Going to Bat for Designated Hitter : American League Feature at Risk, but Players Will Lobby to Keep It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was adopted by the American League on an experimental basis in 1973 to help promote offense, but the 24-year test of the designated hitter might soon reach a designated end.

With interleague play expected to begin in 1997--another experiment that probably will become permanent--the designated hitter could be phased out as the 20th century passes.

Among those who would be sorry to see it go is New York Yankee third baseman Wade Boggs.

"I've been in the American League for 14 years and seen how it works," Boggs said. "It puts nine guys in the lineup who can hit .280 or more. It creates excitement.

"Purists say it takes strategy out of the manager's hands, but I think people come to see players produce runs and not to see manager's manage--unless, perhaps, it's Tom Lasorda. I don't know, but from what I'm told that can be interesting."

Obviously, word gets around.

The word on the designated hitter is this:

--The senior, and sometimes haughtily superior, National League still wants no part of it.

--The American League is no longer totally supportive of it. A recent straw poll of AL owners, some of whom think rising salaries have turned it into an overly expensive experiment, was 7-7.

--The players' union, which must approve interleague play, wants to retain it as a boon to jobs and salaries.

Said union lawyer Eugene Orza: "Our basic position is that the DH has been good for the game, and that the game is better served by having the DH in both leagues than neither league. I would personally attest to the delicacies of a 2-1 game, but fan reaction has been overwhelmingly in support of more run production. We also understand the political reality. Logic tells us that the National League will not accept it."

The National League will accept the way it is now--the designated hitter would be used in American League parks as it is during exhibition games, the All-Star game and World Series--to get interleague play off the ground in '97. But, as San Francisco Giant owner Peter Magowan has said, "there doesn't seem to be any National League support for the DH on a permanent basis."

"Baseball is a strategic game, and some of the strategy is eliminated when you go to the DH," Magowan said.

"There's more bunting without it, more pinch-hitting, more decisions on pitchers and more of the traditional elements.

"The financial considerations are a factor in our thinking, but not as large a factor as those others.

"I do agree that the DH has helped prolong the careers of some excellent hitters who can no longer withstand the rigors of playing defense, but I think players were starting to stay longer even before the DH.

"I also think the controversy is not entirely bad for the game in that it creates conversation, but the overriding feeling in our league is that it would be better if both leagues played the same game and a better game without the DH."

Nonsense, said a Yankee executive named Reggie Jackson.

"The word for the '90s is interactive," Jackson said. "If baseball understands the meaning in relation to the demands of the fans, it will do everything possible to produce action and excitement.

"I mean, the National League should get with it and get off this business of seniority and superiority. Football went to a two-point conversation and basketball to a three-point field goal. Name a sport that hasn't adopted rule changes for more offense or doesn't use offensive and defensive specialists.

"If baseball wants to preserve respect and integrity, it should stop expanding, stop diluting the talent, stop putting triple-A pitchers in the big leagues."

Where does this leave the designated hitter in relation to interleague play?

--Barring an imminent labor agreement that would include a long-term decision on the designated hitter, management and union negotiators expect to announce a separate agreement in March, approving interleague play for '97 with the designated hitter used only when the American League team is at home.

--Use of the designated hitter beyond '97 would then become a bargaining chip for the union in overall labor talks, with the National League dead against adopting it permanently, and the American League more willing to give it up.

The union will take a rigid stance in regard to keeping it.

Based on 10 players who appeared in 72 or half of their team's games as the designated hitter last year, a union survey on mean salaries concluded that the designated hitter was the second-highest paying position in the lineup at nearly $3.46 million last year. First basemen had the highest mean salary: $3.57 million.

"There's no question but that economics plays a role in the issue for both the clubs and the union," acting Commissioner Bud Selig said.

Selig, the Milwaukee Brewers' owner, was at New York's Plaza Hotel in December 1972 for the meeting at which the American League approved the designated hitter. He said the late Charles Finley, then owner of the Oakland Athletics, was the prime mover on the issue, thinking something had to be done to enliven the offense.

"Charlie's mood in those days was such that he was firing orange baseballs at us when we walked into the meeting," Selig said. "He wanted both a designated hitter and designated runner. The league had struggled offensively the year before and there was a lot of heated discussion.

