The designated hitter turned 40 this year.
Fittingly, it’s having sort of a midlife crisis.
Never before has the imbalance between the American and National Leagues regarding Rule 6.10 been more of a potential problem.
The designated-hitter rule has been controversial from day one. It’s been criticized and even confusing since it was born. So it’s only natural that Major League Baseball’s once-bold experiment will continue to exist unevenly and indefinitely.
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The DH debate won’t die.
“A little controversy between the leagues is really not all bad,” commissioner Bud Selig said before the All-Star Game in New York on Tuesday.
Selig cast one of the votes for using the designated hitter in AL games starting in 1973, when he owned the Milwaukee Brewers, then an AL franchise. He acknowledged this week that further geographic changes to divisions could force MLB to either scrap the DH altogether or install it for the NL, but that’s a future possibility and not an imminent plan.
“At the moment,” Selig said, “we are not going to change it.”
Perhaps the most polarizing of this sport’s many quirks and imperfections, the DH came to be when AL teams sought to boost their then-lagging product.
The gimmick not only worked to increase scoring and attendance but created a way for some of the game’s greatest hitters to extend their careers — and make a lot more money.
Orlando Cepeda even credited the rule for boosting his Hall of Fame credentials, after Boston signed him for the 1973 season following a long career with San Francisco.
“That was one of the best years, because I was playing on one leg and I hit .289,” Cepeda said. “And I hit four doubles in one game. Both my knees were hurting, and I was designated hitter of the year.”
DHs last year had the second-highest average salary by position at $8.1 million, behind first basemen at $8.6 million. That’s the main reason why eliminating the DH to bring the AL back on line with the NL is almost unfathomable. Boston’s David Ortiz, who recently passed Harold Baines on the career list for hits by a DH, is making $14 million this season at age 37.
The designated hitter has also helped teams keep their best players in the lineup while giving them some rest. Minnesota All-Star catcher Joe Mauer is a prime example. When he needs a break from crouching behind the plate, manager Ron Garden can keep his potent bat in the lineup at DH.
The power of the players’ union, protective of this lucrative and prominent job, is another undeniable force for the DH. And despite the complaints from dads with sleepy kids at long games, fans usually enjoy seeing runs cross the plate.
The cumulative AL batting average has beaten the NL’s mark in each of the first 40 seasons of the DH. The last time the NL hit above .270 was 1939. The AL has 11 seasons of .270-plus batting during the DH era.
Purists have a hard time forgiving MLB for the DH, though. Remember the movie “Bull Durham,” when Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis, launches his crude rant about the qualities and superficialities of life?
“I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter,” he said.
The DH is used in AL ballparks, and pitchers bat in NL venues. Some want to see the same rules in all parks.
“I think that we need to get a unified set of rules, and I believe that we will get there some day,” said 68-year-old Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “I don’t care which way we go, but I think that without question we need to do it.”
AP writers Ronald Blum and Janie McCauley, and freelance writer Dave Hogg contributed to this report.