We who enjoy baseball are often lectured that today’s athletes are among the finest who ever competed and that all but a few of those in ages past could hope to compete at their high level of physical fitness. We’re also told that continental flights across three time zones are more exhausting than the train trips that took former Major Leaguers only as far as the Midwest.
Now I’m not a professional athlete, but I know from personal experience that even a trans-Atlantic flight is easier on the body than an eighteen-hour Amtrak journey from New York to Chicago, let alone one made in the old days before shock absorbers and air-conditioning became standard equipment. As for jet lag, what time does the average player get out of bed and go to the ballpark anyway?
And as far as today’s jocks being “bigger, stronger and faster,” I’ll allow that this is probably true given today’s emphasis on weight-training. But when it comes to being in “baseball shape,” I’d argue that this obsession with body-building doesn’t seem to be doing them much good.
Today, nearly any injury requires not only a stint on the disabled list, but seemingly endless minor-league rehab assignments. Hardly a day goes by without one of these hearty super-athletes getting injured, sometimes merely swinging the bat or running to first base. And this is even more true of pitchers. Is there any fan who can deny that they wince when their ace makes contact with the ball and begins his not-so-excellent adventure around the diamond?
JUST LAST WEEK we witnessed the sickening spectacle of a pitcher — a member of the latest generation of technologically-trained supermen to whom men like Babe Ruth couldn’t hold a candle — injuring himself while engaged in an action most of us have performed hundreds if not thousands of times in our lives. New York Yankees right-hander, Chien-Ming Wang pulled up limping like a lame racehorse rounding third base during an interleague game in Houston.
This prompted Yankee heir Hank Steinbrenner to chastise MLB for having AL pitchers bat during interleague games: “Pitchers have enough to do without having to do that.” This, of course, provoked howls of indignation among those who disdain the idea of the designated hitter rule, but the man has a point. I’ve made no secret of what I think about interleague play — an abomination that has, among other things, disrupted baseball’s formerly balanced and equitable scheduling — but the least that the NL could do would be to use the DH in all games between the leagues and spare us all a lot of pain.
We’ve been told ad nauseam that the high batting averages of older ballplayers wouldn’t be possible today if they faced pitchers highly skilled in areas of specialization. I don’t buy it, but then why not carry this argument further when discussing the DH? If modern pitching is such an exact science — as if non-starting pitchers of the past simply hung around the bullpen and collected paychecks from big spenders like Frank Navin and Charles Comiskey — then let’s admit that as hitters or all-around ballplayers, today’s pitchers are not trained or even expected to hit.
Let us be honest. If, as is regularly posited by NL fans, that all nine men in their lineup are “real” ballplayers, why is it that when a popup floats near the center of the diamond, every infielder will call for the ball to spare his pitcher the ignominy of tripping over the rubber? What other batter almost invariably bunts with one out? And why do teams position their outfielders at Little League depth when the opposing hurler is at the dish, a strategy that once in a blue moon results in what I call a “pitcher’s double”?
Actually, the case can be made that an AL team with a DH is more a lineup of all-around ballplayers than is the NL version. After all, which occurs more often: an AL DH plays the field or an NL pitcher is called on to pinch-hit? The only real benefit to letting pitchers bat in the NL is that they basically get two to three innings off each game when their fellow pitchers perform at their rally-killing best. An AL pitcher actually faces a lineup more akin to that of his predecessors, who were expected to face a lineup of nine hitters.
AND PLEASE DON’T sing me the old tune about pitchers being dissuaded from throwing beanballs in the NL because they too have to come to bat. It’s a myth that’s been around for far too long. Pitchers like and respect other pitchers who basically pose no batting threat to them; it’s batters who can actually hit that they don’t like. To appreciate this, one has only to recall the famous beaning of Mike Piazza by Yankee Roger Clemens in 2000 and how it was handled by Mets pitcher Shawn Estes.
And as far as the vaunted superior strategy employed in the Senior Circuit, consider this from much respected manager Jim Leyland: “I think managing in the American League is much more difficult…In the National League, my situation is dictated for me. If I’m behind in the game, I’ve got to pinch-hit. I’ve got to take my pitcher out. In the American League, you have to zero in. You have to know exactly when to take [pitchers] out of there. In the National League, that is done for you.”
Let’s face it; the overwhelming majority of today’s pitchers have no more business up at bat or on the base paths than do I. If they are the specialists that they are purported to be, then so be it. There’s nothing special about them at bat.