MLB & Designated Hitter — Call It Baseball If You Wish

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Baseball fandom is divided between love of the spectacle and love of the game. Most fans love both. Few love them equally.

If you love the spectacle more, you might want to watch basketball instead. By its nature, baseball is a less kinetic show, unless you imagine vividly enough the activity in the minds of the pitcher, the catcher, the batter, the home-plate umpire, the managers in either dugout, the coaches in the dugouts and bullpens, the apprehensive shortstop and second baseman and center fielder wondering whether they’ve positioned themselves correctly. If you enjoy watching them try to help their team win, fine, but your entertainment is only incidental to the point of the game, which you appreciate to the extent that you elevate the importance of the outcome over any thrill that you get from witnessing flashy plays.

If you prefer the game to the spectacle, the species of baseball sold by Major League Baseball frustrates you. Of all the baseball leagues in the world, MLB has the best athletes. The speed of their reflexes applied to the physical tasks of throwing and catching a baseball and of swinging a wooden bat to hit it while it’s still in flight from the pitcher’s hand is lightning in a bottle, a moment that the best players ride before they lose a nanosecond off their reaction times and give way to slightly younger men surfing their own waves that are destined to crash all too soon. The spectacle is fun to watch. It captures eyeballs. MLB sells them to advertisers. To increase the amount of gross-motor motion on the field, league officials have been chipping away at the architecture of the game. These past few years they have proposed several rule changes intended to accelerate the pace of play and enhance our experience of “The Show.” They assume that more people will watch MLB if it features more throwing, swinging, running, and leaping. To that end, they attempt to remake their entertainment product into a system for the optimum display of baseball-related athletic skills.

So far their boldest step toward that goal has been the designated-hitter rule, in force in the American League since 1973. “Designated hitter,” we say, forgetting that it also means that a teammate, almost always the pitcher, becomes in effect a designated defensive player.

The National League has now adopted the DH. David Harsanyi approves. He writes that a pitcher at bat “unnecessarily slows the momentum of the game.” The DH “pits the world’s best hitters against the world’s best pitchers.” If that’s the objective, MLB should go all the way: Institute an 18-player lineup, nine on defense, nine on offense. You would think that the quality of play would be improved. Of course, the character of the game would be altered. Call it baseball if you wish. Whoever wants to know the future of Major League Baseball should meditate on the spirit of the Home Run Derby.

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