Name one player you admire in any team sport who will look you in the eye and say with a straight face “I don’t play defense.” I’ll wait.
No one says this. No parent would tolerate their child developing such an attitude even at the pee-wee soccer level. Because any athlete who utters those four words is telling you they don’t pitch in, they don’t have your back. They’re announcing that there’s no “i” in “team,” but there’s one smack dab in the middle of “win.”
The “I don’t do defense” mindset is inimical to the very concept of the shared endeavor of team sports.
And yet this is exactly what Major League Baseball seems to want.
The league and players’ union may yet fail to come to terms for an abbreviated 2020 season. But they do seem to agree on one thing: forcing the designated hitter on the National League this year, next year, and forever after.
The DH is the single worst innovation in the history of professional sports. Worse than instant replay, even. And that’s because the DH undercuts much of what makes baseball good, in the sense of being virtuous. The designated hitter is, by definition, a man set apart. He takes at bats, but he never takes the field. He is, by his designation, the man unwilling—or unable—to actually play baseball. He hits baseballs, but he does not play the game. Which is to say that he isn’t really on the team, so much as a guy who makes special guest appearances every 40 minutes or so.
Some people, inevitably from New York or Boston, will insist that the DH has given their great players a few more years in the game and one last payday. Good for them, I guess.
Major League Baseball is obsessed with modernism. The league has spent the last decade looking at declining TV audiences and trying to make itself more into the image of the NFL. That’s why baseball now has instant replay and the countdown clock. It’s why the league has been “experimenting” with robot umpires and starting a runner on second in extra innings.
And apparently the big brains at the league office also think that what baseball really needs to connect with the modern audience is a late career jobs program for aging stars on the back end of their contracts.
It is baseball’s curse that the stewards of the game often misunderstand – or just disdain – why fans love it. Because the median baseball fan does not want July evening at Dodger’s Stadium to be like going to a Raiders game.
The attraction of baseball is that it functions as America’s patrimony. There is the history and heritage, yes, but there is also the deep reservoir of lessons it has to teach us about life.
For example, baseball—more than any other sport—ingrains humility in players from their first steps. Even the best batter fails twice as often at the plate as he succeeds. A kid in Little League learns early on what striking out feels like. And if he sticks with the game, he only becomes more deeply immersed in the feeling.
This feeling will eventually teach the kid how to manage life’s failures and it is a real and meaningful point of connection between the 10-year-old in the sandlot and the major league all-star.
This connection is to be treasured among all players—including among pitchers, who are not, at least in the National League, a protected class.
Yes, pitchers statistically underperform their teammates at the plate—as you would expect, since they play a fraction of the number of games and now come from minor leagues that excuse them from batting. But there is something noble, instructive, and necessary, about watching a pitcher standing at the plate, denuded of the menace he can project from the mound, himself exposed in his turn. It inculcates both humility and courage that each man must take his turn, no exceptions.
You would think the MLB would cling to what few institutional examples of those qualities it has, because they are what separates baseball not only from football but from the rest of sports entertainment. Instead MLB views such ancient strictures as weeds in its garden.
Forcing the DH on the National League under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic is about par for the executives on Madison Avenue, for whom the breach between alleged-cause and desired-effect has long been a chasm.
The usual rationale trotted out to justify the pitcher/slugger job share is “generating more offense”—which is an offensively stupid explanation to any observer familiar with the false promises of the American League, which collectively manages to score barely a rounding error ahead of the National League game-for-game.
And of course if merely “generating more offense” was what the MLB wanted, they have other options. They could, to pick just one example, remove the position of shortstop. That sounds insane to you? Well, it is.
But so is any rule change undertaken merely because it will increase scoring under the pretext that this outcome is “good for the game.”
No, universalizing the DH is really about just one thing: television.
For years, television has served as the motivating force for all “reform” (read: “vandalism”) of the professional game. As always happens when money and markets gain the whip hand over culture and values, the result is moral corrosion.
Robot umpires, instant reply, the Houston Astros—all that is most soulless and debased in modern professional baseball is rooted in television becoming the alpha and omega of MLB’s operating creed.
The real reason for imposing the DH, at least from the league’s perspective, is to deliver more moments to grab channel surfers.
In the mind of league executives, baseball fans have the intelligence and attention span of fruit flies. They can’t be expected to appreciate or care that how you cover for a pitcher’s batting is part of the game, or understand that a bunt can be far more impactful than a swing for the fences. All that matters is how instantly watchable the situation is, how closely the TV broadcast can be made to resemble live action pinball, how many shares you can get of the highlight on TikTok.
And because television is infinitely corrupting, this is all hunky-dory with the players’ union. Cosseting pitchers and running a workfare program for aging stars is a double-play for them. This is, after all, the same union that stymied any real punishment for the serial cheaters of the Astros and maybe, possibly, question mark, the Red Sox. They, as much as the league itself, have long since abandoned any pretense of concern for the integrity of the game.
The victory of the DH, whenever it is finally inked into National League law, will have been won not from the field or among the fans but in boardroom negotiations. It is just another piece of the game’s virtuous tradition, traded away by management and players who think it will get them 30 more pieces of silver.
To paraphrase the Godfather: they’re all commodities anyway, let them lose their souls.