The Designated Hitter

Yankee Ron Blomberg, the American League's very first DH, stepped up to the plate 30 years ago.

Opening Day

March 31, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

As the New York Yankees broke camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., three decades ago, Ron Blomberg wasn't thinking about baseball history. Far from it. Like most good players, the strapping outfielder, then limping from a hamstring injury, was focused on the little things.

Things like the icy weather in Boston, where the Yanks were to open the season at Fenway Park on April 6, 1973. "I'd heard it was 25 degrees up there," says Blomberg, cheerfully recounting last week, for perhaps the 10,000th time, the at-bat that would change his life - and the National Pastime - forever. "I was just hoping I wouldn't be doing much running."

He wouldn't have to. Thanks to a strange new rule taking effect in the American League that year, he could hit throughout the game - replacing the pitcher at the plate - without ever taking a position in the field. So when he grabbed a bat and dug in against the Red Sox's flamboyant fireballer Luis Tiant just before 2 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, he became, by a margin of minutes, the first official designated hitter in the history of Major League Baseball.

Blomberg, now 54, is philosophical about the quirk of destiny that made him the emblem of a change in baseball which, love it or hate it, celebrates its 30th birthday as the 2003 season opens.

"Some folks love it, some think it's the work of the devil," he says with the gratified laugh of a man who draws lifelong benefit either way. "But after all this time, I'll tell you: The DH [rule] isn't going anywhere. Guess you can't call it an experiment anymore."

Back then, that's exactly what Blomberg thought it would be. A few teammates, like outfielder Bobby Murcer, catcher Thurman Munson and pitcher Ron Guidry, had talked about it, but to them, it was just a gimmick for putting fans in the seats. An invention of Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley, the gadfly who also brought white shoes, an elephant mascot and, very nearly, Day-Glo orange baseballs to the staid old game.

"Remember the designated-runner thing?!" says Blomberg. "Finley had Herb Washington, a track guy, on his team, and wanted him in games, but didn't want to have to watch him try to bat. Crazy idea! We thought the DH would last just about that long."

The notion was so alien that even when manager Ralph Houk approached Blomberg before the game that day, and told him he'd be the DH, the fourth-year outfielder didn't quite get it.

"I took batting practice," he says, "and then picked up my glove to go out and shag flies. They sat me down and said, `No, remember? You don't go in the field! Have a seat.'"

He puzzled it through. "I told myself, `Well, it's just like being a pinch-hitter four times,'" he says.

Blomberg speaks for fellow DH's over the last three decades when he mentions the toughest part of the job. "You don't know what to do with yourself between at-bats," he says. "You've spent your whole life taking your glove out to the field, and all of a sudden you're on the bench watching the other guys. It's tough to stay focused. You don't feel like you're 100 percent in the game."

Modern designated hitters - including full-timers such as Seattle's Edgar Martinez, the first DH to win a batting crown - tend to relax in the clubhouse while their teammates take the field. That day, Blomberg found a pretty nice pastime too.

Murcer, the centerfielder, was so cold in Boston he'd brought a hot-water bottle to the dugout. "Bobby was out there with his glove on," says Blomberg, "and there I was on the bench, using it to keep my hands warm."

Blomberg played eight years in the majors, seven with the Yanks, before knee and shoulder woes sidelined him. His lifetime average was .293, and he hit .329 in the inaugural year of the DH. Good as he was with the lumber, he remembers that on the really cold days, like that April 6 in Boston, sometimes you half-wished you didn't have to swing.

"Hurts your hands," he says. "You don't mind taking an oh-fer [going hitless] once in a while."

That first at-bat, he just about got that wish. Batting in the top of the first, he came up with the bases loaded, worked the count full and walked, bringing in a run.

But the Yanks got hammered by the Red Sox, 15-5.

Fans still argue so much about the DH rule, it's hard to know whether it's of any more benefit than Blomberg's RBI was that day. The American League instituted it to generate offense by excising the usually weak-hitting pitcher from the lineup and, on that count, it was a home run.

AL teams score, on average, nearly a run per game more than their counterparts in the National League, where there is no DH. Many say the increasing dominance of offense in baseball, still a prevalent theme in the wake of several record-breaking years, began when Blomberg stepped in the box that day.

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