The off-season is a good time for lazy contemplation: with no specific games to think about, you can just think about the beautiful game itself. But too often a winter reverie on, say, the intricacies of a 3-6-1 double play can get interrupted by the elephant in the room: the designated hitter, or DH, a rule which will enter its 40th season when spring comes around again. Major League Baseball is the only sport in America – or perhaps the world – that uses different rules within its own league. Introduced in 1973, the designated hitter rule defies a critical tenet of sport, which is the concept of a level playing field. (Wilt Chamberlain and Spud Webb both shot at 10-foot basketball hoops, for instance.) Application of the DH rule changes—some say corrupts—the game so significantly that the two leagues are playing virtually different games.
The last part isn’t arguable. Anyone who has scored a baseball game (that ancient art) or even looked at a few box scores can attest to the notable difference in strategies employed by the American (AL) and National (NL) Leagues. A typical AL game uses just over nine batters. A typical NL box score shows about 12. The AL uses few sacrifice bunts and even fewer double switches. Pinch hitters are a strategy in the NL but an insult (to the replaced batter) in the AL. Devotees of both leagues like their rules for good reasons. The NL rules increase the amount of strategy required, especially in late inning, close game situations (hence the greater number of batters and substitutions). That’s appealing to many, purists especially. But the DH rule does unquestionably enhance the offense, which for many—not least owners—makes the game more fun. Both sides are right, of course. Having lasted 40 years, the DH rule isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. But this is a top-tier professional sport in the world’s most developed country, right? Isn’t the whole idea to have the same rules for everybody?
—written by Jeffrey Silver, Lawrenceville, NJ