Time to standardize the DH

Steve Ruark

It's silly that the modern game hasn't introduced the DH to the National League yet, given all the other changes in the game

My friend and colleague Mike Bates wrote a reasoned, level-headed argument about the DH in this space on Friday, which isn't something you see very often. He argued, essentially, that things should stay just as they are, because with the way things have been changing over the years, the DH rule and lack thereof are among the only things left that keep the leagues different from each other, and "difference is pleasant, while homogeneity is boring."

Which makes sense. But in this case, it's wrong. Like, really wrong.

For much too long now, people have been treating the DH rule as a purely aesthetic concern, and our individual preferences for baseball with the rule or without have been treated as though they're as idiosyncratically personal as one's favorite flavor of ice cream or genre of music. Generally (as Grant Brisbee points out) it's come down to what you're used to: you'll be pro-DH if you grew up rooting for an American League team, anti- if you're from a National League town, and that's just the way it is. Mike's point essentially depends on it being this way; there are two flavors of baseball, and we'll never agree on which flavor tastes best, so we might as well keep on making room for both.

This isn't one of those situations, though. There are real, substantial, quantitative and qualitative differences between the two "flavors" in this case. There are real reasons for preferring the DH. As the game (as so many other things) has become increasingly specialized, with 13-man bullpens and whatnot, it's actually a bit bizarre that we sometimes force people who have proven to be among the handful of the best in the world at pitching to pretend that they have some aptitude for or interest in the totally unrelated athletic pursuit of hitting. It puts their health in some (increased) danger, and it forces spectators to spend around 10 percent of their time at a ballgame watching something that only vaguely resembles professional sport; meanwhile, the DH means fewer utter wastes of an inning (there's little worse in baseball than watching an NL game and noticing that the seven, eight and nine spots are coming up) and makes a place for offensive stars who might otherwise be forced out of the game for lack of a position.

I'm sure there are similarly real reasons for preferring the game without the DH rule -- more substitutions and bunting and such (even if they're primarily dictated by "the book" and don't really involve a great deal of additional strategy), for one, and it appeals to our individualistic natures when everyone involved in the game has to (at least theoretically) be prepared to participate in all facets of it. The DH rule isn't a gloss or a tint that superficially changes the look and feel of the game; it fundamentally changes the way the game itself is played.

Photo credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

And maybe more importantly: now that interleague play is no longer a mild curiosity to be endured every May and June, but rather a reality that'll haunt us basically every day of the year, there is even less of a reason than ever to pretend that the leagues are, in fact, different. This is a league of 30 teams that has been separated into two 15-team groups based on history and convenience, because if we didn't at least pretend those smaller "leagues" were different things, there'd be no World Series. There's no difference between the two except for the DH rule, and as they've become more intertwined than ever, there's less of a reason than ever to have the two playing by substantially different rules. It could become an issue of unfair advantages. The AL has dominated interleague play for the last nine years, for instance, and while I don't think much of that has to do with the DH rule, I do think they generally get an advantage, and when interleague play is happening over the course of a full season, as players get tired and injured and what-have-you, I can see that advantage becoming a more serious one. Whatever the advantage is, one has to figure it tends to carry over into the World Series, too (despite the results of four of the last five).

Most of that is entirely speculative, of course, but the thing is, we don't have anything else to tell the leagues apart anymore because there's nothing to tell apart. For better or worse, the leagues aren't at all what they used to be. They're equal divisions of a single league now, divisions that will spend the entire year facing off against each other, and it just doesn't make sense anymore to keep them playing different games.

It doesn't even matter to me which rule is adopted. Oh, no question, it'll be a universal DH rule, and I'd prefer that, all in all -- baseball is more interesting to me when none of the nine lineup spots is an automatic black hole, and with less bunting. But I think the important thing is that one way or the other, these two parts of the same one league need to be playing under the same rules.

I'm not totally blind to history -- I'm a big fan of the baseball sort of history, in fact -- and I can see the appeal of keeping some token distinction between the "leagues." Bring bullpen cars back for one or the other, maybe. Subtly tweak the uniforms into distinct AL and NL styles. I'm sure there are plenty of things that could be done. Those differences should not be found in the way the game is fundamentally played, though. It's one big league, and it's time it went by one set of rules.

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