be five years from now. It might be 10 years from now. But my gut feeling is that if you ever got everybody in one room and said you've all got to stay in the room until you make a decision one way or the other, eventually they'd come out and say it's time to have the DH in both leagues."
”-- Brewers GM Doug Melvin
But roster construction is merely the tip of this interleague iceberg. The baseball world is just beginning to shake as the tremors of wire-to-wire interleague play are starting to ripple across its landscape. But here's our prediction:
One of these years, year-round interleague-a-palooza is going to be the development that finally pushes baseball over the edge -- and brings the designated hitter to the National League.
Not just for a series here or there. But for good. For the rest of our lives. And David Ortiz's grandchildren's lives.
"I think that time is coming," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said this week. "Now I don't know when that time is. It might be five years from now. It might be 10 years from now. But my gut feeling is that if you ever got everybody in one room and said you've all got to stay in the room until you make a decision one way or the other, eventually they'd come out and say it's time to have the DH in both leagues."
He's far from the only decision-maker inside the sport who thinks that, incidentally. We heard the same sentiments from GMs and managers all spring. But why now? Why would this be the impetus for such a monumental change, after 40 years of having the DH in one league but not the other? Excellent question. The answer is, season-long interleague play isn't the only force that's pushing baseball in this direction. It's just the latest force -- and now the most ever-present.
So why do so many people inside the game now believe the end of baseball's four-decade-old split-personality era is near? Let's take a look:
The New Normal
When interleague play used to get squished mostly into a concentrated three-week block, life was different. That form of interleague play was more like a sideshow, a diversion, an attraction to liven up the midseason schedule.
But not anymore. This form of interleague play just shows up on the schedule with almost no pattern whatsoever. Take the Royals, for instance.
Five of their first eight road games this season are in National League parks -- three in Philadelphia last weekend, two in Atlanta next Tuesday and Wednesday. After that, they'll make only two more trips to NL cities the rest of the year -- for a two-game series in St. Louis in May and a three-gamer against the Mets in late August. That doesn't bear much resemblance to last season, when they played all nine of their interleague road games in a 12-day period in June.
So what effect did this schedule have? It inspired the Royals to hold what manager Ned Yost calls "a National League spring training" from Day One of camp -- with pitchers bunting and taking batting practice all spring.
"When I first came over to Kansas City, we had problems [with pitchers not being ready for interleague play]," Yost said. "Luke Hochevar hurt his elbow swinging. So I wanted to really take our time, use the whole two months to work into it. But we had all these games in April [in Philadelphia and Atlanta]. So we needed to be ready."
That meant a whole staff of American League pitchers traipsing off to the batting cage on Feb. 11, for what had to be the first time in more than 40 years. But since they were there, they made sure to enjoy themselves.
"Obviously, it was a fun thing to do and talk about, but you've definitely got to take it seriously, too," said James Shields, who last Sunday became the first AL pitcher since 1972 to get a hit in April. "I know I did. Any time you've got a chance to help yourself win a ball game, hey, I'm all in."
But in truth, nobody got real worked up one way or the other over seeing AL pitchers hitting in April. Or even over the absence of guys such as Billy Butler and Adam Dunn from AL lineups because there was no DH slot on the lineup card.
Why? Because it's early. So what the heck. Now, though, let's look ahead. To late September, when the two teams traveling to National League cities in the last week of the season happen to be the Red Sox (to Denver) and Tigers (to Miami).
Now let's say those are must-win games. And let's say people notice that Felix Doubront and Rick Porcello are heading for the plate instead of Big Papi and Victor Martinez. Anybody think this will suddenly seem like a much bigger deal? Yeah, thought so.
Or what happens if, say, the Mariners get rained out in the final game of their interleague series in St. Louis -- on Sept. 15? Do they have to fly back to St. Louis from Seattle, after a night game, on their only remaining off day (Sept. 26) to make that one up?
"We've been lucky [with the weather] so far," said one baseball official. "But there are going to be some rainouts that could give us some late-season scheduling issues. And I'd be lying if I said that wasn't something we all have concerns about."
These are real, live interleague crises just waiting to happen. And when -- not if -- they erupt, they'll be events that shift the forces in the universe just a little closer to the adaptation of one set of rules for both leagues. That's coming, friends. Mark it down.
It's always about the money. Remember that. You should especially remember that the next time a world-famous free-agent masher signs for about a quarter-billion dollars over the next eight, nine or 10 years.
"Just having the DH gives a definite advantage to an American League club in signing one of those guys," said Melvin, who lost Fielder to the Tigers because he couldn't offer a long enough contract. "If you're in the American League and you're signing him past age 35, you say, 'He can DH in a couple of those years.' But you can't do that in the National League."