"We eventually rejected the idea of the runner [although Finley did use former track star Herb Washington in that capacity], but adopted the DH on an experimental basis. I don't think anyone expected the experiment to last this long, but as much of a purist and traditionalist as I am, I think it's become a way of life and worked out well.

"And Charlie should get the majority of credit or blame, depending on whether you like it or not."

Selig acknowledged there are valid concerns when American League teams, which have built their lineup around the designated hitter, are forced to go without it during World Series games in National League parks and when pitchers who have not batted all season are forced to step in against 90-mph fastballs, but he added:

"I tend to agree with those who think the controversy and conversation is good for the game. The clubs and the leagues don't have to agree on everything. My feeling is the DH should be retained, but in the spirit of moving the industry ahead I would understand if the clubs voted to give it up."

Despite Selig's support, the Brewers voted against the designated hitter in the recent American League straw poll, sources said. The vote was cast by Wendy Selig-Prieb, the club counsel and daughter of the owner.

"Well, I raised her to think independently," Selig said when asked about that.

What has the DH produced? Last year, designated hitters batted .276 compared to the American League's overall average of .270 and hit 321 of the AL's 2,164 homers. National League pitchers by contrast batted .148, and the league average was .263. Since 1973, the American League has outscored the National League every year except one, producing an average of 10.1 runs per game last year compared to the NL's 9.27.

If the designated hitter hadn't been adopted, would Edgar Martinez have won the American League batting title last year? Would Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield have reached 3,000 hits? Would Don Baylor have led the Angels to a division title in 1982 as the league's most valuable player? Would Reggie Jackson have reached 500 home runs? Would Chili Davis still be in the middle of the Angel lineup, making $11.4 million over a three-year contract?

"Purists say the DH ruins tradition, but what it does is create and preserve tradition by keeping valuable older players who can still hit in the game," Boggs said.

Jackson agreed.

"We were reminded of what heroes mean to all of us when Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan returned to the NBA," he said. "We have a reverence for older players, players with stature. We have a respect and affection for longevity. We like to keep our heroes around, and baseball certainly needs that. If a guy can still produce, why shouldn't he have that opportunity, a place in the lineup?"

If the designated hitter contributes to longer games, a factor in some owners' opposition to it, it also contributes to better defense by putting a more capable fielder in the field.

"Eliminate the DH, force the DH to play a position, and you take away from the quality of defense," Milwaukee Manager Phil Garner said.

But what about all those decisions an American League manager doesn't have to make, all those strategies he doesn't have to employ?

"I was always very defensive about criticisms of the American League," said Tony La Russa, the former Oakland manager now with St. Louis. "I do believe you have more calls and decisions to make in the National League, but I have long contended that it's underestimated how many decisions you make in the American League, especially with pitching.

"Managing isn't easy in any circumstance, and I always thought it was an insult. If you watched guys like Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin and a lot of others manage in that league and said they weren't managing, weren't making decisions, you had to be kidding yourself."

Nevertheless, Yankee General Manager Bob Watson, a former designated hitter, said: "I did good as a DH but never liked it because it takes away from managing and strategy, and I always felt that pitchers were part of the offensive team as much as they are part of the defensive team. I also feel that for interleague play to work, both leagues should use it or both leagues should do away with it. The National League will never use it, so let's do away with it."

Elimination of the designated hitter might have sweeping ramifications--from Little League up.

All minor leagues use the designated hitter except when National League farm teams meet at the double-A and triple-A levels. Mike Moore, president of the ruling National Assn., said he didn't think the designated hitter was a factor in the minor league attendance boom, and added:

"Even if the DH is eliminated [in the majors], I think there would be validity to continue letting young position players get more at bats at lower [minor-league] levels while getting pitchers to the plate at the higher levels."

It has been an interesting experiment that prompted Baylor, now managing the Colorado Rockies, to reflect and say that despite his MVP success of '82, despite his employment by a series of championship teams in the designated hitter's role, he was never comfortable with it, never felt he was really part of the lineup.

"In my experience, the best guy at handling it was Tommy Davis," Baylor said of his former Baltimore Oriole teammate.

"He'd go up to the clubhouse between at-bats and play basketball with Jim Palmer one on one to stay loose and warm."

The designated hitter debate is warming up again--24 years after its inception.

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