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NL moves into 21st century with imposition of universal DH

A picture of a baseball. Credit: Peter Miller/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Peter Miller
A picture of a baseball. Credit: Peter Miller/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With the merciful end of football, albeit for just a few months, the focus of the American sports world will shift to the dawn of a new baseball season, or at least theoretically.

Major League Baseball’s owners and its players are presently locked in a labor dispute, where no trades or free agent signings have taken place while the two sides try to resolve their differences over economic matters. Since December 1, the players have been locked out of official activities, which doesn’t mean much at the moment.

However, with the scheduled start of spring training just a couple of weeks away, there’s a real chance that exhibition games and possibly the start of the regular season will be delayed.

But when things are resolved and the game returns, there will be an important change, one that is long overdue. Commissioner Rob Manfred announced last week that starting in 2022, the designated hitter will be universal. Since its inception in 1973, the DH rule, where a club is allowed to substitute a permanent pinch hitter for a player, has been in effect in the American League, but not the National League.

The designated hitter has typically been employed in place of the pitcher, who historically is the worst hitter on the club. Indeed, Jim Palmer, widely acknowledged as the best pitcher in Orioles history, was thought to be a decent hitter for a pitcher. His best season as a hitter was 1972, when he batted .224. Palmer’s career batting average? A robust .174.

The installation of the DH was originally intended as a three-year experiment to bolster offense, but the move caught on and became permanent in the American League.

The result was a boost in interest and attendance in the American League, where batting orders were infused with offense.

Meanwhile, the National League, the elder of the two leagues, has held on to the ever so quaint concept of baseball the way it’s always been played.

National League supporters break out the straw man argument that their game is superior as it has more strategy than the American League version.

NL managers, as the story goes, must make crucial decisions, say, in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings in close games.

They have to make a Hobson’s choice: keep a weak-hitting pitcher in and forfeit a chance to score or pinch hit and get a stronger hitter in the lineup, thus losing a solidly performing hurler.

Yawn. National League stubbornness has imposed a bizarre condition where the rules of the games changed depending on where it’s played.

Games in American League parks are played with a DH, while matches in NL stadiums are conducted without a DH, a distinct double advantage for National League teams, who get to add a bat on the road and watch their opponents play without a critical part of their attack at home.

The National League will finally be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, joining every other organized league in the world, utilizing the designated hitter.

Baseball will be wonderful, whenever they get around to actually playing the games again.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

Twitter: @SportsAtLarge

Email: [email protected]

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.