This didn't just start becoming an issue when Pujols hit free agency, of course. It's always been an issue. But now, as the dollars get bigger and the game skews younger, it has a chance to become a much more significant tipping point within the sport.
If you were born in 1970, the DH is something you grew up with. It's just part of baseball. If you were born in 1950, the DH is a curse. But I think right now, there are more people who have wrapped their arms around the DH than people who haven't. I think more people [support the DH] now than have ever before in history."
”-- Angels manager Mike Scioscia
If you're an NL team, do you just keep waving sayonara to your biggest boppers? Or do you take a chance and sign them anyway? If you do sign a deal that takes that player into his late 30s, good luck, because you can't trade him, said one AL executive.
"The value in those long contracts is what you get out of the total contract," he said. "You don't want to be the team absorbing the last three years of one of those deals if you didn't get the benefit of the first six or seven, when the guy was at his peak."
So maybe, said another exec, that's one more force that could push NL owners to reconsider their opposition to the DH.
"You look at Cincinnati and the [12-year] deal they gave Joey Votto," he said. "If you don't have the DH, what do you do? Either the guy has to play first base until he's 40, or he becomes Jim Thome. And that could have an impact on an owner like [the Reds' Bob] Castellini. He's always been a hard-core National League owner. But this could cause him to rethink it. Or what about Philadelphia with Ryan Howard? They'd probably love to DH him right now, because he still isn't healthy after his injury. They're another team that's always been anti-DH. But you wonder if that could start to change."
But this isn't just about aging sluggers. What about the soaring cost of pitching?
"Now, when we're starting to pay pitchers $20 million a year, don't we have to start thinking more about whether we want pitchers hitting?" Melvin wondered. "When you think about the competitiveness of a Zack Greinke or a [Clayton] Kershaw when he's hitting, there's a danger of those guys overdoing it in any at-bat and getting hurt. Think about the money factor. If Felix Hernandez were to get hurt, it would be devastating to Seattle -- to their season, to their franchise, to their fan base. A guy like that, he's a draw. When he pitches, people come to the park. I know I get nervous every time a pitcher squares around to bunt, even guys we're not paying $20 million."
Melvin said that not having the DH even had an impact this winter when he was trying to fill out his bench. He wound up losing Lyle Overbay to Boston, just "because I couldn't get him that extra 150 at-bats he could get [in the AL] with the DH."
So what's the upshot of all this? The upshot is, we have a bunch of forces converging to give AL teams an advantage in signing all sorts of players -- from MVPs to Cy Youngs to scrubeenies. Do we really think NL teams are going to be resigned to that fate forever? Really? Why would they?
The Change Game
The world spins. Every year. The tides shift. Every year. Opinions change. Every year. Even about hot-button issues like the DH.
"I don't know what's going to happen with this," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "I really don't. But think about it. If you were born in 1970, the DH is something you grew up with. It's just part of baseball. If you were born in 1950, the DH is a curse. Why would [someone of that age] ever think a pitcher shouldn't hit? But I think right now, there are more people who have wrapped their arms around the DH than people who haven't. I think more people [support the DH] now than have ever before in history."
And you know what? He's right. We haven't commissioned a Gallup Poll on this. But we have no doubt he's right. The only question is what that's going to mean.
Scioscia isn't ready to make any predictions. He just knows he sees a time coming when both leagues play by the same set of rules -- either no DH in either or the DH in both -- because "I think that's the only logical way it can go."
And if logic rules, the DH almost has to survive -- for all the reasons we've just outlined and because it's hard to find anybody who thinks the DH is in any danger of getting eliminated. ("I just don't see that happening," said one baseball official, flatly.)
But for the National League to adopt the DH, there is still a long road to travel. For one thing, almost no one in baseball sees this change coming while Bud Selig is commissioner. ("This isn't something the commissioner wants to tamper with at this time," said one source close to Selig.)
For another, it would take a three-fourths vote of all owners (21 in all). So at least six National League owners would have to vote to change the rules. And the prospect of that happening any time soon is almost nil, considering owners have spent "zero" time pondering this, one source said.
Finally, this is something that would have to be negotiated with the players' union. And while nobody believes the union would stand in the way of creating 15 new DH jobs, it's hard to say how easy or difficult a negotiation that would be, because, amazingly, it was never seriously discussed during the last labor talks.
There would undoubtedly be a grace period or phase-in period, to allow NL teams to gear up for a whole new way of roster construction. So with Selig theoretically set to retire after 2014, we're talking 2015 at the earliest, and probably later. But any time the National League is ready for this, it won't have to worry about convincing these AL managers who find themselves already playing by NL rules -- in April.
"I can play it either way. So if I have to play these games by National League rules, so be it," Ned Yost said. "My philosophy has always been, it is what it is, so just play it.
"But," he laughed, "I wish we didn't have to."
Well, the good news is that one of these years, says this crystal ball, he won't.