The Designated Driver is a better Idea than the Designated Hitter

I am a Red Sox fan. I’ve been lucky to live long enough to see them win three World Series, a feat that eluded Ted Williams, my father’s hero, and Carl Yastrzemski, mine.

At the center of those three championship teams was David Ortiz, widely regarded as the best designated hitter ever to play the game. Unlike the rest of baseball, the history of the DH doesn’t go back very far – only to 1973, when the American League decided that casual fans were bored by watching pitchers try to hit.

Next to playing the World Series at night – another dubious legacy of the 1970s, a decade full of them – the designated hitter is the worst idea ever foisted on the best team sport in the world.

I’m probably on the losing side of this argument. The DH has permeated all levels of the game, down to college and high school. It was used in the recently completed World Baseball Classic. Many pitchers like it, and so do aging hitters who can’t get around so well in the field any more.

I would trade the championships of 2007 and 2013 (but not 2004 – that one I’ll always cherish) to make Ortiz play first base and John Lester swing the bat. Watch a National League game, and it becomes clear that baseball is a better sport when the pitcher bats.

Barry Zito was a soft-tossing lefty who won a Cy Young Award with the Oakland Athletics in 2002. Six years later, he signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the cross-town San Francisco Giants, and his career promptly tanked. But in 2012, the Giants, down 3-1 in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, gave the ball to Zito, having no one else.

Zito’s fastball topped out at 85 miles per hour, and if he couldn’t throw his curve for strikes, he often got pounded. In the second inning, the Cardinals put runners on second and third with nobody out. Zito struck out the number-seven hitter on a curve. That brought up Pete Kozma, a rookie on a hot streak. Zito walked Kozma intentionally. Lance Lynn, the Cardinals’ pitcher, promptly grounded into a double play to end the inning.

There was no score at the time, and had the Cardinals plated those two runs, they may have gone on to win the game and the series. Instead, Zito took a shutout into the eighth to save the Giants’ season. They went on to win the World Series.

There’s more. The Giants put together three runs in the fourth before Zito came to the plate with two out and runners on first and third. Seeing that the third baseman was playing back, he laid down a bunt and beat the throw to first as the fourth run scored.

In an American League game, neither of these scenarios would have happened. The Giants would not have been able to manipulate the Cardinals’ batting order around the pitcher to get out of a jam, and Zito would not have come to the plate at all.

A good National League game is baseball at its best. The pitcher is not an automatic out, but he is a built-in soft spot in the batting order, and opposing pitchers work the innings accordingly. Fernando Valenzuela was a master at this. He was also a pretty fair hitter.

Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka drove in two crucial runs in the 2007 World Series with his only hit of the year. In 1985, an obscure relief pitcher named Rick Camp hit his only career homer to tie a Fourth of July game in the 18th inning, only to give up five runs in the top of the 19th and lose the game. Knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm hit a home run the first time he came to the plate, played for 20 more seasons, and never hit another one.

The designated hitter robs baseball of these delightful anomalies. A manager no longer needs to decide whether to leave his pitcher in a tight game or lift him for a pinch-hitter. It makes a subtle sport a little less so.

Much of baseball’s appeal lies beneath the surface of the action on the field. A good ballgame is like a good novel, which is why the sport is so beloved by writers. It asks the audience to flesh out scenarios with their imagination, to anticipate rather than to simply watch.

I guess maybe I am a purist, about some things.

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