Forty years after Ron Blomberg stepped in the box as the first designated hitter in major league history, Royals manager Ned Yost sat in his office at spring training in Surprise, Ariz., showed a writer his lineup for that day's game and said, "We're playing the Cubs today at their place. They're using a DH, and our pitcher is hitting. What's going on here?"
It's the DH. It is 40 years old, and despite its relative popularity, it remains a source of consternation, controversy and confusion. And yet the DH, notwithstanding its inconsistencies, is more relevant than ever with the move of the Astros to the American League, creating two, 15-team leagues, and an interleague game virtually every day of the season. As there was in 1973, when the DH was born, and as there has been every season since, there remain two distinct camps on the DH: those who like the pitcher hitting, and those who do not.
"I'm an old-school guy; I'm not a real fan of the DH," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who has managed in both leagues. "When the pitcher is in there, things are on an even keel. There is more strategy in the game; that's a part of baseball. There is more little ball, there are tougher decisions on pitching strategy. It involves your bench more. The purists like it more that way. When you have the DH, you can manage in a rocking chair."
"It's so much easier to manage in the American League," said Yost, who has managed in both leagues. "In the American League, you can leave a pitcher out there until it's time to go get him. You don't have a situation where you have two outs, a man on second, down by a run in the sixth inning, with your pitcher at the plate. Do you hit for him or not? That's something you have to deal with in the National League."
"I really love baseball the way it is," said Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, who has played in the NL for his entire career. "I love that the American League and National League have different rules, and different games. That's what makes them so special and so great. I know there are arguments about it, but the AL gives some older guys, who might not have a position, a chance to continue with their career and do what they do best: hit. The NL has a little bit more strategy in its game because the pitcher has to hit."
"I think the NL game is a better game, it's a crisper game," said Rangers DH/first baseman Lance Berkman. "There is more intrigue in the early innings in the National League. There are critical at-bats in the fourth inning of an NL game. That doesn't concern you as much in the AL because there are so many more scoring opportunities. You might have a situation in the fifth or sixth inning in the NL, and that might be the game. You don't get the same sense of urgency in games in the AL as you do in the NL. The serious fan is more into the NL game. The more casual fan doesn't want to see the pitcher hit."
"I really thought, with the way the game has evolved, that the DH would have taken over," said Mets manager Terry Collins, who has managed in both leagues. "I thought it would be in both leagues by now. We use it in spring training for three weeks every year."
From all indications, the DH, as we know it, is here to stay. There is no movement to adopt it in the NL because the NL teams like the game the way it is and has been for well more than 100 years. And there is no movement to abolish the DH because it provides more offense, and increased offense generally means greater fan interest, which means higher revenues for teams. Plus, the DH is more than just a spot on a 25-man roster; it's a high-priced position that can keep an older player in the game long past the time he can play a position. The Major League Baseball Players Association isn't about to allow high-priced jobs to be taken away when, overall, the DH appears to be working well.
But DH has changed over the years. It used to be a position designed almost exclusively for older star players to continue their careers and remain productive hitters, including the likes of Frank Robinson, Rico Carty, Hal McRae and Harold Baines. From 1982 to '85, more than half of the AL teams used the same DH for at least 100 games in a season. Now, teams use the DH not so much to prolong an older star's career, but to keep players fresh by rotating the DH among five or six players. Last year, the Yankees used five different starting DHs in the first five games of the season. Last year, only two players, the Royals' Billy Butler and the Tigers' Delmon Young, started 100 games in the DH role. In 2011, there were seven such players: Butler, Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon, Vladimir Guerrero, Hideki Matsui, Victor Martinez and David Ortiz. But of those seven, only Butler, Oritz and Martinez are currently on major league rosters, in part because teams are no longer willing to clog their rosters, and the basepaths, with a one-dimensional player who is a defensive liability.
Still, the increased number of interleague games this year presents a problem for many teams. What are the Tigers and Red Sox, who have primary DHs in Martinez and Ortiz, respectively, going to do when they play interleague games? What are the Royals going to do with Butler in an NL park? The only position he can play with relative effectiveness is first base, but the Royals have Eric Hosmer at first base, which means Hosmer will have to play left or right field, a move that is going to weaken the Royals defensively in two positions. This year, they play the Phillies in Philadelphia in the second series of the season.
"We have had to run our camp this spring like a National League team because of that," Yost said. "We have to get our pitchers ready to hit and bunt in spring training because of that."
NL teams are at a disadvantage with more interleague games because of the makeup of their benches.
"That is correct," Collins said. "A lot of National League teams are not built for the DH. You have to put an extra player in the lineup. That guy won't match up against David Ortiz."
Someday, maybe 50 years from now, baseball historians are going to look back at this 40-year period, scratch their heads and wonder why the game had a different set of rules for each league when the DH was being used in almost every league, on almost every level, in America. They will see Mariano Duncan and Keith Lockhart as the starting DH in a World Series game, and wonder how that could happen. They will wonder how it is possible that an AL pitcher can come to the plate in a major league game having not batted since he was in high school because the DH has been provided every step of the way.
"There's the group of people that believe that offense is more important than the strategy; I don't believe that," Johnson said. "It's a logjam. When you have a committee ruling on it, you're not going to come to a consensus. It's kind of ridiculous that we have two sets of rules. With interleague play, with teams built differently, it kind of gives the game a black eye."
Berkman has injured knees. He has to DH now.
"It's been 40 years," he said. "One thing we know about baseball is that it changes very slowly. Once something is enacted, it doesn't change. There are things in our game that make no sense, and nothing is done. There are things that make a lot of sense to do, and nothing is done. We ask all the time, 'Why wouldn't you do this?' It's a process to get it changed. I'm glad we have the DH because in my current situation, I wouldn't be able to play this year. But if they didn't have it, it wouldn't hurt my feelings."