With prospect of interleague play, fate of DH an issue Purists and pragmatists will have turns at bat

January 18, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- When it became apparent this week that baseball's owners finally were ready to take a tangible step toward interleague play, an old debate took on a new dimension.

The prospect of American League teams meeting National League teams during the regular season has refocused attention on the designated-hitter rule, which is certain to complicate the transition to the proposed new interleague format.

The interleague format that was approved by baseball's executive council Tuesday night and will be presented at today's joint ownership meeting calls for the designated hitter to be used only in American League parks, as it is in the preseason and the World Series, but some baseball purists worry that mixing the rules during the regular season will damage the integrity of a century of statistics and create potential roster problems for teams in both of the major leagues.

There is some sentiment to standardize the rules, but that's where the DH debate gets decidedly disagreeable. Should it stay or should it go? That depends on who you are, what league you come from and whose interests you represent.

"I like the DH," said Orioles general manager Pat Gillick, "but from a cost standpoint, if we're going to have interleague play, it looks like the DH will probably be eliminated. I'd be sorry to see that happen.

"The National League and one of the leagues in Japan are the only two leagues I know of that don't have it. I think it's absolutely idiotic not to have it. They have it in Little League, high school, college, every league but those two. It's idiotic."

The National League resisted the concept when the AL adopted it in 1973, forcing a postseason compromise that has never been particularly popular, especially in those years when it has reduced a high-profile American League player to pinch-hitter status in the World Series. Now, there is more reason then ever to standardize the rules, but it remains unlikely that either league will defer to the other.

Recent polling data gathered by Major League Baseball indicates that 63 percent of baseball fans favor interleague play, but there is no such consensus on the designated-hitter rule. Former commissioner Peter Ueberroth set out to eliminate the designated hitter after he took office in 1984, but concluded that public opinion was split too evenly to justify any change.

The issue is further complicated by baseball's rocky labor relationship, since any major format change must be negotiated with the Major League Baseball Players Association, which is sure to resist the elimination of a rule that has extended the career of many high-salaried players.

The union, in fact, is in a position to become the catalyst for the expansion of the DH rule, since the MLBPA could make that a condition for approving interleague play.

It probably won't come to that, since the labor situation has become so problematic that neither side is eager to expand the dispute. The possible impact of a rule change on the collective bargaining stalemate more likely will serve as a barrier to any significant movement on the issue.

Right now, it simply remains a popular subject for debate, pitting the purists against the pragmatists in a tug of war over which direction the game will go.

"I don't think people are in favor of expanding the DH, so it will be a matter of leaving it alone or eliminating it," said Cleveland Indians general manager John Hart. "Maybe it's because I'm an AL guy, but I know we didn't pay Jack McDowell and Dennis Martinez all that money to hit."

American League owners and GMs have grown comfortable with the designated-hitter rule, and have built their rosters -- and their long-range planning -- around it.

National League clubs generally are tailored more toward pitching, so a rule change would force teams in one league or the other to go through a potentially uncomfortable period of adjustment.

Sentiment tends to run along party lines, but there are exceptions. New York Yankees general manager Bob Watson, for example, thinks it would be worth the discomfort to get rid of the designated hitter once and for all.

"I don't like the DH," Watson said. "I hated it when I played with it, and I did well as a DH. It [eliminating the DH rule] might run some guys out of the game, but if a guy can't play defense, it's time to move on. I'm a purist.

"The game was designed for players who play both ways, not just offense or defense." Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner also labels himself a traditionalist, but he still would not favor eliminating the designated hitter from the game.

"As a traditionalist, the idea of losing the DH doesn't bother me," he said, "but I like it because it brings more offense to the game, and I like offense. I like to see Frank Thomas belt one out against the Boston Red Sox. I like to see hard slides into second base. I like to see the well-positioned cutoff man making the exchange.

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