American ... or National?

Maybe it wasn't always this way, but the AL has rallied to take the lead in the battle between the leagues -- and now it's pouring it on.

The Debate

April 03, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

Now that baseball has returned to the nation's capital, sports fans around here have a choice: American League or National League?

It's sort of like going to your neighborhood bar for a regular draft versus traveling 50 miles south for a glass of light beer.

The products are virtually the same, except the National League is a watered-down version of the national pastime.

Surely, the so-called purists and traditionalists are foaming at their pretentious mouths after that statement. But it is true.

Yes, the National League started first. Yes, all pitchers had to bat way back when. Yes, history is important in baseball.

The game, however, has evolved, for the good and the bad. Fielders wear gloves, batters wear helmets and some hitters get their power from petri dishes.

Yin is yang and up is down in baseball these days. Tradition and $4 might get you a hot dog.

American League games take longer, right? Wrong.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the average American League game took 2 hours, 46 minutes, 55 seconds in 2004. National League games, on average, lasted 2:47:20.

That's an extra 25 seconds for National League games, or time enough for a pitcher to step to the plate and swing futilely at a first pitch.

Fallacy No. 2: AL rosters are filled with juiced-up sluggers and the NL has a bunch of fleet-footed little guys, right? Wrong.

The last time I checked, Roger Maris still held the American League record for most home runs in a season with 61 in 1961. That mark has been shattered six times in the past seven years in the National League.

Seven players hit 42 or more homers in 2004; six were in the NL.

As for the NL's cornering the market on speed, only two major leaguers stole 50 or more bases last year. Both of them, Carl Crawford and Scott Podsednik, will play in the American League in 2005.

Even the assumption that the American League, with an extra hitter in each lineup, produces men's softball league scores compared with the NL's low-scoring pitchers' duels no longer has merit.

The AL averaged 10.02 runs a game last year, while the NL averaged 9.28, according to Elias. Building from that, one could assume a normal AL game ended 6-4 while the average in the NL was 5-4. Both had plenty of offense.

The bottom line is that there are only two real differences between the leagues these days. One is cyclical.

Right now, there is more talent in the American League.

Base it on money -- four of the top six projected payrolls in baseball reside in the AL. Or base it on results -- the AL has won nine of the past 13 World Series not canceled by Bud Selig and 13 of the past 16 All- Star Games not declared a tie by Selig.

The talent shifts every now and then, but the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and their seemingly unlimited payrolls will keep a number of stars from jumping ship.

The other true difference between leagues is that people who can't hit a baseball are allowed to try to hit a baseball in the senior circuit.

You know why they call it the senior circuit, don't you? It's because only senior citizens are still clinging to the idea that baseball players should compete in all facets of the sport.

Let's face it, baseball is all about specialization these days. Half the sport's pitchers have as many appearances as innings pitched. There are lefty hitters who face only right-handers and lefty pitchers who throw only against left-handers.

And it's not like hitters pitch. Jose Canseco tried that once for the Texas Rangers, and it unfortunately hastened his writing career.

So why should every ninth batter be an out in the National League? Yet that's basically what happens.

Pitchers posted a .143 average at the plate in 2004, a number that could make a player like former Orioles reserve infielder Luis Lopez think, "Boy, these guys can't hit."

If you're going to have pitchers bat, let them do it all in one inning so the fans have time to buy a soda and peanuts and get back to their seats before the real hitters are up.

The "traditionalists," however, believe that having a pitcher in the lineup adds to baseball strategy, that hit-and-runs and double-switches heighten excitement.

But that's not strategy, it's panic bred from incompetence. A double-switch wouldn't be needed if pitchers could hit. They can't. So why let them? And how does a manager become a genius when he takes a 50-50 chance and it turns out to be correct? The St. Louis Cardinals' Tony La Russa is considered baseball's version of Einstein these days, but he's the only man in America who thinks Mark McGwire is telling the truth. So spare me the strategy bunk.

It all comes down to what's comfortable to you. And if people who have always watched baseball in the National League want to hold onto the myths that the senior circuit has a different and better brand of baseball, let them.

I'll take the league that I -- and a whole generation of fans in Baltimore and Boston and Detroit and Cleveland -- have grown up with.

Give me a league where the best players play. Where hitters hit and pitchers pitch.

Give me Rafael Palmeiro at the plate in the eighth inning instead of No. 57 who hasn't held a stick since March.

Give me the Yankees and the Red Sox and the best rivalry in sports.

Give me a league where every pitch counts and every hitter has a legitimate chance to make a difference.

And you can keep your so-called tradition.

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