Essay / Bill Shirley : It's Time for Baseball to Put a Little Swing Back Into the Game

If baseball games seem less exciting in the National League this season, it's because the clubs are scoring about as often as hockey and soccer teams.

The Dodgers are typical. They have been scoring runs in bunches of two and three a game--except, of course, when Fernando Valenzuela pitches. Then, except on rare occasions such as last Saturday, they hardly score at all. Their season average through Sunday was 2.7 runs a game.

Vin Scully and other broadcasters may rhapsodize over a 2-0 shutout and get excited when a pitcher has a no-hit game going, but the truth is that baseball, like any sport, is more exciting when it is dominated by the offense. Long touchdown runs and passes make football popular, not 7-3 games. And nobody pays NBA prices to see Larry Bird and Magic Johnson play defense.

A swashbuckling Arnold Palmer increased golf's popularity by trying to knock shots through trees, rather than over them. Even a champion would be booed from the ring by boxing fans if he tried to protect himself instead of throwing punches. No matter how impressive the field is, a tactical mile run in more than four minutes is exciting only to a few track nuts.

Sports today thrive on world records, birdies earned with bold shots over water hazards, dunks, aces, 50-yard touchdown passes, base hits and runs. Babe Ruth was an outstanding pitcher, but he became the most popular baseball player in history by hitting home runs, not by throwing shutouts.

Some people say that the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, won by the Boston Red Sox over the Cincinnati Reds on Carlton Fisk's home run in the 12th inning, might have been the most exciting game in baseball history. But shucks, the score was only 7-6.

In 1960, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the championship by defeating the New York Yankees in the seventh game on Bill Mazeroski's home run, 10-9. Now, there was a World Series! The Yankees batted .338 as a team and scored 55 runs on 91 hits, of which 27 went for extra bases. They hit 10 home runs.

Baseball is such a splendid game because it resists major changes. Oh, the rules have been tinkered with some since Alexander Cartwright organized the first league in 1869, but the changes have been mostly minor. It took awhile, for example, for the rules-makers to settle on four balls for a walk. It was nine, then eight, then seven, then six, then seven again, then five. Finally, in 1889, it became four.

Happily, the rules-makers have always seemed to understand the importance of offense in their game. When the defense got the upper hand and teams stopped scoring, the rules were changed to restore the delicate balance between the defense and offense.

Today, in the National League, at least, there again seems to be an imbalance. The question is, what is baseball going to do about it?

Some baseball watchers fear that to catch up with the American League's higher run production, the National League will adopt the designated hitter. Let's hope not. The DH is probably the most embarrassing deviation ever made in the rules of the grand old game.

As political columnist and Chicago Cub fan George Will wondered the other day on The Times' editorial pages, how can one approve of Peter Ueberroth as commissioner of baseball when he has been in office eight months and still hasn't thrown out that awful rule.

Alas, Ueberroth has said he will take a poll so the fans can determine the fate of the designated hitter. That's not the way he ran the successful Olympic Games, and it is a lousy way to run baseball.

Some observers claim that the designated hitter is the reason American League teams score more runs today and, in truth, their run production has beaten the National League's since the rule was adopted in 1973. In 1972, American League teams averaged 6.6 runs a game. Last season, their average was up to 8.9, and this season it has been 9-plus.

Meanwhile, the National League's average has been declining, to 8.1 in 1984, and to less than 7 this season.

That is not really a big difference, however. In fact, the American League could use a little more offense, too. There is no proof, of course, that the American League's advantage in runs is the direct result of the designated hitter. Some folks believe that the National League's pitching is superior. Certainly, the American League has better parks to hit in.

Many excuses have been offered for the remarkable inability of major league batters to hit as well as they once did. Choose your favorite: coast-to-coast travel, artificial turf, night games, the invention of the slider, bigger stadiums and the increased use of skilled relief specialists. Whatever the reason, batters don't hit as well, and the game is less exciting.

Can the rules makers fix the problem again? Batters have been helped in the past by the reduction of the strike zone. In 1887, that was defined as the area between the top of the shoulder and the bottom of the knee. In 1950, it was changed to include only the area from the batter's armpits to the top of his knee.

But in 1963 it was changed again to the area from the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the knee. With the advantage back on their side, it didn't take the pitchers long to regain domination of the game. So, in 1969, the zone was reduced again to the area from the armpit to the top of the knee. Still, the pitchers seem to have kept their advantage.

Once, the pitching rubber was only 45 feet from the plate. In 1881 it was moved back to 50 feet and in 1893 the distance was lengthened to 60 feet 6 inches, where it remains today. From that distance a pitcher stands on a modest hill looking down at the batter. The higher the mound, the bigger the pitcher's advantage.

The height of the mound in 1903 was 15 inches above the baselines and home plate. By 1968, however, the pitchers had become so dominant that Boston's Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting championship while hitting only .301.

Again baseball legislated against the pitchers. At the same time, the strike zone was reduced again for the 1969 season, the mound was lowered to 10 inches.

A little balance was restored--for a while, at least.

The rules-makers have tried other tricks to give batters a break. In 1920, the spitball and other unorthodox pitches were abolished. Today, however, there are still some fellows looking for an edge who cheat. They throw, if not a spitter, a variation of it which could be described as, well, unorthodox.

There is precedent, then, for giving batters a break today without resorting to the dreadful designated hitter. Think of all the fun and excitement that would be restored to the game if that rule were abolished. Fans could see more of fellows such as Reggie Jackson and Al Oliver trying to catch the ball.

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